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My turn: Constitution, law behind Sealaska's hiring policies

Posted: Thursday, October 06, 2005

I want to respond to a recent letter to the editor challenging Sealaska Corporation's shareholder employment policy.

The policy is based on the U.S. Constitution and federal law which recognizes a special political relationship between the United States and Native Americans. Further, the United States Supreme Court has concluded that this federal law is permitted by the Commerce Clause of our U.S. Constitution.

Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act of 1971 to resolve the aboriginal land claims of Alaska Natives. It created Native corporations to implement the law, and Congress further authorized a shareholder preference policy recognizing the dire Alaska Native shareholder employment needs. The United States Supreme Court has concluded that this federal law is permitted by the Commerce Clause of our U.S. Constitution.

Sealaska is a unique corporation. Owned by our Native shareholders, our corporate philosophy is to protect and grow our assets to provide economic, cultural and social benefits to current and future generations of Sealaska shareholders and their descendants. We believe the people who have the biggest stake in our company should have the best opportunity to succeed.

Sealaska hires the most qualified candidate for any job. Native and non-Native people work side-by-side at Sealaska. Our current workforce consists of 52 percent shareholders and descendants and 48 percent non-shareholders.

Sealaska does have an employment policy, but it gives preference to a shareholder over a non-shareholder candidate only in that instance where there are two equally qualified candidates. After initial hire, all Sealaska employees are on the same footing for all other employee standards and benefits. Though rare that the policy is necessary to determine a final hire decision, it is critical that we remain committed to increasing employment percentages of shareholders, the owners of the corporation.

But we still have much work to do. Alaska Native communities face economic crises. In rural areas of Southeast Alaska, there is uniformly high unemployment. By recruiting shareholder candidates, we have made a positive impact on some of the most disadvantaged rural communities. Our efforts have provided up to 50 percent of the Native village's annual disposable income.

Ignoring this economic imbalance would not serve Alaska Natives, non-natives or taxpayers. Each of us has a responsibility to create our own opportunities to succeed. Rather than rely on endless social service programs to meet the demands of impoverished Natives, Sealaska Corporation creates self-sustaining economic opportunities for Alaska Native communities and our people.

And we believe our efforts are paying off. Sealaska is the largest private, for-profit employer in Southeast Alaska, employing more than 700 Alaskans. Our employees are talented, hard-working and diverse individuals committed to Sealaska's success.

The health of our village economies is a vital contributor to the region's overall economic strength and our board of directors are committed to finding solutions that will lead to recovery. To continue this effort, Sealaska is inviting both Native and non-Native community leaders to a summit, co-hosted by the Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska. Together, we can create solutions and possibilities for all Alaskans.

• Seattle and Juneau resident Chris E. McNeil Jr. is the president and CEO of Sealaska Corp.



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