By ART CHANCE
I returned to the Executive Branch from the Legislature in December of 1999. It wasn’t a particularly happy reunion; I still disliked and distrusted the Administration, but I was tired of being bored and broke, and the commissioner of Administration had been forced out and replaced by someone who was tolerable, at least by the standards applied to Democrat appointees.
My deal with the new commissioner was that I would try to rebuild the credibility of the State’s contract administration, and I wanted nothing to do with the Administration’s bargaining relations with the unions. You can’t have delicate sensibilities and do public sector labor relations work, but the corruption inherent in Democrat relations with unions was more than I wanted anything to do with. There’s no need for a formal process for labor relations when the union goons have all the direct line numbers in the commissioner’s office and don’t need an appointment.
Anything that was politically important to them got handled in the commissioner’s office and we only learned about it after the fact, unless it was something they didn’t want to do openly and could hide behind collective bargaining or the grievance/arbitration process. It is very easy for an advocate to “throw” an arbitration or labor board hearing and only another advocate would even see it.
The real difficulty in supervising such staff is that you have a lot of trouble being sure if your subordinate is just doing the case differently from the way you’d do it, made a mistake, or if something nefarious is going on. It is complicated by the fact that even the most conscientious advocate is at the mercy of the operating department for the information and witnesses necessary to sustain a position.
It doesn’t take long in labor relations to learn the advocate’s prayer: “Please, God, don’t let me believe a word they tell me today.”
Soon after my return to Labor Relations, a grievance came up. The Marine Engineers alleged that the State was violating their “guaranteed manning provisions” by not employing enough engineers.
The guarantee should never have been in the contract, as manning is either a permissive or illegal subject of bargaining, but was a gift from a former director for the union’s support in keeping the appointment over a change of administration; yes, that sort of thing does happen.
I never had a governor or attorney general who wanted to duke it out with them, and the Engineers never give anything back, but I was able to buy some of the guarantee back when I was director.
I smelled a rat with this one, and while I would have been the logical choice to carry the case, I refused to do it or supervise the person assigned to it. A young man hired during the diaspora of senior staff got it. He hadn’t been around long enough to know what he didn’t know, and was a perfect choice.
I believed that the Department of Transportation and the Marine Highway System were hiding engineers by double-filling positions, but I can be maliciously obedient with the best of them, and it wasn’t my job.
Remedies in arbitration are almost exclusively to redress a specific loss to a specific individual(s). Remedies for lost opportunities are almost unheard of, but in this case the union was asking for compensation for people who didn’t get the jobs that they alleged weren’t filled, and wanted the money to go directly to the union. I don’t know if higher-ups at DOT were in on it or whether the right questions just weren’t asked.
The State predictably lost the arbitration and over a quarter million dollars went to the union to spend as it chose. A responsible employer would have paid up when it ran out of courts to appeal the arbitrator’s decision to, but we were working for Democrats, so there was no use in even asking.
That money became the Engineers’ “walking around money” to defeat the Juneau Access (“The Road”) initiative. A cynical person might think the whole thing was just a money laundering scheme.
The Juneau Access initiative was narrowly defeated and an unholy alliance emerged between the “Citizens Against Virtually Everything,” the marine unions, and the Gov. Tony Knowles Administration. The bleeding edge solution to Juneau Access was fast ferries, the sort that had just failed miserably in British Columbia.
The deal to build them was worked out between a Democrat Administration in Juneau and likewise in Washington, DC, so it went in a sweetheart deal to a bankrupt shipyard in Bridgeport, CT, a Democrat-run state whose congressional delegation has never done a thing for Alaska. But they had friends in high places.
The advertised price was $36 million each for two vessels, but they cost more than that. We had ferry system employees, including a couple of chief engineers, assigned to temporary duty with the shipyard. The usual assortment of Department of Transportation/Alaska Marine Highway luminaries wore a rut in the sky between Juneau, Alaska and Bridgeport, Conn.
I knew as little about it as possible and stayed as far from it as possible but I was aware of a steady stream of special deals being worked out for employees assigned to the shipyard. That all changed when Gov. Frank Murkowski took office and shortly thereafter I became the manager and later director of Labor Relations.
The first thing on my dance card was coming up with a labor agreement to run a high-speed craft code vessel under US maritime and labor laws, something that had never been done before.
Frankly, I knew little about the Alaska Marine Highway System; dealing with the marine unions was not good for your career health.
But, I assumed that the Alaska Marine Highway System had at least given some thought to how they wanted the new fast ferries to operate, so if I had an operating scheme, I knew how to write, or copy, contract language.
We’d left the Knowles Administration managers in place, so I made an appointment with them to talk fast boats. I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a clue about how they were going to be run beyond vague notions of a single crew dayboat operation with overnight maintenance at the homeport, and no more crew than the Coast Guard mandated minimum manning.
I also learned quickly that despite their touted support for fast ferries as a road antidote, the unions had precisely zero interest in operating them in any economical manner.
My boss and I bent the governor’s rule about making the unions come to Juneau and slipped off to Seattle to meet with the licensed unions, the deck officers and engineers.
I did a “what if” and suggested that I could see giving them a 25% raise if they would become salaried employees and get away from the draconian work rules in the contracts for the conventional vessels.
Of course, that got our private meeting leaked to the media and a bunch of noise about how I’d promised them a 25% raise as a fast boat premium. It also got me a good munch of Gov. Murkowski’s carpet.
We played hardball with them, at least hardball short of provoking a strike. We tied M/V Fairweather up and laid off the crew assigned to her and sent them back to the fleet. Delivery of M/V Chenega was looming, and we had neither a dock or crew accommodations in Cordova, Whittier, or Valdez. Cordova was supposed to be her homeport and Cordova was painted on her stern. The good people of Cordova couldn’t be bothered about the fact that we had no labor agreement, no dock, and no crew accommodations in Cordova; they wanted “their” boat, and we could add the Cordova newspaper to the newspapers in Coastal Alaska that hated us over those damned fast boats.
We had negotiations with them coming up again for the umpteenth time. I’d had my usual dose of the Marine Engineers’ attorney, Joe Geldhof, holding forth on the Juneau version of Radio Moscow about how greedy, uncaring, and incompetent the State was. Radio Juneau couldn’t be bothered to talk to me much.
I was sitting home contemplating that I had to go meet with them the next day and I had no airspeed, altitude, or ideas. I wrote an email to the Governor’s Office telling them that and saying something like, “oil’s been above $50/bbl. for a couple of months; let’s throw some money at the “fine gentlemen” and get out of the news.”
The response was something like “don’t ask, but if you can shape a deal bring it to us.”
I did shape a deal, the Administration bought it, and the unions were tired of it too, so we settled. It didn’t resemble what a legitimate agreement for a fast ferry should look like, and the unions made it impossible to run the vessels in any economical manner.
They were a bad idea and a bad design to begin with; too small for peak traffic in Northern Lynn Canal or Prince William Sound and too expensive to operate at any time other than peak traffic, but their small size meant you had to put another vessel on with them, which meant neither ran efficiently. They were always over-manned and were maintenance nightmares.
Only the fact that the Citizens Against Virtually Everything people had backed them kept them from raising a hue and cry about how often they pureed seals, sea lions, and otters.
DOT&PF announced this week that they had sold the ferries to a Spanish company for maybe a dime on the dollar for what we foolishly paid for them. The Fairweather and Chenega went for $5.17 million.
Everyone who has ever done anything consequential has had their failures, and that is my big one, but I had a lot of company in making it.
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.