The last major state union without a contract entered binding arbitration Tuesday for some of its members, after negotiations deadlocked months ago.
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Tuesday, employees represented by the Alaska Public Employees Association rallied in front of the State Office Building, where many of them work.
The APEA has about 1,878 members, of which about 250 are considered ineligible to strike because they work in some of the state's most critical jobs, such as at pioneers' homes. The arbitration is for a contract for only those 250 members. But the arbitrator's decision may influence the outcome of negotiations for the rest of the union, which can strike.
Protesting workers on the building's steps said the executive branch's top managers, the commissioners and directors who run the state's departments and divisions, were given raises in the final days of the Murkowski administration, but the mid-level managers below them were not.
They carried signs reading "We want what our directors got," and "My subordinate makes more than I do."
State labor data shows the average annual pay for a member of the supervisors union was $62,645 last year, and the average supervisor had worked for the state almost 14 years.
One of those at the protest, state chief bridge engineer Rich Pratt, said the state was being hurt by not being able to attract employees it needs, partially because of low pay.
"Kids right out of college with engineering degrees are getting better offers in the private sector," he said.
Kevin Brooks, deputy commissioner of the Department of Administration, said negotiations were ongoing and the state was still optimistic that they could avoid a strike.
Pratt said the state's offer of a three-year contract, with a 4 percent wage increase the first year and 3 percent the next two years, would fairly cover inflation, but it wouldn't help recover money lost in past years when wage increases didn't keep up with inflation.
"We're trying to make up for the losses," he said. "Since 1993 we haven't had a single contract that's kept up with inflation."
State negotiators met with union representatives the day after Thanksgiving, and talks are continuing around the arbitration process as well, Brooks said.
"Ultimately, it could come to a strike," he said. "It is our hope and intention to reach a settlement."
Brooks said the arbitration process lasts through the week, and then the decision will take additional time to prepare.
Union Business Manager Bruce Ludwig said earlier that a strike vote was unlikely before Feb. 1, and the union wants to see what conclusion the arbitrator reaches before it acts.
The state's largest union, the Alaska State Employees Association, reached an agreement with the state last summer, but only recently was the agreement approved by a vote of the members.
That agreement and others still need to be approved as part of the Legislature's budgeting process that begins in January.
One other smaller union remains without a contract. The Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific rejected a tentative deal in a vote of the membership in September. Negotiators continued in Juneau on that contract, state and union officials said.