The collective bargain needs people on both sides of the table




Suzanne Downing’s recent piece on AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami’s snarling demeanor set me thinking about this:

Vince showed up at my door back during the primary. He was campaigning for AFL-CIO backed candidates in my district.

Unlike most Republicans, I’m comfortable with union guys, even the ones who hate me, and we had a nice chat. My style was that I always acted like the employer, and I expected them to act like the union.   In today’s world not many on either side of the table understand those well-defined roles.

There has been unionization of American labor since the earliest colonial days; most of the skilled trades had guilds or unions and worked under contract to their employers. The unions had no power to compel the employers to employ them or to contract with them, but the mutual necessity of having and providing skilled labor forced the employees and the employers to find a way to reach some mutual accord.

In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act imposed a legal duty on employers to collectively bargain with unions representing a majority of their employees and to enter into written and enforceable contracts with those unions. The dynamic was essentially the Marxist compromise: The collectivized workers had power to confront the collectivized capital of the corporation. Both had their own interests, but they had a shared interest as well, mutual survival. If the employer couldn’t make money, it couldn’t employ the employees. That is the private sector dynamic; there never was much of it, and it didn’t last very long.


In 1935 about 7 percent of the U.S. workforce was unionized. New Deal public works projects, US re-armament, and World War II war production unionized the US workforce.   Fundamentally, if your company was going to do business with the US Government, your company had to be union.

Most US war production was done under what we’d now call project labor agreements.   The unions didn’t have to “organize” the employees; they organized the government, which then forced the employers to accept the union.

Only the old skilled trades unions weren’t firmly leftist or even openly communist, and typical of the Left, they overplayed their hand. The backlash was powerful.   In 1948, the Democrats lost control of the Congress for the first time since 1932 and the Republican Congress, over five vetoes by President Truman, passed the Taft-Hartley Amendments to the NLRA.

Talking about 1948 will still get a tear in the eyes of an old-time trade unionist and no union guy will ever forgive the Republicans for Taft-Hartley. This is something Republican candidates must understand in dealing with unions; they will NEVER forgive the Republican Party and they will never support a Republican if they have a remotely viable Democrat opponent.

Over the ensuing years, union membership plummeted. Recovering industrial capacity post WWII in the rest of the world and U.S. free-trade policy further eroded the manufacturing labor base of organized labor.  Today, the true private sector unionization is about what it was in 1935 when the NLRA was passed: It’s back to 7 percent.

In the halcyon days of the 1930s and 1940s, unionized public employees were inconceivable to both labor leaders and Democrat politicians.

Here in Alaska, traditional organized labor wanted little to do with public employees until the 1980s.  Even after the Public Employment Relations Act was passed in 1972, most of the unions chartered public sector-only unions to keep the public employees separate.

Most public employees who unionized were represented by independent employee associations that were basically State-chartered non-profit corporations that called themselves unions.

Enter the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO (AFSCME) in the late 1980s. The oil price crash of the mid-80s led the Legislature to refuse to fund the third year of Gov. Bill Sheffield’s 1984-86 agreements with State employee unions, and the war began.

Thus, 3.8 percent will always be emblazoned on my brain: That’s the raise they didn’t get, and even today you can’t talk to a State employee union representative long without the rep bringing up the notion of workers being “owed” 3.8 percent.

The general government bargaining unit (GGU) of State employees, and especially its Juneau chapter, has always been a nest of malcontents and they led the charge to affiliate with a national union.   In late 1988, AFSCME, acting as the Alaska State Employees Association, decertified the independent association that had represented the GGU since bargaining began. In one fell swoop that made public employees the largest union in the Alaska AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO had heretofore represented the building trades primarily, and the AFL-CIO and the business community in Alaska had enjoyed a relatively peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship.

Public employees range from not caring about development and the business community to positively hating development and the business community. The the entire dynamic of the AFL-CIO’s relations with Alaska’s political system changed on September 17, 1988.   You can read my book to learn how that all played out in the 1990s and into the 2000s, but suffice it to say that the dominant force in the most powerful interest group in Alaska, the AFL-CIO, is unionized public employees.


AFL-CIO Alaska President Vince Beltrami and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka

So, now we’re back to Vince Beltrami, the head of the AFL-CIO. Vince’s second in command is Jim Duncan, former legislator and commissioner, and head of the Alaska State Employees Association, the people who contribute the most to Vince’s salary.

Vince is an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers guy. The IBEW represents employees of government-owned or government monopoly utilities and unionized contractors working on publicly funded projects.

This is the Third Sector, the businesses that live off government money and regulation.   In the Third Sector, the union and management are usually co-conspirators to get their hands as far in the taxpayer, rate payer, or share-holder pocket as possible.

Vince and people like him have never really had an adversary across the bargaining table.   The reason he likes to call Alaska Republican Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock a union buster from his time on the Matanuska Electric Association board is because Babcock wasn’t bought by the union and wasn’t acting as a co-conspirator with the union.

They often called me a union buster too; if I’d actually wanted to bust unions, they’d be busted. Like the spoiled children that they are at heart, they just can’t stand opposition.

When ASEA bought the governorship for Tony Knowles, the State’s labor relations policy became: “Ask ASEA what they want.”   Six years in, the Knowles Administration had figured out that they simply couldn’t keep their friends happy and they were sick of ASEA’s guerilla theater and outrageous demands.

They hired me back from the Legislature to try to clean up the mess they’d made.

What I learned from that experience is that the State, with a little prodding, still knew how to be the State.  The unions had all but forgotten how to be a union.  If they couldn’t just call the commissioner’s office and take care of it, they didn’t know what to do.

I had a great run; won a bazillion arbitrations, fired a whole bunch of loud-mouthed union activists.  Then peace broke out all over and I maintained a stately pace towards retirement.

What Vince needs is aggressive opposition; he’s never really had it before.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska. He is the author of the book, Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance, available at Amazon.