by Mike Flunker, Editor-in-Chief, UAS Whalesong

“Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions” was the rallying cry outside the University of Alaska Board of Regents meetings in Juneau on Sept. 8-9. 

Frustration has grown among members of United Academics (UNAC), the union that represents all University of Alaska faculty, as bargaining with UA for a new contract has entered its second year.  

“We made concession after concession after concession,” said Abel Bult-Ito, professor of neurobiology and neurophysiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and faculty union president. 

UNAC filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint against the UA administration on Aug. 29. The complaint points to several events during the last six months of negotiations, primarily UA’s declaration that the two sides were at an impasse, and its decision to implement a “best and final offer” on May 16. According to UNAC, mediation was still in progress and both negotiation teams were nowhere close to impasse. 

“This is unprecedented, the actions the University took this spring to declare impasse, implement their BAFO [Best and Final Offer] while we were still in mutually agreed upon mediation and still are,” said Kate Quick, UNAC Organizing Manager and Assistant Professor of Developmental English at UAF. 

Bult-Ito and Quick were on the Juneau campus for the BOR meetings, along with other UNAC members. Across UA, most full-time faculty have only received a 1% raise in the last six years. With U.S. inflation at 8.3% as of August 2022, UA faculty are feeling the blow like a lot of Americans. 

“Morale of the faculty is down, too. We try hard not to show that to our students, but it’s hard not for students to notice sometimes,” Bult-Ito said.

Faculty are leaving to find more stable positions in other states, or other career fields. 

“When a faculty member leaves, that affects an entire program, especially at UAS as small as we are,” said Jill Dumesnil, professor of mathematics and UNAC Organizational Vice-President at UAS. 

“There’s such a high turnover rate, it’s over 10%,” Quick said.

With faculty turnover so high, that leaves gaps. Students working with faculty advisors, building professional relationships, and looking for letters of recommendation may suddenly find an empty office. According to Bult-Ito, these gaps in faculty also result in fewer class options for students. 

Have you ever heard about a class offering and eagerly waited to take it? And when the appropriate semester finally rolled around the class was no longer offered? This leaves students with less choice in their college career. Bult-Ito said higher enrollment numbers in one of his classes were due to two other biomedical professors leaving UA. 

“I have almost tripled the number of students in my class because they have no other choices. I think choice for students is very important, high quality choice. Most programs can’t afford that anymore because they don’t have faculty teaching the courses,” he said. 

This in turn reduces the competitiveness of UA as a college system. Dumesnil pointed out that when research faculty leave, they take their grants and funding with them. And recruiting new faculty is difficult.

 Quick said the failure to keep up with salaries nationwide is another factor. “We have a hard time recruiting new faculty to the system because the salaries and benefits can’t compete now,” she said. 

All UA system faculty are affected by the bargaining process. According to Bult-Ito, there are roughly 1,000 members in the bargaining unit, 70% of whom are dues-paying members. Regardless if members pay dues or not, the contract negotiated by UNAC affects them. This applies to full-time faculty members, not adjuncts, who are in a separate negotiation process. 

Bult-Ito said negotiations have been different from the past. He reflected on previous negotiations, where difficulties were handled amicably and often without need for drawn out mediation. 

For a casual observer like Kevin Maier, UAS Professor of English and UNAC member, negotiations have been tense. He said there will likely always be some conflict between unions and employers, but that the world of the university is different from the more standard “corporate model” of negotiation he feels the UA administration is applying here.

“Historically I think contract negotiations went quite well. We’re people who like to exist in a world of nuance and ask hard questions and solve hard questions together,” he said. 

UA hired the outside negotiator David Eisenberg to lead contract negotiations with UNAC and the adjunct faculty union. Eisenberg is on a $180,000 contract with UA, and is paid $100 per hour. 

Maier said the style and the way negotiations have unfolded brings unnecessary uncertainty to faculty. This uncertainty is frustrating, especially when combined with the frustration of how adversarial the negotiations are.

“Instead, we need to be all on the same page and we need to be forging better relationships, and negotiation can be a space where you do that, right? What’s our shared vision of this university?” he said.

All these frustrations culminated in the filing of the ULP.

Bult-Ito said the union “really did not want to file the ULP.”

According to Dumesnil, “We felt like the University had stalled, and drug out negotiations without responding to our proposals, for instance. We had a formal proposal for financials back in October, and they didn’t respond to it in any way, shape or form for three months, despite the fact we had sixteen bargaining sessions during that time.” 

Throughout the negotiations process, Pitney emailed communications to the whole university community. One of the ULP allegations is that these communications represented advocacy to union members, which constitutes unfair labor practice. Bult-Ito asked to be given the same opportunity to reach the university community, but was denied. 

“She [Pitney] said the listserv is for the university use only, as if faculty are not part of the university, right?” he said. 

The filing of the ULP is independent of the ongoing contract negotiations. One of the things UNAC is hoping for is a public apology from the university, according to Quick. Additionally, this case would set precedent for other unions in Alaska. 

“Other public unions negotiating in the state will not be able to do these things if the Alaska Labor Relations Agency rules that it is in bad faith,” Dumesnil said. 

In a Sept. 19 mediation session, the two teams have tentatively agreed to another article of the contract. UNAC announced in a press release the following day that “we are now very close to a new contract.” The final mediation session is scheduled for Sept. 28.