Union money, lobbying, and ‘education’





Many readers saw the recent Alaska Dispatch News (aka Pravda) story on the Cathy Giessel – Vince Beltrami Senate Seat N race.

In the story, reporter Nat Herz naively gushes about the three dozen “volunteers” working at Beltrami’s campaign headquarters.

Those of us who’ve actually worked campaigns know how hard it would be to have three dozen volunteers in a campaign office even for a statewide or federal race. I’ve done it both as a Democrat and as a Republican.

Generally, a Democrat’s campaign will have more “volunteers.” Here’s how they do it:

Few of the union-connected “volunteers” are really volunteers. Some are union paid staff, and it is their job to work for union-supported candidates.

Others are union officers, union stewards, or unionized employees on some sort of paid leave from their employer for “union business.”

Most State labor agreements have a 9-hour-per-month allowance for shop stewards to conduct union activities. When I was director of labor relations, I was sometimes called a “union buster” for just trying to get these shop stewards to account for that time. Mind you, I didn’t ask them to account for what they were doing, just account for the time.

Considering who owns State government these days, it’s a surprise that my memo from 2003 (revised in 2005), which clarifies the State’s rights and duties in dealing with union representatives, is still published as State policy. While I doubt they’re following it, here is the light reading.

Most public employee unions have a similar scheme to have employees released from normal duties to conduct “union business.” That union business comes either at employer expense (which means the public’s expense) or in the State’s case by the union taking one day per year of each employee’s paid leave accrual and adding it to a union “business leave” bank.

The union can then draw on the leave bank to get employees off work with pay to do things the union wants done.

That is how Democrat candidates can get so many volunteers, and it’s done at the expense of the taxpayer.

For perspective, the general government unit of State employees represented by the Alaska State Employees Association has about 8,500 members, giving the union discretion over 8,500 days of “business leave” per year. That adds up to well over four man-years based on a standard 37.5 or 40-hour week every year.

That is a lot of “volunteer” labor if the union wants to deploy employees on business leave to work in a campaign office.

Any Republican candidate with a union-backed opponent should be very interested in the employer and time-and-attendance records of the union-backed candidate’s “volunteers.”

It is not per se illegal for unions to do this from the compelled dues of members.

However, it is illegal for them to do this from the compelled agency fees of dues objectors who choose not to be members.

No public employer in Alaska does anything to inform employees under compelled dues schemes of their right to object to the dues. And no public employer does anything to assure any semblance of honesty in the unions’ accounting of their actual legal collective bargaining expenses.

I’m not without sin, because while I did force unions to agree to facially legal contract terms, we simply didn’t have the political capital to take on an existential battle with the unions about how they collect and spend their money.


Then there is lobbying.

I like Don Etheridge; he’s a big, avuncular working-class hero kind of guy who had the distinction of once being the most expensive employee in State government.

Etheridge is the Alaska State District Council of Laborers’ lobbyist in Juneau; he is a fixture in the halls of the Capitol and can get an appointment with anybody who is anybody in State government, whether the Administration is Democrat or Republican. He also has a cool tugboat.

Tom Brice, with Juneau Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and a friend — as the term has political meaning — is as well known and has the same sort of access as Don.

Barbara Huff is the Teamster’s face in the Capitol. I’ve known her since she and my then-wife worked together first at ATU and then at the Anchorage Nordstom store in the ‘70s. Barbara has all the attributes to be very persuasive.

There are others — Jerry Reinwand, Kim Hutchison, for example. They also represent all sorts of other interests besides unions, but they all have access and influence.

It isn’t per se illegal for a union to lobby, at least to lobby on getting their contracts approved or on legislation that arguably is related to the wages, hours, and conditions of employment or their members.

The question is where do you draw the line on what lobbying is legally chargeable to dues? Do unions have record-keeping systems that allow them to track whether the dinner at the Baranof Hotel with a senator is a collective bargaining activity or just influence peddling by what has become the most powerful special interest group in Alaska?

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.