Protesters: Ice cream can't buy state workers' love

Posted: Thursday, May 05, 2005

Murkowski administration officials scooped out ice cream and cake for state employees in Juneau on Wednesday, but got a helping of bile in return.

Carrying signs with slogans such as "Our benefits are melting," dozens of disgruntled employees protested sweeping revisions to the state's public pension systems at the governor's annual ice cream social.

The gathering, held on the ground floor of the State Office Building, coincided with a nationwide state employee appreciation day.

Though one administration official tried to throw the protesters outside the building, they remained, claiming their freedom of speech.

Protesters peacefully rubbed shoulders with administration officials while waiters wound through the crowd handing out dishes of ice cream and cake.

Later, the protesters moved in front of the Alaska Capitol, while inside, legislators on the House floor argued over an amendment to make the pension changes optional. That amendment failed after hours of debate.

Protesters such as Mary Lehman said the state will not be able to retain qualified employees under the new retirement programs, which means new employees would have individual retirement accounts instead of the current pension plan.

"Supervisors are afraid about how they are going to hire people," said Lehman, who works in the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

State workers also face a greater investment risk under the new plan.

"If they make a bad investment like Enron, they'll be penniless," Lehman said.

Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development Greg O'Claray said state employees face the same bitter bill throughout the country.

Due to the rising cost of health care, "every employer in the nation is having to make adjustments (to retirement plans)," O'Claray said.

But state workers say that the Alaska Legislature and the administration are ramming through changes that haven't been fully considered.

Some state workers "will run out of money before they die" thanks to the Legislature's revisions, said Bruce Ludwig, business manager for the Alaska Public Employees Association.

"They want to gut our retirement benefits and then give us ice cream and cake," Ludwig said.

Art Chance, the state's director of labor relations, tried to force the protesters to leave the building but gave up shortly after Ludwig claimed it was their First Amendment right.

"We don't let anybody solicit in here, and they know it," Chance said.

"It's one more example of state employees thinking they are special and the rules don't apply to them," Chance said.

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