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Community Perspective

Ferry workers union doesn’t grasp Alaska law

The Department of Administration, of which I serve as commissioner, is responsible for negotiating state worker union contracts. We take that responsibility very seriously. Our goal is to negotiate fair labor contracts that help our state of Alaska employees build better lives for themselves, while also serving the best interests of their fellow Alaskans.

Our team at the DOA, and those that preceded this administration, have made every effort to address the demands of the Inlandboatmen’s Union without further compounding our state’s ballooning deficit. In fact, since December 2016, the state has met with IBU representatives over 40 times. We believe it would be a dereliction of our duty, both to unions and Alaskans, for us to enter into a bargaining agreement that would benefit one union in the short term but would further imperil the well-being of all Alaskans, including the IBU, in the long term.

The state has faced several hurdles during negotiations with IBU representatives from California, including the IBU’s demands for wage increases at rates that are untenable in this fiscal climate and impermissible under Alaska law. The other marine unions, whose members work alongside IBU employees, did not ask for such demands; they seem to better understand Alaska’s dire fiscal situation — and care about it! Labor unions are supposed to help their employees secure fair pay, not preferential pay.

During 20 hours of mediation last weekend, IBU brought in negotiators from California who don’t seem to understand Alaska laws. They repeatedly sent wage offers that are not legally permissible or feasible. Anyone who knows Alaska law and the legislative process would have known better.

IBU has yet to give the state a proposal that is legally allowed. IBU notified the state it would strike over a provision regarding union dues payment and collection that conflicts with the free speech protections guaranteed to all IBU-represented employees by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This is illegal.

IBU’s illegal strike began based on demands that all nonresident employees receive the same salary value as Alaska employees. Alaska law (AS 23.40.210), however, requires that any agreement include a pay plan that provides for a cost-of-living differential between the salaries paid to Alaska employees and nonresident employees. The IBU was demanding that the state accept this and violate the law. This is illegal.

IBU amended these provisions after the state informed the union that these provisions would render its strike illegal. But amending those illegal provisions after the strike was announced does not magically erase the illegal basis for striking in the first place. Under law, the IBU is obligated to end the strike and reach a deal.

The state has made numerous concessions to IBU, including four package proposals that granted some of IBU’s important requests, such as a three-year deal and a wage increase, but IBU refused to change its illegal offer. The state proposed IBU employees contribute to their health care plan, but IBU agreed only if the state provided a “bonus” that covered the cost of premiums and paid members more than $700,000 extra for their trouble. That’s not a compromise. That’s an outrage!

The state also offered the IBU the ability for employees to return to work, without disciplinary action for striking, while we continue to negotiate the contract so the employees would be able to make money. The IBU refused to sign it.

Since the illegal strike began July 24, the state of Alaska has lost nearly $3 million in revenue in Alaska Marine Highway System passenger ticket refunds. Our coastal communities, businesses and residents have incurred millions of dollars in costs related to loss of visitor traffic, alternative transportation and unexpected lodging. The strike has shut down a major transportation artery in the height of tourist season. It has been the logistical equivalent of a heart attack to coastal Alaska. The damages suffered are already incalculable.

We remain open to working with the IBU to reach an agreement that is lawful, good and fair to employees and all Alaskans. We will not abandon our posts at the negotiating table until we reach a fair and fiscally responsible outcome. We sit ready to receive the first legally permissible offer IBU is ready to make.

Kelly Tshibaka is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration.

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