Fairbanks Daily News-Miner



Are Unions Good For Alaska's Villages?




October 13, 2001



In March 2000, six tribal governments in the Yukon-Koyukuk Subregion entered into a cooperative agreement with two unions, Laborers Local 942 and Operators Local 302. The unions' intent was to take existing union agreements and make them adaptable to village life and tribes in general.


The agreement may set a precedent in the state between unions and tribes so I sought to find out how it was working. Tim Sharp, vice president of the Laborers Union believes the agreement has worked well, benefiting unions through increased membership, while providing tribal governments more control over publicly funded projects in their villages.


Before the agreement, most outside contractors went into villages and built projects but hired few locals. When locals were hired, most were paid low wages with few benefits, no training, no pension and they were often the first to be laid off, said Sharp.


In speaking with Y-K village officials, I found consensus among them that the agreement is working. Teresa Clark of Yukaana Corp. in Galena said, "I like the fact that, if necessary, a village worker can be employed as an equipment operator or laborer without being penalized."


Buddy Brown, attorney for Tanana Chiefs Conference, the Interior regional Native nonprofit, assisted Y-K tribes in negotiating and drafting the agreement with the two unions.


"We sought to incorporate unique employment factors into the agreement because villages may have a sewer system going in one year and a building construction project the next," Brown said. "Without flexibility in the agreement, village workers would likely not get in their annual 250-hour work minimum, a requirement if village workers are to ever draw a pension."


Also unique is TCC's Employment and Training Department, which assists the unions by monitoring Indian preference in employment, training and contracting on Y-K Subregion village projects. Indian preference is permitted on publicly funded projects under Tribal Employment Rights Ordinances, which is recognized under various federal labor laws.


Mickey Stickman, first chief of Nulato Tribal Council, said the agreement has helped his village be more self-sufficient.


"We are now building our own HUD homes. Many people from our village and others are better prepared to work in these jobs because of on-going training offered through the unions," Stickman said.


Per the agreement, village workers pay 2 to 3 percent of their wages to a union. After five years they are fully vested. In years past, village workers were required to work 10 years to reach that goal. Once vested, a worker is guaranteed monthly payments upon retirement. Payment amounts depend on a worker's rate of pay, years worked and the rate of return on the union's pension plan investments.


Tribal governments not involved in this agreement have other views on bringing unions into their areas. Evon Peter, chief of Arctic Village, said his village is undecided about the issue.


"The downside is that we would forfeit some control, but right now we don't have the resources or ability to provide training, benefits, or connections to jobs that unions are able to provide for our people, so going union may not be a bad idea," Peter said.


Bill Miller, president of Dot Lake Village Council, won't consider the idea for his village. "Unions are great for individual workers, but not for village administrators," Miller said, adding that he has concerns that paying village workers union wages could hinder his ability to finish a project.


Laborer's Vice President Sharp said that is not necessarily the case.


"If a village is running their own project, they would not necessarily have to pay Davis-Bacon wages under a union agreement, which may appear high when compared with wages some villages currently pay their laborers and operators," he said.


Unions and tribes working together is still in its infancy, but the Y-K agreement appears to be a good model. However, the real measure of success will be determined 20 years from now when we see how many village residents are reaping the benefits of a union pension.


Gary Moore is a political columnist who writes regularly for the News-Miner on Native and rural Alaska issues.


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