Art Chance: Election year ahead, and labor agreements expire in June, 2022

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By ART CHANCE

The State’s Labor Relations Section’s website only goes back to the mid-2000s with archived labor agreements. Few, if any, of those exist as bound and printed copies. 

Since the beginning of bargaining, agreements had been laboriously hand-typed, rigorously edited, and once approved by both parties, signed and sent to Central Duplication for off-set printing and binding. Most were published as 4-by-5-inch booklets that would fit in the back pocket of a pair of jeans. The wear marks in that pocket were as much a mark of status and social position for a union hand, particularly stewards, as was the Skoal ring on a construction worker’s pocket.   It didn’t quite say as much as the “Little Red Book” in the back pocket of a Sixties radical’s jeans, but it said a lot.

One of the last contracts printed and distributed in that form was the 1984 – 1986 agreements between the State and the Alaska Public Employees Association, which represented both the 8,000-odd members of the General Government Unit and the 1,300 or so members of the Supervisory Unit of State employees.    

Beginning in early 1987, copies were becoming hard to find because so many had been entered into evidence in arbitrations, labor board hearings, and court cases in the aftermath of the mid-Eighties oil price crash and the Legislature’s refusal to fund the negotiated 3.6 percent increase for Fiscal Year 1986. There ensued a decade-long war between the State and its unions and by the end of that decade nothing much remained of the old ways.

In retrospect, the 3.6 percent that the Sheffield Administration offered the unions was not particularly out of line, though it was more than the CPI had increased since the last negotiated increase. Through most of the 1970s, Alaska experienced double digit inflation. Generally, Alaska dealt with the inflation by causing more inflation and increasing wages to try to keep up with the inflation. State employees got some of those inflationary increases but not all employees and not all of the cost-of-living increases. They did get all sorts of perks and operational benefits.  

One perk that stuck in the Legislature’s craw was giving employees their birthday as a paid day off. The Legislature’s power to reject a contract was not yet well understood, and still isn’t, but they did understand how to pass an amendment to the Public Employment Relations Act and they defined monetary terms of an agreement subject to Legislative approval to include any provision that changed an employee’s productive work hours; that was just the prelude.

Oil prices verged on the mid-$30s in the early to mid-1980s. In today’s dollars that is close to $100/bbl. oil.   Alaska’s dreams of domed capital cities and Soviet-scale hydroelectric projects crashed with the price of oil resting at near $10/bbl. by 1985 or so. The Legislature reacted by refusing to fund the wage increase and we spent a decade with unions suing, grieving, complaining, and singing songs and carrying signs in the street. 

The one thing they never did was strike, and we never laid off any significant number of them. The Cowper and then Hickel Administrations both resolved that we would not give them any general increases but would not seek concessions to the point of provoking a strike, though we were tempted at times. Basically, we had enough foreclosed houses and repossessed cars in Alaska and the State didn’t want to create more. Most State employees are on a step pay system that gives them a 3 percent or so increase every year for their first five years.   

In those days the average seniority for the General Government Unit was barely five years, so most got some wage adjustment every year even if they didn’t get general increases. That was enough to keep them sullen but not mutinous, and those became our watchwords; keep them sullen but not mutinous.

If I had to choose the capstone of my career it would be the fact that the State General Fund Operating Budget was essentially flat during my tenure from 1987 to 2006. It ticked up a bit with oil prices during the Gulf War and with the cash infusion of the Exxon Valdez cleanup. 

We succumbed to the pressure of Tony Knowles and Sarah Palin’s promises leading up to the 2006 election, but through four governors, one of whom really didn’t want to do it, we held the line on the operating budget for over a decade. I’ll pat my and my co-workers’ backs for doing that, but I’ll temper that with an admission: We never had to deal with inflation. Republican presidents and a Republican Congress during most of the Clinton Administration kept a rein on inflation.

We’re going somewhere nobody has been before. I sorta’ knew some of the people who dealt with the spiraling inflation of the 1970s. I don’t think any of them are still in Alaska; if they are, they aren’t active, and I know quite a few of them are no longer among us. Thirty years later I was trying to bargain stuff out of the agreements that they gave away to try to keep peace, but they were doing an all new thing and nobody knew how. 

The people who represented the State during the oil crash years and its aftermath went on to represent the State as the directors of labor relations and of personnel, two as human resources managers for the Court System, one as head of labor relations and later president of the University, one as a high level manager at the City and Borough of Juneau, one as a high level manager in Nevada, and one as the head of labor relations for Chugach Electric.   

As far as I know only two or three of us are still in Alaska. I don’t know about the other two, but I’m not looking for a State job, especially in these times.

It’s a gubernatorial election year coming up. The government is on the auction block. I always figured that if I had the supervisors and the labor, trades, and crafts guys under contract, I could keep the State running no matter who else wanted to strike or sing songs and carry signs.  The General Government Agreement expires June 30, 2022, and all 8,000 and change of them are available to be whipped up to a screaming fury to elect Bill Walker or Les Gara governor so he can give them money and set them free.   

George Soros and all sorts of Communist front groups will make sure they have the money to play.  I played this game with them during Hickel’s era; there was nothing we could give them that would make them accept an agreement. We came to taunt them with offers forcing them to explain to their single-mommy members why she couldn’t have a raise because it was more important to them to play politics. We put some fancy money on the table because we knew they wouldn’t take it, and we wanted to rub their noses in it. They wanted to wait for their “made-man,” Tony Knowles.  It didn’t work out very well for them.

