University of Alaska faculty union hopes to end a year of contract negotiations

Associate Professor of Chemistry at University of Alaska Southeast Lisa Hoferkamp looks at colleague Jill Dumesnil, professor of mathematics, as she talks during a United Academics rally June 22, 2022, in front of the Alaska State Capitol. The faculty union and the university administration have a federal mediation session scheduled for Monday, August 22, 2022. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

With another federal mediation session scheduled for Monday, the University of Alaska faculty union is hopeful it will come to an agreement with the university administration on a new contract. That’s after a year of negotiations and the union agreeing to the administration’s latest compensation offer, which is significantly below what the union originally asked for.

“We have made incredible concessions to make this work,” said Abel Bult-Ito, president of the faculty union United Academics and professor of neurobiology and neurophysiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“We’re all better off if we have a joint agreement than one that is imposed,” Bult-Ito said.

The union originally asked for salary increases of 5%, between 3% and 7%, and between 3% and 6% over three years, with the latter two years’ increases determined by the consumer price index. The union has said it wanted to see real cost of living adjustments that match inflation. Over the past six years, the roughly 1,000 members of United Academics have received one 1% increase.

In May, the administration said an impasse had been reached and unilaterally implemented what it calls its “best and final offer,” including increases of 3%, 2.5% and 2% over three years. The administration said it was a last-minute attempt to get it in the state budget before the Legislature adjourned, though it didn’t work. The Legislature did not approve funding the unilaterally implemented contract.

The two parties continued to meet in federal mediation and, in mid-July, the administration upped the increases to 3%, 2.75% and 2.5%.

At the end of July, the union conceded, accepting the monetary offer in its new contract proposal, but with a caveat. Any future, higher raises given to other employee groups will also be given to United Academics faculty.

The union, in a recent update to its members, calls the clause “essential to this potential deal and would ensure equal treatment of all employee groups.”

The clause is important, said Bult-Ito, “because we don’t trust the university administration. They may lowball us and give non-represented employees higher rates above our union.”

Bult-Ito said that hasn’t happened before, “but this administration is especially hostile to the faculty and to the union. There’s no trust, that’s for sure.”

What’s left on the table

With the monetary piece agreed upon, what’s left on the table are non-monetary issues regarding disciplinary procedures, academic freedom issues and inclusion of all bargaining unit members in all elements of the contract.

The union wants the administration to accept its proposal at the upcoming Aug. 22 federal mediation meeting.

“I’m hopeful that they will agree. Is there a chance they won’t? Absolutely,” said Bult-Ito.

The administration plans to respond to the proposal, said Robbie Graham, university associate vice president of public affairs. She spoke on behalf of the administration.

“Our team has been working on a response to the union proposal and will be back at the bargaining table ready to find solutions to the few remaining issues. We’re confident that an agreement is possible, and are focused on this outcome.”

If the two parties come to an agreement, several steps would still need to happen before a new contract is in place. The tentatively agreed contract would go to union members for ratification by vote. On the administration side, the university president and Board of Regents, as well as the Alaska Department of Administration, would need to approve the contract.

Then, according to Graham, “a supplemental request for back pay will be submitted to the legislature when it convenes in January. The legislature must appropriate the funds for all monetary terms, including back pay and pay increases, before they are paid. If appropriated, and not vetoed by the governor, then retro pay will be calculated and issued.”

If the two parties don’t come to an agreement, the union is exploring its options, including filing a complaint against the administration of unfair labor practices with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency

“They’ve violated state labor laws specifically related to unilateral declaration of impasse and then the illegal implementation of their last, best and final offer,” Bult-Ito said.

Graham said while the administration is focused on getting to an agreement, it is prepared for all contingencies.

Back on contract

University of Alaska faculty members returned to work earlier this week and are back on contract, though which contract – the one unilaterally implemented by the administration or the contract that’s been in place the past six years – is in dispute.

With instruction beginning Aug. 29, faculty are doing prep work, orientation with new students, research and meetings. Tony Rickard, professor of mathematics education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said morale among faculty and staff is “poor” and “getting worse.” Rickard used to also be chief negotiator for the union, but isn’t any longer due to his full-time professor duties and so few things left to negotiate.

He was one of 24 faculty members who submitted an opinion published in the Anchorage Daily News titled, “University of Alaska administration needs to come to terms with its faculty.”

It cited a faculty turnover rate of “10.8% compared to the national average of just over 8%” and said a “fair contract will help to retain and recruit faculty.”

“Faculty turnover creates instability and less opportunity for students and encourages them to leave Alaska to obtain a degree. Many students who leave never come back,” it said.

Rickard said the goal of the opinion was to let the public know the matter hasn’t been settled yet.

“The people who are supposed to be stewards of this important public institution in the state of Alaska, the University of Alaska, are still fiddling and dithering and have not been able to get their act together to come to an agreement with the faculty of the University of Alaska, even though classes start a week from Monday.”

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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