Just before state House lawmakers approved the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act on May 11, they voted on an amendment that supporters said would be the best way to ensure Alaskans went to work on the project.
The amendment requires companies applying for a license to build a gas line to commit to negotiate a project labor agreement (PLA) before construction begins that would ensure the hiring of qualified Alaskans.
Supporters argued a labor agreement would guarantee that everyone working on the project would make the same wage and have the same working conditions and benefits, whether union or not,
Opponents argued, unsuccessfully, that the amendment’s language would give too much control over hiring to unions, possibly preventing nonunion Alaskans from securing jobs on a future pipeline project.
The three House members representing districts on the Kenai Peninsula all Republicans split on the issue, with Reps. Mike Chenault, of Nikiski, and Kurt Olson, of Soldotna, opposing the measure and Paul Seaton, of Homer, voting with a bipartisan majority. The amendment passed 25-13 when nine Republicans joined minority Democrats in support.
Their reasons for voting for and against restoring language that had been eliminated in the House Finance Committee were varied and apparently influenced by their feelings about unions.
“The language was too tight,” Chenault said during floor debate. “It could eliminate some groups of people” from being hired.
He took issue with the amendment’s definition of a project labor agreement as “a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement” between the licensee and “appropriate labor representatives,” which he called “union terms.” He worried that nonunion workers would face discrimination at hiring halls.
Olson said he voted against the amendment because, “I didn’t want to lock it up union only.”
During construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, many workers from Outside found jobs denied Alaskans, he said.
“The arguments I heard during the PLA talks didn’t convince me we needed the PLA language,” he said.
Seaton disagreed, saying his research showed the amendment language would be the best way to guarantee greater local hire.
While local hire is a popular concept, efforts to ensure it often run up against laws that essentially protect a citizen’s right to work anywhere especially when federal dollars are paying part of a project’s tab.
Testimony, he said, had demonstrated the law and court precedent would allow for more local hiring under a collective bargaining agreement.
Speaking on the House floor, Chenault said the issue was ensuring every Alaskan a chance at a pipeline job, and that he never intended for the matter to become a union-nonunion issue. Chenault said he is not anti-union.
“I have disagreements with unions, but not with union people,” he said. “I just wanted to be fair to both sides.”
During an interview after the close of the session, Seaton said he thought opposition to the labor agreement language was based on whether people saw union contracts as advantageous or disadvantageous.
“I became convinced that we will be able to insist on more local hire with collective bargaining than we would be able to ensure by a party that is not a collective bargaining unit,” he said.
Reporter Hal Spence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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