Education

University of Alaska, faculty clash over pay raises

The University of Alaska system Board of Regents has approved pay raises for faculty—but the faculty union says the move is premature, coming amid ongoing negotiations and federal mediation.

System leaders argue that approving the raises last week was a necessary now-or-never move. They say negotiations toward a collective bargaining agreement had hit an impasse—even as they continued to engage in a federal mediation process to resolve outstanding issues—and rushed to submit a salary increase request before Alaska lawmakers ended their legislative session last Wednesday.

Despite the system’s last-minute push, the Alaska Legislature did not act on the request in time, meaning that members of the University of Alaska faculty union, United Academics, won’t see any immediate pay raises. The request will likely remain shelved until legislators reconvene in January.

Among other things, United Academics is arguing that the administration improperly declared an impasse on contract negotiations.

The Breakdown

Though university administrators say time ran out on negotiations, union representatives note that the process had been ongoing since late last summer. They accuse university officials with sitting on initial proposals from the union and dragging the negotiations out.

University negotiators made a “best and final offer” to union negotiators in late April. Unable to reach an agreement on a handful of points, namely around compensation and issues related to tenure and academic freedom, the union and university mutually agreed to enter mediation.

Sessions were scheduled throughout May. But on May 16, two days before a session with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the university declared an impasse.

“In a unanimous vote this morning, the Board of Regents took unprecedented action to authorize me to implement the administration’s ‘best and final offer’ to United Academics (UNAC). The action follows deadlocked negotiations and an unsuccessful effort to reach agreement in federal mediation, resulting in impasse,” UA president Pat Pitney wrote in a message to the university community. “With negotiations at impasse, and with the legislative session rapidly coming to an end, there was no other way to get monetary terms in front of the legislature before the end of the session without this action. The university cannot provide salary and benefit increases to any union member without the legislature including the monetary terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in the budget as required by law.”

But even after declaring the impasse, UA showed up at the federal mediation session two days later.

“We view that unilateral declaration of impasse as improper,” said Tony Rickard, chief negotiator for United Academics and a math professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. “Because an impasse can only be declared when mediation doesn’t reach an agreement, and mediation wasn’t over. They had mutually agreed to meet with us for another session that hadn’t occurred.”

A university spokesperson said by email that the administration declared an impasse because talks had failed.

“Mediation only continues if the parties believe it is useful. Mediation confirmed that an enormous gap remained between UNAC’s proposals and the university’s Best and Final Offer,” a university spokesperson wrote to Inside Higher Ed. “More importantly, neither party was making meaningful concessions on significant issues. That is the legal definition of labor impasse.”

Rickard stops short of accusing the university of running out the clock on negotiations, but he said the union made some proposals along the way that UA took months to respond to. Ultimately, he believes the time crunch was avoidable and a result of administrators dragging out negotiations.

University offficials argue that the union is responsible for the slow-moving negotiations. The spokesperson said by email that UNAC “presented proposals containing hundreds of changes to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that has worked well for both parties, for more than 20 years. Reviewing and responding to those proposals slowed negotiations.”

Considering the parties deadlocked, UA made what it called its best and final offer on April 25. When the union declined that offer, mediation began, which “did not result in meaningful movement on significant issues,” leading the university to declare the impasse, the spokesperson said.

The pay raises approved by the Board of Regents include salary increases of 3 percent for 2023, 2.5 percent for 2024 and 2 percent for 2025. By contrast, university documents show that the union asked for a 5 percent pay raise for 2023 and 3 percent pay raises for 2024 and 2025, plus additional cost-of-living and base salary increases.

Documents show that the estimated total cost of the salary increases would be $15 million under the university’s proposal, compared to $79 million under the union’s plan.

University administrators note that the offer “includes a number of terms and conditions that UNAC sought for its members. It also contains the first significant raises as well as an increase in the pension base for the first time in many years. Unlike many contract implementations in labor disputes, it contains no rollbacks in faculty terms and conditions of employment.”

University officials also said the pay raises proposed by the union would be unsustainable.

But Rickard argues that raises are long overdue. Union members have received just one pay raise in the last six years—and it was only 1 percent, he said. The union’s proposal will help keep Alaska competitive and faculty members secure in the face of soaring inflation, he noted.

Rickard said he hopes to keep negotiating with the university. He sees the current action as not only inadequate but also improper and even in violation of Alaska labor law, noting that the union has been in contact with legal counsel.

“What the Board of Regents did improperly is they voted to authorize the UA president to proceed with implementing the last best offer. In other words, they authorized her to move forward with saying, ‘This is the contract.’ And they are, in our view, doing this in violation of Alaska labor statutes, because this only happens once the mediation has failed to result in the contract,” Rickard said. “And that hasn’t happened. The mediation is ongoing. It hasn’t concluded.”

What’s Next?

Legal experts suggest that it is not uncommon for collective bargaining agreements to end up in mediation. Once the process begins, mediators work with both parties to break the deadlock.

“When the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service comes in, their role is to work with the parties and see if they can’t help broker an agreement between the two parties,” said Michael Bertoncini, a principal at the law firm Jackson Lewis, who works on labor relations matters. “They often get involved fairly late in the game with the parties when it’s something of a logjam. And they try to break that logjam, oftentimes through shuttle diplomacy, sometimes by making proposals of their own and floating those to the parties to see if that’ll move the process.”

Bertoncini noted that it is unusual for a university to declare an impasse while still engaged in active contract negotiations, but that doesn’t mean those talks are doomed.

“It is unusual in the sense that declaring an impasse suggests the party has no more room to move, while participating in mediation implies a willingness to modify one’s position in order to reach an agreement,” he said. “However, the university may be signaling there is no more room to move on the wages in the first year of the contract, but there is a willingness to move in other terms and conditions of the proposal in order to reach agreement on a multiyear contract.”

William A. Herbert, distinguished lecturer and executive director of the Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, described the move to declare an impasse while still negotiating as contradictory.

“An impasse means that a party believes in good faith that future negotiations will not result in a tentative agreement concerning all outstanding issues,” Herbert said. “Agreeing to continue negotiations through mediation to reach a tentative agreement contradicts a claim that an impasse in negotiations exists.”

As for Rickard, he just wants to get back to the negotiating table.

“We hope next week to be working with the mediator in the University of Alaska team to reach a contract for a membership. If they try to move forward with implementing their last best offer, we are considering and planning for other scenarios and other options, but they’re all very unpleasant for both parties,” Rickard said. “While we are analyzing other scenarios, and how we would respond, our intent is to continue to work with the University of Alaska through the mediation process to reach a new contract.”

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