Union aims to take in last of nonunionized university staff

Organization could include 180 workers in Southeast, 2,200 staffers statewide

Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2003

A union is seeking to represent the last nonunionized workers at the University of Alaska.

Organizers for the University of Alaska Staff United have been collecting employees' signatures since November to petition for an election on whether the union should represent them in collective bargaining.

The union would represent about 2,200 support staffers, salaried and nonsalaried, such as administrative assistants, academic advisers, counselors, and employees in offices such as financial aid and accounting. About 180 of the staffers work at Southeast campuses.

The university's full-time faculty of 1,080, its 1,000 part-time teachers and its 200 trades and maintenance employees already are members of one of four unions that bargain with the university over salaries, benefits and work rules such as grievance procedures.

"We're falling behind groups that represent themselves," said Steve Bouta, who works at the university museum in Fairbanks and is the organizers' chairman.

Rates on the nonunionized staff salary schedule went up 1.5 percent from fiscal 1999 to 2002, compared with increases of 6.5 percent to 14 percent for unionized employees, the new union said.

But Jim Johnsen, vice president for faculty and staff relations at the University of Alaska, said the average nonunionized worker has had higher raises than unionized faculty over the past two fiscal years. That takes into account nonunionized workers moving up the salary schedule as well as two years of 1.5 percent increases in the pay rates.

The average increase for nonunionized employees was 4.1 percent a year for the past two years, he said.

"That's more than the pool for our faculty, and far more than our executive staff," Johnsen said. Faculty members and executive staff don't move up a salary schedule.

But workers say moving up steps on the salary schedule is a reward for merit or increased experience and not intended to be a way of keeping up with inflation. They point out that the value of the step increase goes down over time from 3 percent to 1 percent, and after a certain number of years workers don't move up steps.

The rates on the salary schedule haven't kept pace with inflation, workers say. That's particularly important for new hires at a university with a high turnover of staff employees, they say.

The consumer price index in Anchorage went up 2.8 percent last year, for example, but the salary schedule's rates increased by 1.5 percent and won't go up this year, said Robert Sewell, chairman of the University of Alaska Staff Alliance, which monitors and comments on issues that concern nonunionized employees.

The staff alliance had asked for increases in pay rates of 3 percent two years ago, and 2 percent last year and this year.

The university is in the middle of a job classification study. When it's done, the university will examine how competitive its salaries are in the labor market, Johnsen said.

"There's a general perception that we've become less competitive as an employer in terms of the compensation issue," Sewell said.

Union organizer Kathleen Tilton, an administrative assistant at the Juneau campus, said collective bargaining would give employees more say, and a multi-year contract would give them more certainty.

"At least with a union contract you would know for the length of the contract what your benefits were," she said. "Pay, health insurance can be changed arbitrarily (now), and we have no control over that."

The health insurance plan for nonunionized staff has a higher deductible and out-of-pocket costs than the plan for unionized UA workers, but Johnsen said some of its benefits are better.

Ivan Hazelton, a computer technician at the Juneau campus, said a union can't help workers in an institution part of whose budget is set by the state Legislature.

"I don't really see how it can be an advantage in any way," he said. "The majority of our funding comes from the Legislature. And I don't see how paying a union to get us more money - that seems like more fingers in the pie."

About 40 percent of the university's funding comes from the Legislature. Most of the rest comes from grants and student tuition. But the Legislature must approve any union contracts and must appropriate money for raises, Johnsen said. Lawmakers refused to fund one faculty union's increased contract in the mid-1990s, he said. The university didn't pay the raises and the union sued, but a court upheld the university.

A union effort in 2000 and 2001 collected signatures from 40 percent of the staff employees, more than the 30 percent required by state law to call a vote. Bouta said the group wants signatures from at least half the employees to be assured of winning the election. The Alaska Labor Relations Agency would conduct the election through secret ballots.

The drive has collected signatures from at least a quarter of affected employees. Tilton said more than half of the roughly 180 Southeast staff workers have signed cards to call for an election.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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