Alaska's largest labor union and the Murkowski administration have agreed to bring in an outside mediator to help hammer out labor contracts for some 8,000 state workers.
The state's agreement to voluntary mediation comes on the heels of the Alaska State Employees Association's decision to authorize a strike.
Temporary union contracts signed last year are scheduled to expire on June 30. ASEA is pushing for three-year contracts that include a one-time payment of $1,200 for each member in the first year and 3 percent wage increases the second and third years. The union also is pushing for better health care benefits.
Kevin Jardell, a labor negotiator for the state, said he didn't want to "get into the details of the bargaining table." But he said other unions have agreed to a zero wage increase the first year and 2 percent increases in the second and third years.
"It's safe to say that other units and unions have been able to achieve contracts with the state, and the state certainly believes it can achieve a similar contract with ASEA," Jardell said.
Jim Duncan, business manager for ASEA, said the state has rejected three separate requests this year by the union to enter voluntary mediation.
ASEA filed a declaration with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency on March 12, saying the union and state had reached impasse on the contracts. The ALRA board is tasked with determining whether to force the state to negotiate with the union through a third-party mediator.
The board, however, failed to reach a decision for two months, prompting ASEA to withdraw the declaration of impasse on May 13.
Two days prior to the withdrawal, ASEA began polling its members to authorize the strike.
"The state's unwillingness to join the union in requesting the assistance of a federal mediator leaves the union with no choice but to proceed with the strike authorization vote," Duncan said in a May 11 press release.
Jardell said it's not unusual for unions to authorize a strike prior to signing contracts.
"Any union approaching the end of a contract goes through this process," Jardell said.
Duncan said the union must get approval from more than half of its membership before it can move forward with a strike. He noted that approval for strike authorization does not mean the union will go forward with a strike.
"It's only a tool to be used in the case that we can't get to a contract," Duncan said.
Strike authorization ballots were mailed to ASEA's general government unit employees earlier this month and must be returned by June 21.
Duncan said it would take a few days to tally the votes.
The state and union will head back to the bargaining table today and Thursday and will begin negotiating with the mediator next week.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.