Gov. Frank Murkowski wants to eliminate union protection for several hundred state employees who work as supervisors or in personnel management.
Some of those employees say the change could subject them to political pressure and hinder their ability to make tough decisions in managing fisheries, enforcing environmental laws and protecting children from abuse and neglect.
Murkowski officials say they need the bill because there's an inherent conflict when managers who are supposed to carry out administration policies work opposite the administration when it comes to labor issues.
Assistant Administration Commissioner Kevin Jardell said there are relatively few nonunion employees available to implement policies.
There are no nonunion employees in the retirement and benefits division, besides the director, which creates a potential problem if the director leaves town, he said.
"We have labor running the retirement and benefits division for as long as the director's not there," Jardell said.
But Ron Cowan, the state's long-term care ombudsman, said losing union protection could hamper his ability to point out problems that political leaders may not want to hear about.
"I think a good employee is one who's not afraid of some retribution for reasons other than their ability to do their job," Cowan said.
Bruce Ludwig is business manager for the Alaska Public Employees Association-American Federation of Teachers, which represents supervisory employees and confidential employees, such as human resource specialists.
"We're calling this the crony bill because if you don't have a union that's looking over the state's shoulder when they hire people or when they discipline them, pretty soon they're just going to have their cronies in these positions," Ludwig said.
But Jardell said that's a misleading characterization.
Unlike commissioners and other mostly high-level appointees who can be fired without cause, the supervisory and confidential employees would remain in the "classified" employee system, Jardell said.
That means they would still be covered by personnel rules requiring that decisions be based on merit.
Jardell said the bill would affect at most 400 supervisory employees and 50-60 confidential employees.
Ludwig said he has heard other estimates that the bill would affect more than 500 employees. And he said although employees could contest hiring and firing decisions, they would not have union protection, so they'd have to hire their own lawyers to protest a decision.
"A lot of times just having the union available keeps the employer honest, makes them give you due process," Ludwig said. "Without a union there, they're on their own."
About a dozen employees testified against Senate Bill 352 at its first hearing Tuesday afternoon in the Senate State Affairs Committee. Committee Chairman Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said about 35 had signed up to speak on the bill, and the committee will continue taking testimony Tuesday.
An identical bill has been introduced in the House, but no hearings have been scheduled there.