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Most University of Alaska faculty members who teach lower-division and vocational courses have authorized their union to call a strike. But teachers and university administrators, who return to the bargaining table today in Anchorage, said they are hopeful a strike will be averted.
About two-thirds of the 313 members of the Alaska Community Colleges' Federation of Teachers have voted to give union leadership the authority to call a strike, the union said Wednesday.
After more than a year of negotiations, the faculty and administration are still apart on noneconomic issues such as grievance procedures, and on a multi-year package of raises.
The strike-authorization vote caused concern among some students that their studies would be disrupted.
"Students are concerned, and they're definitely worried about how this will affect their grades and their studies for the rest of the semester," said Kaci Hamilton, student body president of the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.
The student government at the Ketchikan campus said in a flyer distributed to students Wednesday that it would ask a judge to require striking teachers to go back to work.
But student government President Wendy Walden, reached late Wednesday, said the Ketchikan campus wouldn't undertake a court action alone. For now, the group is recommending that students continue studying and remain objective about the dispute, she said.
The student government's flyer was partly in response to a union flyer distributed earlier this week that said students shouldn't cross picket lines.
"It was leveraging students toward the faculty and that didn't seem fair," Walden said.
In any case, it's unlikely that students would have the legal standing to ask for such a court order, called an injunction. Alaska labor law gives only the employer and the state Labor Relations Agency the right to seek injunctions to stop strikes, said hearing officer Jean Ward in Anchorage.
The union said about 16,000 students across Alaska would be affected by the strike. About 40 faculty members in Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka are ACCFT members, union negotiator Tim Powers of Juneau has said.
Even if there is a strike, it's not certain how many classes would be canceled. The university would consider hiring replacement teachers, combining classes, and teaching some classes from offsite through technology, said Jim Johnsen, the university vice president of faculty and staff relations, from Fairbanks. And some union members might not walk out, he added.
But Gail Klein, the student services coordinator at the Ketchikan campus, said it would be hard to replace some teachers.
"Especially for the smaller communities, it's not so easy to bring someone in. It's definitely a concern for students. We're hoping it doesn't go that far," she said.
The union, on its Web site www.accft.org, urged its members if they strike to consider removing all course materials from their computers and offices. Union President Bob Congdon said in an interview that faculty members own the course materials they have created.
"We don't have any qualms about protecting the integrity of our classes," he said during a visit to Juneau on Wednesday. The university "will literally be putting in people who are not qualified to teach."
UA official Johnsen said that presumably some of the course materials are university property, and the university may file a grievance with the union or an unfair-labor-practice complaint with the state about the union's statement on the Web site.
The union has characterized the possible walkout as an unfair-labor-practice strike, rather than an economic strike, and it recently filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint with the state.
The university has been unfair by making worse offers later in the negotiations than it offered earlier, said Barbara Harville, the union's chief negotiator, who was in Juneau on Wednesday. The university also has made offers it knew the union wouldn't accept, she said.
Under state law, public workers such as university faculty who strike over an unfair labor practice, rather than for more money, can't be permanently replaced.
But it's not for the union to say what kind of strike it is, Johnsen said. It would be up to the Labor Relations Agency or a court, he said.
"We don't want to strike," Congdon said. "It's unfortunate that management has pushed us this far. We'll just have to see if they want to push us farther."
But Johnsen said the university just wants consistency in its contracts with its two faculty unions. He said the university will deny all of the charges in the union's complaint.