Alaska editorial: Jobs solidified

Posted: Sunday, January 24, 2010

Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., its contractors and five unions have reached an agreement that will retain many of the jobs put at risk last month by the pipeline operator's decision to switch to a non union contractor. This is good news for Alaska, and particularly Fairbanks, because it ensures stability for hundreds of families at a time when jobs are hard to come by.

Alyeska had announced last month that, to cut costs, it would drop its union maintenance contractor, Chugach Alaska, in favor of the non union ASRC Energy Services, a subsidiary of Arctic Slope Regional Corp.

Given the challenges created by declining flow in the pipeline, cost-cutting moves such as this are inevitable. However, the switch could have been devastating for union employees, about half of whom work out of Fairbanks halls. Some, obviously, could have applied to work for the proposed non union contractor, but that would have involved a difficult and uncertain transition.

Facing the situation realistically, the five unions agreed to 5 percent wage cuts, a wage freeze for two years and greater use of lower-paid apprentices on the pipeline. They also agreed to a five-year contract instead of the standard three-year agreement.

The concessions provided enough savings to satisfy Alyeska's cost-cutting goals. So the company signed Wednesday with Houston Contracting Co. Inc., ASRC's union subsidiary. Houston already contracts with Alyeska to do project work on the line; the new arrangement gives the company both maintenance and project responsibilities.

This won't be easy for the union employees, so the cuts themselves are not something to celebrate. Most earn hourly wages ranging from the low $20s to the low $30s, not counting benefits - obviously, the days of fantastic "pipeline wages" are long gone.

However, representatives of both the unions and Alyeska expressed satisfaction with the agreement Jan. 14. Alyeska officials are pleased to retain employees with long experience on the line. A union representative said workers have "a great sense of relief."

The agreement also should bring some sense of relief to Fairbanks and other Interior towns, which benefit in many ways from these jobs and the community members who hold them.

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