Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Courage of Ethan Berkowitz - Part One

Anchorage commentator and insistent union basher Dan Fagan is producing a forum this Thursday called The Alaska Economy - Closed for Business? Among its sponsors is The Pebble Partnership. It will be held from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Anchorage Sheraton hotel. Among the scheduled speakers at this "town hall" was former Alaska House minority leader and current Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate, Ethan Berkowitz.

Organized labor at the Sheraton have asked the public to not do business at the Anchorage Sheraton or Anchorage Hilton until a dispute between the union - Unite Here Local 878 - and the hotels has been settled. Ethan decided to honor that, after meeting with union members and leadership earlier in the week. He had hoped to persuade them that his appearance at Fagan's forum might do their cause more good than would his honoring their boycott. They felt otherwise, so Ethan has backed out of the forum.

Yesterday, I was doing errands during a break at work, and heard Fagan lambast Ethan on Dan's KFQD talk show. Some of the callers were pretty silly. One said something like - I'm paraphrasing - "70% of Alaskans aren't union workers. If Berkowitz wants to be our governor, unless he disowns the unions, he's spitting in the faces of 70% of Alaskans."

Ethan called in, wanting to discuss the issues facing the workers at the Sheraton. Fagan refused, choosing instead to whine about project labor agreements. That's not the issue motivating the workers represented by Unite Here Local 878. This is:

Sheraton workers have overwhelmingly voted to place their hotel under boycott – 80% and counting. They made this difficult decision after Remington, Sheraton’s management company, imposed new working conditions that have made things more difficult for workers. After months of slow negotiations and hollow speeches from management, this out of state corporation has stripped workers of many of their rights, including but not limited to increasing housekeeper workload; ceasing to pay workers during their half-hour, meal breaks; and have stated that they will no longer provide the current, affordable, union healthcare plan. The hotel is “offering” a plan that will cost workers' families about $800/month with a higher deductible. No service sector worker can afford that! So, Sheraton workers are asking potential guests not to eat, sleep, or meet at the Sheraton until the boycott is over. The boycott will end only when these workers’ rights have been restored and they can once again provide for themselves and their families.

These newly implemented changes were done so without the agreement of the workers. The union representing the Sheraton workers, Unite Here Local 878, believes this implementation to be an illegal tactic the employer is using to try and break the will of the employees in hopes that the workers will buckle and accept a substandard contract. The workers are not buckling. In fact, they are more resolute than ever in their fight for good Alaskan jobs. While the workers continue to unite and fight back, Local 878 has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the federal government (the National Labor Relations Board).

The fight at the Sheraton Anchorage is the same campaign being waged by another group of Local 878 members at the Hilton Anchorage. Together, these two hotels may well decide the fate of the entire Alaskan hotel industry. That is why the Sheraton and Hilton workers are joining together and are not leaving industry standards to chance. They have and will continue to make it clear to management that they will not sign contracts that lower industry standards. These workers are simply asking to maintain their current working conditions and benefits.

At the Sheraton, the 145 some workers have been bargaining since June. At the Hilton hotel, the 160 some workers have been bargaining for more than one year. In May of this year, the Hilton workers also overwhelmingly voted to put their hotel under boycott. Since then, several groups have pulled business from the hotel, and workers continue to reach out to groups and ask them to move their events and room blocks. Hilton Anchorage is owned and operated by Columbia Sussex, while Sheraton Anchorage is owned by Ashford and operated by Remington.

Fagan's refusal to discuss the labor issue that concerns Ethan Berkowitz was typical of the way the former operates. It is too bad that GOP gubernatorial candidate Ralph Samuels, Carol Comeau, John Tracy, Becky Hultberg, Paul Laird, Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell and Mike Porcaro all are choosing to dishonor a union boycott request.

Unions were the keystone to the building of America's middle class. That, our fine college system built up early in the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt's progressive agenda, and American ingenuity, all contributed. But the ability of unionized blue collar workers in American industry to bring home their fair share of the wealth they helped create, built the strong, vibrant, post-Wold War II American society. The decline of union power in our work force has coincided with the decline in worker-friendly aspects of the American economy, such as described in local 878's current battle.

Ethan's presence on the panel undoubtedly would have helped get this kind of viewpoint across. Ethan speaks convincingly of how union membership helped members of his family, particularly in the education profession, contribute to the building of a strong America.

The central pillar of Fagan's vision of Alaska's economic future seems to be based around blind support for the largely foreign-owned mineral extraction industry and the largely foreign-owned mega facility tourist industry. Nowhere in that scenario is there any room whatsoever for the enabling power of organized labor. Nowhere.

Or, it seems from the panel's present makeup, for a vision of intense value-added industry here. Three months ago, I wrote an essay comparing Turku Finland to Anchorage Alaska. A town slightly smaller than Anchorage, at almost the same degree of northern latitude, has created an economy we should model. But if we accept every one of the talking points Fagan spews on a daily basis, the enviable economy the people of Torku have created would be unacceptable.

