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Union leaders say they've weathered the recession but improvement still needed

Posted: August 27, 2011 - 9:59pm

Loss of coastal program cost some union jobs, but Alaska still seen as a state friendly to unions By JONATHAN GRASS

Labor Day was designed to honor America’s workers. In Alaska, a good many of these workers are unionized. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Alaska had the second highest union concentration in the country last year with 22.9 percent of wage and salary workers statewide being in labor unions. The state peaked in 2002 with 24.4 percent.

This Labor Day, some of those unions share their thoughts on where things stand for them.

Juneau Building Trades President Tom Brice, who is also the business representative for the Alaska District Council of Laborers, said Alaska has been good to labor unions, both in support and most employment availabilities.

American Federation of Labor, Congress of Industrial Organizations President Vince Beltrami said unions here have certainly held their own, even against the recession.

“We haven’t experienced the same level of unemployment as a whole, whether in a union or not, that others have gotten,” he said.

One area he discussed was construction jobs. He said that other states have lost massive amounts of commercial and industrial jobs while building and private sector jobs have been more steady here. He said there is less construction this year but AFL-CIO has the same number of union employees working.

“When you look around union halls, they’re pretty much at full employment right now,” he said. “I’ve got a pretty positive outlook in growing our membership numbers.”

Brice also said the main area Alaska’s union employees have felt the recession is in construction jobs.

“Right now we’re just not seeing as much construction in Alaska as we had 5 or 6 years ago,” he said.

Preliminary statistics from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development show that total construction employees in the Juneau Borough in 2011’s first quarter averaged at 520 jobs per month. This is the lowest it’s been for that quarter since at least 2005. The 2006 first quarter was at a high with 713 construction employees.

The average number of construction employees per month in Juneau for all of 2010 was 729. This is the lowest since 2005. The monthly employee average peaked in 2006 with 900 average monthly construction employees for the year.

Economist Alyssa Shanks of the Department said these low numbers of late have been the trend but that gap tends to narrows in March when more construction becomes available. She said it’s hard to judge what’s going to happen the rest of the year.

Assistant Business Manager Brett Allio of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said work has been fair but could be better.

“We do have some guys out of work but most of our guys have been able to have full employment over the summers,” Allio said.

He said the union size has remained relatively constant but there hasn’t been as much work to go around this year so not everybody can stay employed.

He said a large factor to this is that there are more smaller jobs and not enough larger ones. He said the smaller jobs don’t take as many hours or the amount of manpower as projects in the past have.

“There are a few projects coming out in the future with a little bit of size to them. Some are still in planning stages,” he said.

Legislative Liaison Cindy Spanyers of the Alaska Public Employees Association said things are in a state of flux right now and she’s seen areas of improvement for some union support. APEA involves mostly public employees, several groups at the university, state supervisory units and the Confidential Employees Association.

She said school funding was flat this year with small increases that didn’t keep up with inflation and energy costs even when the price of oil was high and the revenue picture was positive. She said elected leaders can be reluctant to find public services and that Gov. Sean Parnell’s original budget had no additional funding for education. She said Sen. Joe Thomas tried to help with additional funding.

The governor’s office could not be reached for comment by press time.

“Another example of where jobs are not secure is the Alaska Coastal Zone Management Program. That’s a big example of one that was closed and there were significant job losses there,” she said. “Several of those jobs were with us while many were with the Alaska State Employees Association.”

Some unions can see government and union cooperation as being strong here.

“The state has always been a very strong place for unionism, both within the construction industry and public sector,” said Brice.

Brice said Alaskan unions haven’t seen the attacks like those in other states like Wisconsin. He said efforts to remove collective bargaining rights and other protections have been killed in legislature here.

“Our working people enjoy a broad spectrum of support in the governor’s office in terms of basic protection,” he said.

Beltrami also said that the dynamics of Alaska, being considered a conservative and oil patch state, make it interesting that it has such a large union presence.

“From my perspective, we’ve had some pretty good capital budgets the last couple of years,” he said.

Allio also said he believes the unions have good relationships with both state and local government.

Beltrami said one concern for union construction employees concerns House Bill 110, which would give oil companies a projected tax cut of $2 billion annually as the bill is currently written. He this means higher employment but the oil companies haven’t indicated they will hire Alaskan workers.

“With all the battles going on around the country on collective bargaining, I’ve seen a little resurgence in activity amongst the unions against the big entities and I’m getting a good feeling about people noticing what’s going on and what unions are doing for the middle class across the country,” Beltrami said.

“They’re really the only thing standing between big corporations and the elimination of the middle class,” he said.

“We always must be vigilant and true to make sure they have decent wages,” said Brice. “We must always know the benefits we enjoy like strong pensions or health care, those things can go away if we’re not vigilant in ensuring our elected officials make sure the table is level for working people.”

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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