Union members angry over firing

Petition drive calls for bringing back Liston, axing O'Connell

Posted: Thursday, August 31, 2000

Some members of the state's largest public employees union are trying to oust their business manager.

Chuck O'Connell, business manager of the Alaska State Employees Association, fired Southeast business agent Donn Liston earlier this month. O'Connell, who said union rules don't allow him to discuss specifics, said today the firing was for "gross insubordination" following "frequent warnings."

But a petition being circulated within the union in Juneau asserts O'Connell has worked more closely with officials in the Knowles administration than with his own members, while Liston is described as a fighter for the union. The petition drive, which started this week, is intended to pressure the union's board to reinstate Liston and terminate O'Connell's contract.

ASEA represents more than 7,000 state employees, including about 2,000 in Juneau.

The union has a recent history of internal dissension. In 1997, O'Connell was fired and then reinstated by the board.

This year, an election for president was held twice because of ballot irregularities. Ernie Thomas of Anchorage, who won the presidency over incumbent Vincent O'Connor, said allegations of improper use of union funds during the campaign are being investigated by the union's international affiliate.

Thomas said he once supported O'Connell but will oppose the renewal of his contract next summer. He acknowledged that he is in the minority on the union board. He also said Liston's firing might expose the union to a lawsuit.

Board member James Laflame of Anchorage said today that he hadn't heard about Liston being fired. But he said: "In general, I support our business manager. If he makes a decision, over the years it has proven to be for the good of our membership."

Board member Richard Isett of Juneau said Liston has been controversial.

"He's pushed the envelope for a long time, but perhaps he exceeded the bounds of prudence a time or two. ... It's really up to Liston to pursue his rights through his own union," Isett said.

As an ASEA staffer, Liston is represented by the Alaska Laborers' Union.

Liston, who has filed a union grievance over his firing, said O'Connell terminated him "because I'm a hard-driving, people-based business agent who represents the people who pay my salary."

Meanwhile, Liston called O'Connell "too cozy" with management. Among his complaints: O'Connell offered a premature compromise on a contract provision for cashing in unused leave and hasn't stood firm against the privatization of telecommunications services. O'Connell said he has followed established union procedures in both cases.

Nancy Rongstad, a union steward and former dissident in the Department of Transportation who recently was fired by managers there, is one of the petition drive leaders. She said O'Connell has been so noncommunicative with union members in Juneau that there is talk of seceding from ASEA.

"He's pretty hands-off when it comes to Juneau," Rongstad said.

The petition says O'Connell "has consistently traveled to Juneau to meet with state management without meeting with members."

Calling the petition backers "a disgruntled minority," O'Connell, who is based in Anchorage, was unapologetic about his style.

"The only way we can resolve those (union) issues is to talk to the employer," he said. "There's a constant interface that takes place between management and the union."

Jim Duncan, the new commissioner of administration and formerly a special labor assistant to the department, said: "There's been no coziness or deals made for any union. ... I can't comment on internal union politics. What I can say is the relationship with all of the unions, including the ASEA and Mr. O'Connell, has been positive for the past two years. ... It's been done professionally."



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