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Alaska unions gather in support of Wis. laborers

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Solidarity was the name of the game Tuesday, as Alaska employee unions rallied across the street from the Capitol building in support of Wisconsin unions that are facing the loss of their collective bargaining power.

MICHAEL PENN / JUNEAU EMPIRE
MICHAEL PENN / JUNEAU EMPIRE

Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker is attempting to scale back union power and collective bargaining to cut spending. Such bargaining rights affect everything from wages and hours to benefits. The issue has caused unrest among not only the laborers fighting to keep those rights, but among other state legislators. Fourteen Senate Democrats have been absent from the Wisconsin statehouse, preventing that body from fielding a quorum to vote on the bill.

Support rallies have popped up across the nation’s capitals, and Alaska’s was no exception. Representatives from a broad range of unions gathered to take a stand for others’ collective bargaining rights, rights that these employees themselves value. Some of the unions present included the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Inlandboatman’s Union, Laborers International Union of North America, American Federation of Government Employees, International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, Marine Engineers Beneficial Association and the Alaska Public Employees Association.

Vince Beltrami, president of Alaska AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor, Congress of Industrial Organizations), said the legislation is an unfair attack on the middle class to support a political agenda. He and Juneau Central Labor Council President Pete Ford said the Wisconsin governor has sought tax reductions for certain businesses, which resulted in an apparent state deficit that they both said was completely fabricated. They said Walker is now trying to fill that money gap by pointing the finger at public employees’ pay and benefits.

“Like most states, Wisconsin is facing tight economic times, but the fact is, as we understand it, they had a balanced budget and had a certain amount of surplus before Walker was elected,” said Ford.

Beltrami said that election was aided by corporate donations aided by the Citizens United case in the U.S. Supreme Court. He said Walker then paid back such companies with tax breaks that caused the state to look like it had a deficit after recalculation.

Beltrami also said his research indicated there was no budget deficit in Wisconsin plus it has a $120 million surplus.

“So it went from a projected surplus to a projected deficit,” he said.

That claim, however, is hotly disputed. PolitiFact Wisconsin, a fact-checking service of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, rated a similar statement by MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow “false.”

“There is fierce debate over the approach Walker took to address the short-term ($137 million) budget deficit,” PolitiFact Wisconsin wrote. “But there should be no debate on whether or not there is a shortfall. While not historically large, the shortfall in the current budget needed to be addressed in some fashion. Walker’s tax cuts will boost the size of the projected deficit in the next budget, but they’re not part of this problem and did not create it.”

Beltrami explained Walker’s actions led to an attack on middle class workers. He said Walker’s claims union employees are overpaid is unfounded because Wisconsin had a fully funded pension plan and state employees made 5 percent less on average than their private sector counterparts.

“I think it boils down to whether you believe that unions are looking out for the middle class and workers or if you believe that corporate interests, whose major motivation is profit, is they claim to be working for employee interests. That is a notion to me that is ludicrous,” Beltrami said. “Whether you like unions or not, they are the only ones looking out for middle class workers.”

He said support for their fellows in another state is vital because such problems could, and do, arise anywhere. He said the situation compared to a recent issue in Anchorage in which Mayor Dan Sullivan had blamed public employee wages as being too high, resulting in conflict and the police and firefighter unions rolling back scheduled pay increases.

He added a Right To Work bill in Indiana has unions in an uproar and caused legislators to avoid voting on it.

The business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1547 in Anchorage said the situation embodies Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“I think we’ll see more of this unless workers in America stand up to this effort,” said Larry Bell. “We’ve been afforded the right to collectively bargain, but it could be our public employees next. History repeats itself on too many venues to show this is the effect.”

The Alaska branch of the National Education Association held another rally later Tuesday afternoon for those educators whose work prevented them from attending mid-day.

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



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