Alaska’s Largest Union Learning to Communicate Effectively with Legislators

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

While state workers in Wisconsin were protesting anti-union legislation proposed by that state’s Republican governor and lawmakers last week, members of Alaska’s largest public employee union were in Juneau, learning how to more effectively communicate with elected officials.

The two-day Political Education Leadership Conference sponsored by the Alaska State Employees Association allowed members to meet with lawmakers individually and in groups, and discuss issues important to union members.

The law prevents state employees from serving in the legislature, but ASEA Business Manager Jim Duncan says there’s nothing wrong with them being part of the process.

“Many of our folks are involved to some extent, but they’re not really involved to the extent of knowing how all this works,” Duncan said.”So, we bring them down, they get familiarized with the issues, get a chance to be involved with their legislators, it’s a very positive experience.”

Duncan has a unique perspective. He was a legislator for almost 25 years, and served two years as Administration Commissioner under former Governor Tony Knowles before going to work for the union. He says the battles in Wisconsin and other states aren’t happening in Alaska, which is flush with oil tax revenue at the moment. But state employees recognize they’re easy targets for lawmakers looking to trim spending.

“We need to be vigilant, and I think by having our members involved early on, letting the legislators know that we are actively involved and very concerned, and that we really are just their neighbors,” Duncan said. “We’re working people of this state.”

Val Kenny is ASEA’s Executive Committee President. She works for the State Department of Health and Social Services in Anchorage, and says a big priority for the union is returning the state to a defined benefit retirement system with a guaranteed pension. All state employees hired since 2006 have been set up with a retirement account similar to a 401(k) plan. Proponents say it gives workers more flexibility, because they can manage their own investments and the plans are portable. But Kenny says it may be costing the state money.

“Because we invest in the training of these people and then they take what they have and they leave and we invest in training more people,” Kenny said.

There’s currently no momentum in the legislature to return to the old system, but Kenny says the union hopes its members can convince state lawmakers it’s worth considering.

“We need them to vote and we need them to support labor friendly candidates,” Kenny said.

Another focus of the conference was identifying the next generation of union leaders. 33-year-old Daniel Bussard from Juneau chairs ASEA’s Next Wave Committee. The state Department of Natural Resources employee says more than a third of the membership is under the age of 35.

“And then we also have a large percentage of people who are within, say, five years of retirement, and there’s a pretty big gap in between there,” Bussard said. “So, we’re trying to get people familiar with the ASEA and how things work and the issues.”

31-year old Jeremy Stephens of Juneau joined the Next Wave Committee because he wanted to learn more about how the union works.

“I will be absolutely honest with you, is I was very upset at seeing how much I had to donate to the union when I first got hired on, and I needed to know more,” Stephens said.

Stephens has been with the state Department of Transportation for six months. He says he’s glad he got involved, and the Political Education Leadership Conference was a good opportunity to discuss union issues with the state’s elected officials.

“We get to see their points of views, and they get to show us what’s going on inside their offices, and we get a better understanding,” Stephens said. “It might not be all the understanding we need, but we definitely get to open our eyes and get our brains wrapped around some of their ideas.”

The conference attendees came from all over the state and all ranks of union membership. Several state lawmakers addressed the union members. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski met with them in-person, and Senator Mark Begich by video conference.

ASEA represents about 8,500 State of Alaska employees. Members agreed to a new three year contract with the state last year.

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