About a hundred state workers held a rally outside the State Office Building in Juneau Thursday to show solidarity with union leaders negotiating new contracts.
The Parnell administration is currently working out new three-year deals with three public employee unions, representing more than 11,000 workers statewide. At the same time Republican legislators have come out against raises for those employees.
With the portable sound system at the rally on the fritz, Gordon Willson-Naranjo took matters into his own hands, jumping on the railing of the State Office Building portico and leading union members in a chant.
“What do we want?” he asked.
“Fair contracts,” yelled the crowd.
“When do we want it?” Willson-Naranjo yelled back.
“Now!” yelled the crowd.
Willson-Naranjo is a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Douglas, and a member of the Alaska State Employees Association. With about 8,500 members, ASEA is the largest state employee union.
Willson-Naranjo says he’s disappointed the state isn’t offering more of a wage adjustment to workers outside Anchorage.
“Here in Juneau we have a higher cost of living, and property value,” he said. “And there hasn’t been that full adjustment, and so I’d like to see that geographic difference. That’s my big thing.”
According to a recent negotiation update on ASEA’s website, the state’s initial wage proposal did not include any pay increase in the first year of the contract, and only one-percent increases in years two and three. The union countered with a proposed three percent increase in year one and two percent increases in subsequent years.
“We still have a ways to go in negotiations,” said ASEA Business Manager Jim Duncan. “But we’re making progress.”
Duncan says the two sides are mostly squabbling over “monetary issues” right now. The state backed off an earlier proposal to abolish the union’s third-party managed health trust, which provides medical benefits to ASEA members and their dependents.
“Which was a big issue for us,” Duncan said. “So they have decided to back off on that. But again, I’m optimistic. We’re doing some hard bargaining, they’re doing some hard bargaining. That’s what the process is about.”
Andy Mills, special assistant to Administration Commissioner Becky Hultberg, says the state wants “balanced agreements” for all of its union contracts.
“That being one that both parties are happy with,” said Mills.
The state is also negotiating with two Alaska Public Employees Association bargaining units representing about 3,000 workers. APEA’s Doug Swanson says talks are focused on wages and health benefits. But he declined to offer specifics, citing the positive state of negotiations.
“When things aren’t going well, I can complain to you,” Swanson said. “But when we’re really close to being done and things are moving and there’s positive momentum, there’s not a whole lot I can say to the media, or say to anybody, because we don’t want to break the momentum.”
By statute the administration must submit labor agreements to the legislature by the 60th day of the session. That’s March 15th this year.
In an unusual move, legislative leaders are adding their two-cents during negotiations. In a recent letter to Governor Sean Parnell, House Speaker Mike Chenault, Senate President Charlie Huggins, and the co-chairs of the House and Senate Finance Committees – all Republicans – urge the administration to “hold the monetary terms of the contracts at zero.” The letter cites the state’s fiscal uncertainty, declining oil tax revenue, and perceived competition with the private sector.
Duncan says ASEA isn’t worried about lawmakers at this point.
“The legislature has a right to express their opinion, I respect that,” Duncan said. “However, we negotiate with the administration, and once we reach an agreement, we’ll then go present that to the legislature.”
But the letter is a big concern to ASEA member Alan Plotnick, an employment security specialist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“Did the legislature get their raise? Did they get their cost of living allowance? Do they get their per diem? Do they get their offices remodeled?” Plotnick asked. “Yeah, they do.”
“We’re all Alaskans,” Plotnick said. “C’mon, let’s keep the people we have sustained with a livable income.”
The legislature is not considering any bills to limit collective bargaining, and House and Senate leaders have said they have no plans to introduce such legislation this year. But with many states and the Municipality of Anchorage acting to limit union members’ rights, Plotnick is wary.
“You look at what happened in Wisconsin,” he said. “We need to stick together, it’s really scary.”
Duncan says ASEA and the state have at least two more bargaining sessions before the March 15th statutory deadline for an agreement.