Twenty-three employees of the union representing most Alaska elementary through high school teachers went on strike this morning, following an impasse over a new contract.
The employees of the National Education Association of Alaska, including three from Juneau, picketed NEA-Alaska offices in Anchorage this morning. Picketing will continue in Juneau and Fairbanks on Wednesday, according to Willie Anderson, president of the National Staff Organization of Alaska, the union representing the NEA-Alaska employees.
Each side accuses the other of failing to make arrangements to meet with a federal mediator and failing to bargain in good faith.
"Let me say I'm extremely disappointed they've chosen to take this step before we have a chance to meet with the mediator," said Rich Kronberg, president of NEA-Alaska. He said a mediation session had been scheduled for Feb. 1-2 and his bargaining team also communicated a willingness to meet Jan. 24-25.
Instead, NSO-Alaska has been insisting on meeting when members of the bargaining team aren't available because of their regular school jobs, Kronberg said. "They can't just leave their jobs and come bargain at the drop of a hat."
But Anderson said that NSO-Alaska was willing to meet this Friday night and through the weekend, when the NEA-Alaska bargaining team should have been available. That offer was rejected Saturday, he said.
Board members of NEA-Alaska are taking over the work of striking employees, Kronberg said. The union has a legal obligation to continue service to its 11,000 members, consisting of about 90 percent of the teachers and educational support personnel in school districts in the state, he said.
"We can't tell what they're doing," Anderson said. "They're not answering the phones."
Employees represented by NSO-Alaska have been working without a contract since September, when their one-year agreement expired. The union rejected a contract extension, just so they could say they're working without a contract, as a public relations ploy, Kronberg said.
Kronberg acknowledges NEA-Alaska is not offering its employees any increase in compensation, saying that average teachers' salaries have declined. "That translates to a decline in dues," the only revenue source that the union has, he said.
Anderson doesn't dispute that but says NEA-Alaska has saved money by keeping a position vacant and paying less in salaries as more experienced people have left and been replaced. Those savings should be on the table in the negotiations, he said. Instead, NEA-Alaska actually proposes to "roll back" compensation by 2 to 7 percent a year, he said.
Anderson said NSO-Alaska has compromised and is now asking for a two-year contract with annual salary increases of 2 percent. But Kronberg said NSO-Alaska has been seeking an increase of $1 million in its compensation package, compared to a total NEA-Alaska budget of $5 million, and has not budged from its first offer.
"That's a mischaracterization of the package," Anderson said. He said that besides the money there are job security issues at stake.
While the last round of negotiations also was contentious, this is the first time that NSO-Alaska has gone on strike against NEA-Alaska, Anderson said.
"We'll strike until we get a settlement."
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.