Uber, birthday parties, and the political battle over the free market - Must Read Alaska
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Uber, birthday parties, and the political battle over the free market

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, right, seated with Sen. Bill Wielechowski,-D, Anchorage, and Rep. Ivy Sponholz, D-Anchorage, in 2016.

It is no secret to Juneau politicos that Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux’s birthday party last month was hosted by the Teamsters Union.

Plenty of union types attended the party in the Teamster’s Local 959 cozy headquarters upstairs apartment, just across the street from the State Office Building on Willoughby Ave. It was a social media-free zone, so for attendees it was a leave-no-trace event.

LeDoux turned 69 on March 24. Why the unions turned out in such force for the House Rules chair’s unremarkable birthday is one of the mystery ingredients of the sausage-making behind lawmaking.

LeDoux struggles to find allies in Juneau, even though she is Rules chair. She’s not trusted by Democrats, and she’s not well thought of by Republicans. And yet people traipse up the union stairs to pay their respects.

The last time Juneauites remember someone throwing a big party for LeDoux was in 2006, when she was on the arm of notorious Bill Allen, and he threw her a birthday party at the Prospector Hotel. That was also on a raucous night that lives in infamy in the annals of political corruption: They all ended up drinking and dancing in a bar on South Franklin, and the stories in Juneau are legendary. Earlier that night, a lot of deal making had been done.

By then, the FBI was already onto Allen and Veco and a handful of lawmakers for improperly influencing legislation on oil taxes.

LeDoux, then a liberal Republican from Kodiak, was a key vote Allen and his allies needed on oil tax legislation, the record shows. 

It seems that whenever someone needs a key vote from LeDoux, there’s a birthday party to attend.

THIS LEGISLATION NEEDS A RIDE

LeDoux now holds the key to certain legislation that is of interest to union bosses — things like workman’s compensation, definitions of independent contractors, and the ability to unionize transportation network workers, if companies like Uber and Lyft should ever be allowed to operate in Alaska.

Her political action committee, Gabby’s Tuesday PAC, has the AFL-CIO as its largest contributor.

With the exception of Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, few lawmakers are publicly lining up against House Bill 132, the transportation network bill that is surprisingly controversial. Forty-nine other states allow Uber and Lyft.  Alaskans want the companies, while unions are fighting them tooth and nail.

Josephson, try as he may with one amendment after another, only slowed down the bill, but did not stop it from moving out of the House Labor and Commerce Committee.

LeDoux is the unions’ last line of defense against ride-sharing, and the word in the Capitol is she has a “poison pill” for House Bill 132. Rules is where the bill gets put on the House floor calendar. Will she allow it?

LABOR COMMISH WALKS HALLS TO KILL UBER

Rep. Sam Kito, chair of Labor and Commerce, resisted pressure from Department of Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas and he moved the bill out his committee on Friday over her objections. Even Vince Beltrami, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, was out in force, calling legislators to tell them that he’d gotten them elected and he expected them to deliver. LeDoux is also getting pressure.

LeDoux’s poison might be to insist on local control, which would again create a patchwork of regulatory conflicts between municipalities, especially along the Railbelt. Or it might be to insist that unions could organize drivers. Such a pill would allow her and the union-dominated caucus to vote in favor of HB 132, and yet be assured that Uber and Lyft will never come to Alaska under such anti-free-market conditions.

For pro-union types like Rep. Josephson, that would be a win-win because they could state, with straight faces, that they voted in favor of Uber.

TEAMSTERS AGAINST MILLENNIALS

Teamsters’ legislative director Barbara Huff Tuckness, who hosted the LeDoux birthday bash, is on record saying her union won’t support HB 132 unless drivers are covered by workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and “other employee-employer related benefits.”

Such as collective bargaining, for example.

In other words, Uber drivers would have to be Uber employees, which is not the business model at Uber. Like taxi drivers, Uber drivers are independent contractors, which exempts them from the control of unions.

The battle over allowing technology-driven, innovative companies like Uber, where users can hail a ride by using an application on their smart phones, is also a battle for the hearts and minds of younger Alaskans.

“Transportation network companies cut down on drunk driving, increase the use of car-pooling, make it cheaper for people to get jobs because it takes down barriers for them to get to work,” said House Minority Leader Charisse Millett. “For those folks who aren’t in a position to own a car, this is an answer to being able to hold down a job. This is great for young people, and for shift workers who get off work late at night.”

As of Saturday, the Uber bill had the strangest set of sponsors: Democrat Adam Wool of Fairbanks, who owns a bar and knows the importance of sober drivers, is the main sponsor. But recently two of the most archly conservative members of the House, David Eastman and George Rauscher, have signed on as co-sponsors.

The bill clearly has significant bipartisan support. It will be worth watching to see if Rep. LeDoux bottles the bill up in her Rules Committee, providing yet another occasion for LeDoux to attend a party at Teamster headquarters in Juneau.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

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