Leaders focus on workers' issues at Labor Day picnic

Posted: Tuesday, September 07, 2010

For more than 100 years, Labor Day has been a benchmark of observation for the achievements and contributions of American workers. On Monday, members of Juneau's labor force enjoyed holiday festivities at the Juneau Central Labor Council's annual picnic, and they also shared their thoughts on the very subject of the holiday's foundations.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

More than 100 people turned out for the event. Among them were union leaders and government candidates, many of whom had something to say about how the economy has been treating Juneau.

JCLC president Pete Ford said the point of Labor Day was to have a day especially for the workers, speaking especially for those of organized labor.

"Organized labor puts an end to unlivable wages, 16-hour days. This is what created a working class," he said.

Ford said that as far as Juneau's economic conditions are concerned, there are both pros and cons.

He said Juneau is fortunate in that work opportunities here seem to be higher than the rest of the country. Because of this higher employment average, he's noticed a lot of out-of-state job applicants.

Ford said even though employment seems to be higher here than other places, the work for organized labor is still not growing as fast as it should be.

"Until big businesses decide that's where they want to go and hire, I guess we're going to be stagnant," he said.

Tom Brice with the Alaska District Council of Laborers said he agreed with many of these sentiments. He said, "Right now there's no reason to be back in the union halls. We should be awash with projects, but unfortunately we're not."

Like Ford, he also noted that Monday's holiday was important to the workers in such unions and others, and people should be aware of their contributions to the work force as a whole.

"This is a good day to reflect on what working people have done in ensuring better, training, access to health care, a safe workplace, better living wages. Good opportunities aren't enough if you can't take care of your family," he said.

Another representative, Cindy Spanyers of Alaska Public Employees Association/American Federation of Teachers, spoke about workers' later years.

"I think a growing concern for wage earners is uncertainty of their benefits after retirement," she said, referring to the state's abolishment of certain defined benefits several years ago. She said many public employees don't have Social Security and their retirement plans are now in jeopardy.

"It's having devastating effects on new workers. They have pitiful amounts in their defined contribution accounts," she said.

The legislative hopefuls that were at the event spoke about their concerns for Alaska's workers, agreeing that there are improvements to be found.

For example, Alaska lieutenant governor candidate Diane Benson said, "The economy in Alaska is more stable than the rest of the nation. We need to keep it that way."

She said keeping local economies stable is the most important thing. She went on to explain how a hazard to this is the state is too reliant on the oil and gas industries and that diversification of industries is needed.

She also said small businesses are important for the local economies, especially in places like Juneau.

"There are so many things small businesses can provide for us. We just need to get them financing," she said.

Paul Grossi, legislative aide to state Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, said the representative's U.S. Congressional campaign places a strong emphasis on issues for workers' unions.

"Even on his other issues, we're talking about working issues," he said.

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

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