State IT workers: Get off 'Tobacco Road'

My turn

Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Computer and information technologies are today what automotive technologies were 80-100 years ago, and Alaska employees who operate and maintain computerized state services are being short-changed.

We all know the result of what they do; the recent Alaska Permanent Fund checks again went out without a hitch, welfare payments are made, and legislators get paid not only their salary but also per diem far in excess of what other state workers make. That's because the state IT network is run by some 200 professionals.

And if you don't believe these professionals are unique in their job duties, then you only need to hear one pandering speech from a politician to know how they are regarded by management. In a Dec. 4 presentation to the state's "IT Workforce Symposium" in Anchorage, Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer revealed the real value of such employee and state efforts to infuse those job classes with many new trainees.

"State agencies do not have the incentive programs like private companies to keep IT workers," declared Ms. Ulmer in her prepared remarks. "I think IT workers stay for a couple of reasons... We know that some employees have a public service commitment. They know they can make a lot more money other places but they are trying to make things a little bit better in state government."

Such a maternalistic approach to Alaska's IT workforce might be compared to the manner in which Bessie, the backwoods evangelist in Erskine Caldwell's classic American novel "Tobacco Road," dealt with her own new 1920's vintage automobile. Bessie was a self-declared minister of God who traveled around the countryside saving lost souls.

Published in 1932, "Tobacco Road" is the story of a destitute family of Georgia sharecroppers who are slowly starving to death on exhausted land that had once been prosperous. Bessie appears at the family's shack and announces that God had given her permission to marry the eldest son of Jeeter and Ada Lester, named Dude. He will have nothing of it until Bessie tells Dude she is about to buy a new automobile which he will get to drive!

Through a series of pathetic events, beginning with wrecking a fender and killing a man on the first outing and continuing until the automobile is totally worthless, the author provides a premonition of what today's state IT workers can expect if they remain as employees in Alaska's General Government Unit (GGU) represented by the Alaska State Employees Association (ASEA).

Only a few years ago Alaska Correctional Officers realized they didn't need the kind of "servicing" they were getting by ASEA and disaffiliated to a more representative organization.

For IT workers today, instead of strong representation to maximize return on valuable skills in public service for the richest state in the U.S., they receive grand-standing platitudes by public officials and inside deals at their expense with a union now closer to management than to dues-paying members. This, added to the well documented problems of bully supervisors, and rigid, sometimes unreasonable expectations of personal workplace sacrifice, makes IT workers in the GGU the modern economic equivalent of poor southern state sharecroppers of the great depression.

The fact former state IT managers, including a former commissioner of administration and a director of IT, work in lucrative jobs for a major state vendor of computer software in California, should tell any who work on Alaska's computer network something more about their true value as employees. Some have asked me what they can do about this situation. To get off "Tobacco Road," IT workers represented by ASEA need only contact the Alaska Labor Relations Agency, within the Department of Labor, for a form entitled "Labor Organization Representation Petition." It is available online and is the vehicle for union decertification in accordance with the Public Employee Relations Act of Alaska. It will require a petition signed by a substantial number of employees in the group who want to decertify. In Caldwell's book, the Jeeters never made it off Tobacco Road. In the end a fire caught the dry brush and burned down their home while they were sleeping. Take note state IT workers: ASEA is burning.

Donn Liston has worked in labor relations since 1984, most recently 4 1/2 years with ASEA.

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