Members of United Academics - American Association of University Professors/American Federation of Teachers Local 4996 gathered on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, to call on University of Alaska officials to agree to a negotiated contract. After an agreement failed to materialize Monday, negotiations are ongoing. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

Members of United Academics - American Association of University Professors/American Federation of Teachers Local 4996 gathered on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, to call on University of Alaska officials to agree to a negotiated contract. After an agreement failed to materialize Monday, negotiations are ongoing. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

University contract impasse continues as classes near

Union and administration schedule talks through September after negotiations fall short Monday

Hopes of an agreement Monday between the University of Alaska’s administration and faculty union proved futile, and it appears both sides expect the yearlong negotiations continue a while longer as four more sessions during the next month are scheduled, according to the union’s president.

Both sides have reached an agreement about the amount of wage increases during the next three years, hence Monday’s optimism. But still in dispute is making the United Academics – American Association of University Professors/American Federation of Teachers Local 4996 employees eligible for higher wage increases given to other employee groups, along with disciplinary procedures and what the union calls “protections of academic freedom.”

“Despite their public optimism about reaching an agreement with faculty, today the University of Alaska administration rejected the (United Academics) team’s proposal from July 28, 2022,” Abel Bult-Ito, the union’s president, wrote in a statement shared with members and the Juneau Empire on Monday evening. “While we are disappointed with this decision, we have agreed to several more mediation sessions (August 31, September 1, 19, and 28) and will continue to work on your behalf towards a fair and equitable agreement.”

The administration did respond to the union’s most recent demand with a “confidential offer,” details of which cannot be discussed publicly, and optimism was voiced afterward by Roberta Graham, the university’s associate vice president of public affairs.

“Even though in the (union’s) most recent proposal there were a lot of elements we liked, we couldn’t accept it” in its entirely, she said. “I think we’re completely optimistic there’s going to be an agreement and soon.”

University President Pat Pitney, in a mass email Monday after the negotiating session, tried to address concerns about whether the ongoing stalemate might result in a strike or other disruptions that will impact classes scheduled to begin Aug. 29.

“I have heard speculation about possible disruptions due to the ongoing talks,” she wrote. “I know this can be distracting and concerning, but let me assure you that the university is focused on meeting the needs of our students.”

Union members say their demands are occurring after a single 1% raise during the past six years. The university system was forced to cut $70 million from its budget during the first three years of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, which occurred just before the COVID-19 pandemic that further impaired the university’s finances.

Both sides have been under federal mediation since April, and most recently have agreed to on raises of 3%, 2.75% and 2.5% during the coming three years, although the latter two are dependent on the consumer price index.

But Bult-Ito has stated ensuring union employees get higher raises if other employees get them is an essential negotiating point because otherwise the administration “may lowball us and give non-represented employees higher rates above our union.”

Union employees returned to work in mid-August and for now are working under a contract the university called its “best and final offer” the Board of Regents voted to implement May 16. However, the Alaska State Legislature declined to fund the raises in that contract.

If an agreement can be reached between the union and administration in upcoming negotiation sessions it still must be ratified by union members, as well as getting approval from the Board of Regents and state Department of Administration. If the impasse continues the union has indicated it may file an unfair labor practices complaint with the state Labor Relations Agency.

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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