ANCHORAGE - Leaders of a University of Alaska faculty union said Wednesday that contract negotiations were on the verge of collapse although UA president Mark Hamilton offered to enter into arbitration.
"We're very close to a strike," said Barbara Harville, chief negotiator for the Alaska Community Colleges' Federation of Teachers, which represents about 315 faculty at rural campuses and community campuses.
In a vote last month, nearly two-thirds of the union members authorized union leaders to call a strike.
Hamilton was unavailable for comment Wednesday. But in a written statement released late Tuesday, he said a neutral third party arbitrator appears to be the best way to resolve differences that have kept the two sides from reaching a final contract agreement after more than a year in negotiations.
"Arbitration will provide an opportunity for the university and the union to put forward what they each think are the most reasonable proposals, and we'll let the arbitrator make the decision," Hamilton wrote.
But the president issued a two-page list of ground rules that union leaders said is so restrictive it would prevent an arbitrator from making a fair or neutral decision. The union will not agree to "extensive and unreasonable" limitations, but would be willing to let the arbitrator set the rules, Harville said.
University officials said the rules set by Hamilton are simply proposed guidelines to address standard issues, such as selecting an arbitrator and setting a decision deadline. The administration is open to any counter proposals from the union leadership, said Jim Johnsen, the university's vice president for staff and faculty relations.
"Instead of calm heads looking clearly at these issues, we have inflammatory rhetoric. That will not help us get an agreement," Johnsen said. "This dispute is symptomatic of the whole negotiation process so far."
Contract talks began in September 2002, but negotiators have failed to find common ground despite two sessions with a federal mediator. The union's contract expired June 30.
The salary and benefit package is still unresolved, but negotiators for both sides have said the financial aspects are among the lesser sticking points. Harville said major disagreements hinge on faculty rights issues, such as diminished job security and attempts to bar members from teaching upper division courses.
In his statement, Hamilton called on the union to use scheduled meetings between negotiators this week and next to narrow the issues to be decided and settle on arbitration guidelines. He then noted that it was possible that "the very act of preparing for arbitration may lead us to the negotiated settlement that has eluded us to date."
Or it could lead to a complete breakdown in talks. Union negotiators planned to meet with the administration Wednesday night, but "we have no idea how it will go," Harville said.
"We've been hoping management will put a reasonable offer on the table," she said. "If this is what it takes to put a reasonable offer on the table, then we'll be very happy with that."