ANCHORAGE - Union workers at Nabors Alaska Drilling Inc. are threatening to strike over wages and benefits.
Union workers say a strike could come as early as this weekend because the company is resisting negotiating with employees.
The tension between the company and workers has been brewing for months, but has increased over the past two weeks with the circulation of a strike petition among Nabors Alaska's approximately 550 workers.
Workers have been arguing for better pay and benefits since unionizing two years ago. There have been 11 meetings between the union and Nabors since 2000, but they have yet to agree on a first contract.
About 90 percent of the workers have signed a petition supporting three key demands: a commitment to keep wages on pace with inflation, a union retirement plan, and a new union health care plan that does not expire when workers retire.
The union also has brought up a host of safety concerns.
Jim Denney, president of Nabors Alaska, hopes a strike can be avoided, saying "this is the best group of workers I've ever worked with."
But his contingency plan, in the event that workers leave their drill rigs at the North Slope and Cook Inlet, would include hiring permanent replacement workers.
Nabors has 14 operating rigs in the state, with about 50 workers assigned to a rig. The strike threat comes with about five weeks left in the busy winter exploration drilling season on the Slope.
Phillips Petroleum Inc., one oil company that contracts with Nabors, has been notified of the contingency plan.
Denney said in a memo to employees that he would hire replacement workers should a strike occur. The letter has angered some workers, who claim Denney is trying to scare them from exercising their right to strike.
"His letter is a standard form used to confuse and get employees off balance," said Kevin Dougherty, a lawyer and negotiator for the Alaska Laborers union.
Nabors, based in Houston, is a global oil drilling company that runs most rigs on Alaska's oil fields. Nabors employs about 815 people in the state including managers, Denney said.
"We have an offer on the table. We're offering what we provide them right now," he said.
But Mike Pearson, a union representative, said maintaining the status quo isn't a counter offer. "The bottom line is Nabors doesn't want to negotiate," he said.
Employees fought a long battle to unionize in the 1990s, culminating with a National Labor Relations Board ruling that found Nabors had fired some workers in retaliation for supporting unionization. In 2000, employees joined the Alaska Laborers Local 341 in Anchorage and Local 942 in Fairbanks.