There is no peaceful way that the Dunleavy Administration can get an agreement with them. The only way to get an agreement with them, and more importantly to remove them as a significant factor in the gubernatorial election, is to pose an existential threat to them.   The State’s initial proposal should not have a union security clause at all; union and agency shops have been illegal in the public sector since the Janus decision in 2018.  It is between the union and the employee whether the employee would like to be a member; it is none of the employer’s business.  

The Dunleavy Administration has done about everything possible wrong in implementing, or failing to implement Janus, but if he’d like to get re-elected, he might try to get it right.   

Additionally, under Janus, as well as under some state constitutional arguments, the dues check-off provisions of the Public Employment Relations Act, are unconstitutional as well. In my experience, if you have a union by the dues sack, their heart and mind follows.   

There’s their “paint by numbers” instructions, but I’m prepared to be disappointed in them.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon. 

12 COMMENTS

  1. I like reading stories written by this man, Art Chance, he’s quintessential at writing as Paul Harvey. “The rest of the story”.

  2. Art, you’ve explained the history well and a looming negotiation deadline, but where does the Governor need to go with this? What position are you advocating? Come out and say it with your usual eloquence – we must hold down government cost and the labor unions have to bite the bullet with the rest of us. No net gain in government labor costs. The AVERAGE State worker, salary and benefits, is making about $135,000 per year, if my memory of previous articles is serving me this evening correctly – that seems a bit excessive to me. No net gain please.

    • I think I know how to work through it; I’ve cut off their dues before and made them look into the abyss of decertification, but I had commissioners of administration and Governors who would back me.

      That $135K is a distortion. The benefit load is about 40%, so that would be about $80K in salary, and you have to be fairly far up the food chain to make that without geographic differential. An average doesn’t tell you much because there are some very highly paid State employees who work in high geographic differential areas or who make a lot of overtime. A median wage would be a lot more demonstrative.

      I could deal with it, maybe some of my old co-workers or former subordinates could, but I doubt any of us could get along with the Dunleavy Administration; we might say bad things about one of his adversaries.

  3. Meanwhile, heavy equipment operators haven’t had a negotiated raise in 9 years due to the incompetence of Local 71 and the State. Dunleavy has a disaster on his hands paying $23.60 an hour for Journey Level II wage grade 53 Heavy Equipment operator who plow and maintain our highways and airports. It’s insulting, and dangerous. The State in some cases has eliminated the previous minimum qualifications for these positions because they can’t fill them with skilled workers. So, they take unskilled and unqualified individuals now.
    The employees who have worked for years and stuck it out have been stuck with a merit raise if their performance meets the standard requirements, which is every three years now, and that is doing nothing but losing ground due to being overrun by massive inflation. Watching useless mid level management positions be created and filled to grow management in DOT, while equipment operators get cut, especially under the previous occupants of the Executive Branch, doesn’t help matters either.
    But hey, Dunleavy can hand out $20,000 signing bonuses for Troopers and thousands for others too such as Corrections. But screw the equipment operators. Hell, the roads are not important to this administration, that’s why he let John MacKinnon close camps such as Silvertip. Of course that didn’t work out and he had to start maintaining the highway again a year later and then let him go. What a disaster DOT is.

    • I’m a Local 71 alumnus from the Seventies and the Al Baffone era; still have one of those orange jackets back when everything ’71 did was orange, since Al was color-blind and orange was the only color he could see. Back then Al’s admonition to all of us who represented the union was, “make sure that before they do anything, they have to think about what you’ll do about it.” It is good advice for either side of a bargaining table. I went a different way in ’81 because I’d come to realize that I’d gotten far enough up the organization to get myself in a lot of trouble and not nearly far enough up the ladder to get out of that trouble.

      When I came to the State government in ’87 I was well aware of the adversarial relation between State labor relations and Local 71, but I really didn’t understand how deeply held it was and that extended to any of the unions that represented people who could get their hands dirty or who dealt with unsavory people. State management at the Juneau level was, and largely remains, a cult of people who believe that if you aren’t college-educated, even with only a “Studies” degree, work at a desk, and wear dress clothes, you are less than human. They had a special hatred for Local 71 and Al Baffone because Al took particular delight in humiliating them. I was way past suspect because of my former association with them.

      As I say above, I always wanted to get Local 71 and the supervisors under contract with a voluntary agreement and I didn’t mind paying for it. I dealt with 71 the way the Pipeline contractors and oil companies looked at the Teamsters; they liked to do business with the Teamsters because the Teamsters didn’t try to run the company so long as you paid them well. The cops and COs had interest arbitration and couldn’t strike, so if I had the labor, trades, and crafts guys and the supervisors under contract, I didn’t care what the socialist workers party, excuse me, ASEA did.

      Frankly, DOT’s headquarters office shouldn’t be in Juneau, where, you’re right, the lefties and greenies range from not caring about roads and airports to outright hating them. Frankly, the only people in DOT management who care about roads are at the appointee level and then only in a Republican Administration.

  4. Art- Thank you for being such a good educator. We had some smart people in LR but you knew how to get us newbies to think. You are a natural teacher. I have valued those lessons my entire career!

  5. Dunleavy beat Begich last time. Certainly Begich was a union guy ready to rain cash on state workers. How did Dunleavy win over the union Dem crowd?

    • He didn’t, the Dems/unions just didn’t have enough time and organization of react to Walker/Mallot’s demise.

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