ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State Labor Commissioner Ed Flanagan is urging Alaska's dominant oil well drilling contractor to agree to mediation in a long-running contract standoff with its unionized workers.
Flanagan, in a letter to Nabors Alaska president Jim Denney, said that the dispute ''threatens the industrial peace of the state'' and that Nabors should work with a state-appointed mediator. He stopped short of declaring that he can force Nabors to mediate.
Unlike an arbitrator, who can issue binding decisions, a mediator only attempts to nudge the parties to a settlement.
Nabors Alaska vice president Jim Brown said his company prefers to negotiate directly with leaders of the Laborers International union and has extended an invitation to talk.
''Our view is it's not necessary,'' Brown said of mediation.
Union leaders said Thursday that they welcomed Flanagan's letter because they're frustrated by the lack of progress toward reaching their first labor contract with Nabors since the rig workers, called roughnecks, voted to unionize in 2000.
The roughnecks want to switch from the company's health and retirement plan to a union plan. The workers also want cost-of-living pay raises. Nabors is offering to keep its pay and benefits basically at current levels.
Kevin Dougherty, an attorney for the Laborers union, said he wasn't surprised that Nabors balked at mediation.
''We thought out of respect for the state of Alaska and the oil industry that Nabors would be willing to sit down and resolve the dispute through a peaceful means,'' he said.
The union has hinted of a possible walkoff from drilling rigs, which could cripple oil field development, though existing wells could still produce. Oil is the state's most important industry.
Mike Pearson, a union organizer and ex-Nabors worker, said a strike is still a possibility.
But Dougherty said the union has chosen to press its fight in other ways, such as pointing out safety problems to BP and other oil companies that hire Nabors for drilling.
''We're not afraid of a strike, but we don't think it's the most mature and effective thing,'' he said.
Nabors employs about 300 workers in running six North Slope and Cook Inlet rigs, but the payroll can more than double in winter, when drilling activity picks up substantially. The union represents only about 60 percent of Nabors workers, Brown said.
Brown said Nabors already offers $50,000 to $75,000 to employees working two weeks on, two weeks off, plus good health insurance and a generous 401(k) retirement plan. He said relations between the company and its workers is good.
Nabors Alaska is part of Texas-based Nabors Industries, a global drilling giant.
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