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 meditation. 

System leaders however argue that approving the raises last week was necessary, a now or never move, given the tight timeline to submit salary increases in a budget proposal to Alaska lawmakers with the state legislative session coming to an end last Wednesday. University leadership claims that negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement had hit an impasse, even as they continued to engage in a federal meditation process to resolve outstanding issues.

Now United Academics, the faculty union, say that an impasse was improperly declared.

What happens next remains to be seen as the university aims to push forward a pay raise submitted just in time to be approved in Alaska’s fiscal year 2023 budget before the end of the legislative sessions. Approved pay raises fall well short of what the union was requesting.

The Breakdown

Though the university’s argument suggests that time ran out on negotiations, union representatives note that the process had been ongoing since late last summer. They charge the university with sitting on initial proposals from the union and dragging the negotiations out.

The University of Alaska made its “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 meditation. 

Sessions were scheduled throughout May. But on May 16th, two days before the next 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.”

Despite declaring an impasse, UA showed up at federal meditation 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 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.”

Despite the last-minute action from UA, negotiations have been ongoing since August. A university spokesperson said by email that an impasse was declared 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 that there were proposals from the union that UA took months to respond to. Ultimately, he believes the time crunch was avoidable and a result of administrators dragging out negotiations.

The University of Alaska argues that the union is responsible for the slow-moving negotiations, with a spokesperson stating 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 its “best and final offer” on April 25. When that was declined by the union mediation began which “did not result in meaningful movement on significant issues” leading the university to declare an impasse, a spokesperson said.

The pay raises approved by the Board of Regent, and later the Alaska legislature, 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 was 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.

The “Estimated Total Impact Over 3 Years including Staff Benefits” was $15 million under the university’s proposal, documents show, compared to $79 million to fund the union’s plan.

The University of Alaska notes that the offer “includes a number of terms and conditions that UNAC sought for its members. It also contained 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.”

The university has also argued that the pay raises proposed by the union are unsustainable.

But Rickard argues that raises are long overdue, that union membership has only received one pay raise in the last six years, which was only a 1 percent increase, at that. This proposal will help keep Alaska competitive and faculty member secure in the face of soaring inflation.

Rickard said he hopes to keep negotiating with the university. He sees the current action as not only inadequate but improper and even in violation of Alaska labor law. While he stopped short of threatening legal action he notes the union has been in contact with legal counsel on the matter.

“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 meditation. Once the process begins, meditators 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 work 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.”

How long the process takes depends on the grievances and the distance between the parties on issues, he adds. Every situation is variable, some are quickly resolved others tend to drag on.

Meditation brings outside perspectives, but not dictated solutions, said 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.

“The mediator is not there to impose any kind of agreement. Sometimes mediators can make suggestions about ways of approaching things for the parties to consider, and sometimes they’ll go even further in getting involved with making formal proposals for the parties,” Herbert explained. “But generally, the reason the mediators are primarily there is to work with the parties to try to bridge gaps between their perspectives on issues that have not been resolved.”

Bertoncini notes that it is unusual for a university to declare an impasse while still engaged in active contract negotiations, but he suggests that it 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 multi-year contract.”

Herbert 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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