ASEA, state OK contract

Three-year pact for $56 million goes to members, Legislature

Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2000

The state and its largest employees' union have reached a tentative contract deal.

The deal was announced Friday afternoon after almost a week of talks with a federal mediator. It will give most general government workers lump sum payments of $1,200 this year and raises of 2 percent and 3 percent in the two following years.

Now the tentative agreement goes to the 7,180 members of the Alaska State Employees Association, about 2,000 of whom live in Juneau. The employees range from clerk-typists to engineers and doctors.

``We've been at it for 13 months,'' said Chuck O'Connell, business manager for ASEA. ``We've made a number of improvements in the contract. We think we've come as close as we can to inflation-proofing our members' wages.''

It's time, he said, for members to take a look at the deal. It will probably be about six weeks before the ratification vote is completed.

The monetary terms of the deal will also go to the state Legislature, where majority Republicans have set a goal to cut $30 million from the budget and have expressed reluctance to spend more money on labor contracts. Some leaders have stopped short, however, of ruling out the possibility.

``I'm still having a hard time seeing how the governor intends to fund the contracts,'' said Sen. Sean Parnell, ``but before I make a final decision I want to see the contracts and I want to analyze them together.''

Parnell, an Anchorage Republican, is co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The plan will cost an additional $10.9 million the first year, with a cumulative three-year cost of $55.9 million.

The state is negotiating with all its labor unions this year. Tentative deals that include similar terms have been struck with Public Employees Local 71, Masters, Mates and Pilots, the law enforcement officers of the Public Safety Employee Association, Alyeska Central School teachers and now ASEA.

The deal with ASEA did not come easily. Unlike other state unions, ASEA and the state never reached a new contract agreement last year and members of the union have been working under an expired contract since July.

In October, union members voted to authorize their executive board to call a strike if talks reached impasse or if the Legislature doesn't fund the terms of a new contract.

Three weeks ago the union declared the two sides were at impasse and called in a federal mediator. Union leaders conducted strike training in recent weeks.

The federal mediator arrived this week and stayed four days, instead of the three initially scheduled.

``We had some long, tough nights,'' state Administration Commissioner Bob Poe said. ``While we weren't the ones that called in the mediator, I think it was a wise move.''

``I agree. The process works,'' O'Connell said.

The deal wasn't everything ASEA would have liked. The monetary terms are similar to what the state was offering when the ASEA said the two sides were at impasse.

But there are improvements, O'Connell said. For one thing, the state agreed to add another merit step to the pay scale.

That will have the effect of providing room for pay advancement for the most senior employees of the union, Poe said. ``We're able to compensate those employees that have a lot of that corporate knowledge,'' he said.

There are improvements in other areas, O'Connell said. There are more than 100 changes in the contract, including one allowing members to cash out some of their sick leave.

Under the terms of the deal employees who have been working with the state since July 1999 will receive the $1,200 lump sum. Those who were hired more recently will receive a prorated amount of $50 per pay period. Those moving up to the new merit step won't receive the bonus.

The 2 percent pay scale increase will take effect Jan. 1, 2002, with another 3 percent taking effect Jan. 1, 2003. That's slightly later than raises are taking effect for some other unions. The reduced cost of the later raises will help pay for the new merit step, Poe said.

The state will increase its contribution to each employee's health insurance by $26.50 to $515 per month. The next year it will increase to $575 and the following year to $630.

Poe acknowledged it will be ``an uphill fight'' convincing the Legislature to fund the deal.

He said he will try to convince them erosion in wages due to inflation is causing the state to lose ground in recruiting employees, particularly to the federal government and Lower 48 employers.

O'Connell said a strike is still a possibility if the Legislature rejects the monetary terms of the contract.

``I think what the Legislature has to understand is our members participate in the economy of the state,'' he said. ``They pay mortgages, they make car payments ...''

``What has been happening to them over the years they've been losing ground'' to inflation, he said. ``That has a ripple effect on the overall economy.''

Parnell, however, said many people in the private sector still view state government jobs as more desirable than the private sector because of the pay and benefits.

A survey Senate President Drue Pearce, an Anchorage Republican, conducted in January showed most of those polled didn't support pay and benefit increases for state workers, despite the threat of a strike, Parnell said.

``That's the background that legislators are working from,'' he said. ``All the legislators have that information.''

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