Unionized borough workers want more contract talks

Alaska’s IBEW Local 1547 represents 24 Wrangell municipal workers. (Photo by Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau)

Wrangell’s municipal employees’ union has authorized a strike. But one of its leaders said members don’t really want to.

Mark Armstrong is a shop steward for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents 24 city and borough staffers. He said the union voted to authorize a strike twice before this year. Both times, municipal officials responded by resuming contract talks. He hopes that happens again.

“I don’t know anybody who wants a strike,” Armstrong said. “Certainly the community members don’t want us to strike. I’m sure the city isn’t looking forward to a strike. And neither are the union members. The purpose of the strike is just to bring the city back to the table so we can continue negotiations and hopefully reach a contract that’s agreeable to everybody.”

The Borough Assembly scheduled a special meeting at 5:30 this evening to consider the situation.

Wrangell’s unionized workers have been without a contract for three years.

Management and labor made final wage offers earlier this month. The union proposed an across-the-board, $2.50-an-hour raise. The municipality offered 75 cents.

Armstrong said the union’s proposal balances out another contract term that calls for workers to pay 15 percent of their health-insurance costs.

“We’re not seeking a wage increase. We’re just trying to compensate wages enough so that in the end, we don’t fall backwards because we’re going to pay that insurance premium,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said the borough’s offer would essentially cut paychecks by several hundred dollars each.

The municipality has been preparing for a strike.

Interim Borough Manager Carol Rushmore said it’s recruiting temporary, fill-in staff. And she’s released a list of services that would slow or stop if workers strike. She said some tasks would be covered by about 35 managers and non-union staffers.

Armstrong said the union has not asked for a wage increase to be retroactive to when the previous contract expired.

“We chose not to pursue that because of the extra burden that that would have been on the city. We realize things are extremely tight,” Armstrong said.

Rushmore, in a prepared statement, recognized the right of union workers to strike. But she said the municipality’s responsibility is to build a budget it can afford, especially given ongoing state spending reductions.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.