The shortsightedness of many economic forums I've attended in Alaska has been vexing. The Bioneers conference offers more hope for our future than do many of these neo-colonial-economy-worshipping farces.

Good for Ethan.

More on this later.

Update: This is the featured subject on today's Shannyn Moore Show on KUDO-AM radio. Right now - the 12:00 hour - Ethan Berkowitz is Shannyn's guest.


Wolfe Tone said...

I'm getting really, really sick of the anti-union attitude that permeates Alaska.

The intellectual disconnect of "non-union" workers is amazing.

The either ignore, forgot, or don't even understand that the reason their wages are as good as they are is because of unions.

If it weren't for unions representing the working-class, here would be no such thing as:

1.) A 40-hr. work week,

2.) Overtime

3.)"Davis-Bacon" (prevailing scale) wages for publicly funded projects.

4.) A minimum wage (as poor as it still is).

When I was a kid, my dad (who was an FDR Democrat, and believe it or not, NOT a union hand) once said:

"Anyone who carries a lunch bucket to work and votes Republican has rocks in their head."

It still holds true today.

Anonymous said...

What the heck happened to Becky Hultberg? I guess after getting magically appointed to be Murkowski's spokesperson from young housewife status and virtually no professional experience, she must owe the Repugs big time. I hope she'll find her conscience and do the right thing.

Mel said...

I think you mean Turku, Finland. (I'm Finnish-American, I notice these things!)

I'm not a union worker only because we've had no success in getting a classified staff union at the university. Ethan Berkowitz is certainly not spitting in my face -- I'm very glad he won't cross picket lines during this labor dispute. Those workers deserve better from Sheraton management.

Philip Munger said...


thanks. I did. fixing it.

Aussie Blue Sky said...

There was an Australia-wide postal strike prior to Christmas, deliberately provoked (and carefully timed) by management - the culmination of two years management maneuvering against the union. "Scab" labor was quickly hired (?already lined up) so I refused to send any Christmas cards (you can stop waiting by the mailbox, Phil). :)

Thousands of people have given their lives to protect workers from exploitation. Perhaps unions need to make their histories and heroes known (being careful not to use the dreaded word "education", of course).

HarpboyAK said...

Good for Ethan! Alaskan unions have done a lot of good for Alaskans, including making sure that we had local hiring for the pipeline and other major projects.

I'm always amazed that the scab wingnuts are able to convince working people to work against their best interests by fighting unions.

AKjah said...

Right on Ethan!! As a working class person who is not union (though i was at one time) protections for the working class is much needed. I will spare all my expletives for mr Fagan.

Anonymous said...

Remember the whole "Alyeska can't afford Union hires anymore..." thing a few weeks ago?

Well, no one seemed to notice that the Unions had no comment - none whatsoever.

ASRC Energy worked out a deal where there would still be union workers on the pipeline but they would only be paid 75% of prevailing wages. So workers have to take a pay cut while various mid-level managers and dubiously qualified executives get pay hikes, perks and bonuses?

Nice, eh?

It seems to me that the Unions aren't representing the brotherhood - but the moneyed interests located on C Street.

At least the hotel union has a voice.

Anonymous said...

I actually DID work at Sheraton during the height of the labor disputes. And the melodramatics put on by the union are just that. Im pro-unionization, so I guess I fall under Fagan's 30% minority. Im also an independent, but happen to be a fan of Berkowitz, I just wish people would do their research instead of just going, well, Im a democrat, so I should support ALL unions and just believe whatever they tell me. Like the $800 for family line. That was never true and just made up by the Union. Its the same price. They would do that all the time and the harassment was incredible, everyday theyd make things up or try to make any non-housekeepers look like they wanted to "legally murder their coworkers." Many of us stopped taking lunch breaks because we didnt want to get harassed and degraded by union reps, we even wrote letters to the company saying please remove them from property- I wouldnt let a guest harass me over lunch, why were these people who didnt work here telling me how horrible my job treatment is? It was a normal job with typical benefits, etc. It still is. They just make things up and the way they come across like nutty extreamists, Im amazed they still get support. They dont even pay for our healthcare- the company does. Always has, and its always been free. The new plan wasnt less affordable, it was more affordable, and more comprehensive. The new union plan called for a 48% increase (plus rehab surcharges to bail out the pension fund THEY mismanaged)and less benefits. The union would rather stick with their failing plan then switch the workers to a better one! Because it makes Unite Here money. You can check it out for yourself.

Yes, unions of the past have done great things for us, but that doesnt mean every union is good. Plenty of past unions were dirty, corrupt and dangerous. Im a huge supporter of unionization and I wish a different union would step in. Until then, keep 878 out. When people voted for a boycott a year ago, they also thought it was to raise awareness, not reps calling potential business and harassing and threatening till they back out. Because of it, people have lost jobs and wages. By May, almost everyone wanted them gone. I was among those who signed the petition.

Mr Berkowitz, do your research. Youve been hoodwinked.