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.