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By Dan Rudy 

Public employees union calls strike, workers take up pickets

 

Dan Rudy

Workers represented by the IBEW Local 1547 gather outside of City Hall early Thursday to protest, alleging unfair labor practices committed by the borough. The Wrangell Assembly on Tuesday voted to implement its own proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement after negotiations were deemed to have reached an impasse.

It was out of the workplace and into the streets for many Wrangell city staff Thursday morning, as two dozen unionized workers began a strike over prolonged contract negotiations.

The City and Borough has been negotiating for a new collective bargaining agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1547 since the summer of 2014, when the previous CBA expired. The process has at times been tumultuous, with court proceedings through the fall of 2016 being settled by both parties in December. Thursday's strike is the latest escalation as talks have reached an impasse.

As part of December's settlement, the union was able to make a pitch directly to the Borough Assembly with its last best offer if the city's negotiating team rejected it. That came on June 8, and was rejected after deliberation with the city's attorney.

Affected employees voted June 16 to approve a strike, but waited to see how the Borough Assembly would respond. It met in a special meeting on Tuesday to decide whether or not to implement the city's last proposal, which on June 9 offered a $0.75 hourly wage increase across the board, in addition to mutually agreed-to positions on the wage table and insurance co-pay. The union's proposal remains set as offered, with a $2.50 hourly increase.

Assembly members unanimously approved the $0.75 package, and in response unionized workers began their strike Thursday morning. The employees involved belong to a number of departments, including power, water, garage, waste disposal, public works and harbors. Picketers have been seen outside City Hall, the harbor and public works offices, and the landfill.

Responding to the action, the city's website Thursday morning informed residents that updates on service disruptions will be posted to the Wrangell Borough Facebook page and to http://www.wrangell.com/community/members-ibew-union-strike-wrangell and on local radio. An announcement soliciting workers to establish a temporary hiring pool is also at the Wrangell Community page.

The sanitation department will attempt to continue curbside garbage collection, and Thursday collection customers are asked to leave their garbage cans out. Water treatment and harbor services are expected to continue, and Southeast Alaska Power Agency postponed a planned transmission shutdown scheduled to begin Monday that would have required Wrangell Municipal Light and Power to run its diesel generators.

A press release from the IBEW Local accompanied the action on Thursday. "The decision to go out on a ULP strike is not an easy one," it explained. The release made the following assertions:

"The workers have been negotiating with the Borough for more than three years for a fair deal. Unfortunately, the Borough has bargained in bad faith. Management made it clear that the most important thing to them was having employees pay a portion of their health care premiums. Despite numerous concessions on the part of the workers, including contributing to their own health care, the Wrangell Borough has ignored the fundamental issue of a modest increase in wages that simply keep up with the cost of living.

"Front line workers have not had a cost of living increase since 2011 while the former Borough manager enjoyed a 47-percent increase in salary over the past four years; (Wrangell Public) School District employees recently received a one- to 23-percent increase in pay; and private sector wages in Wrangell have increased over 12% between 2012 and 2015."

 

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