TODAY’S TOPIC: Hard-Pressed State Seeks to Protect its Jobs
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ The wait in an unemployment line in the dead of winter is bad enough, but for Bruce Smeltzer it’s aggravated by the thought of outsiders snatching jobs away from him and other Alaskans.
″Local hire″ has become a hot political issue during lean times in Alaska’s economy, and lawmakers are scrambling to craft a constitutional law giving the state’s 500,000 residents an edge on government-funded jobs.
″We get to sit up here in 20-degree weather. We ought to get the jobs,″ said Smeltzer, an out-of-work electrician. ″If you live here, you have a right to work. We’re supporting the growth of the state, making the mortgage payments, making the tax payments for schools.″
Smeltzer is among thousands of Alaskans battered by an economy wedded to plummeting oil prices.
Many Alaskans are angrily eyeing planeloads of out-of-state workers willing to work for less, workers who take their paychecks back to Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana or Washington.
″They come up here and they brag about sending all their money home,″ Smeltzer said. ″They work up here for $12 an hour and go down there and live like a fat king.″
In letters to newspapers and on bumper stickers declaring ″Happiness is a Texan Headed South with an Okie Under Each Arm,″ Alaskans vent their anger. To Gov. Bill Sheffield, the outsiders are ″economic vampires.″
″With them up here, I can’t even get a chance at a job,″ said Clifton Rudd, an unemployed operating engineer who has looked for work since August. ″I’d take less in wages to work. It beats unemployment.″
Unemployment in the state, 11.5 percent in January, tops 17 percent in some areas. The national unemployment rate in January was 6.7 percent. The state’s largest union, the Teamsters, says 30 percent of its members, who work in trucking, construction, electronics and other industries, are jobless.
In 1984, Alaska’s 71,000 non-resident workers made up 22 percent of the work force and earned $677 million, a state Department of Labor study shows.
The seafood-processing industry paid the highest percentage of its wages to non-residents. At the end of 1984, more than 2,000 of Alaska’s 12,531 permits for limited entry fisheries were owned by outsiders.
In the construction industry, more than 30 percent of all wages went to non-residents.
Many non-residents work for the state itself. The Alaska Marine Highway System has 766 employees, 150 of whom live outside Alaska. State officials say some of those 150 were paid a 22 1/2 percent cost-of-living allowance intended for workers living in Alaska.
″We’ve embarked on a program to ensure that only Alaskans get the allowance in the future,″ said Ginger Johnson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. New regulations require employees living outside the state to notify the department, and officials are trying to find the ″post office box Alaskans.″
Outsiders have met with suspicion since Russian fur traders helped themselves to Alaska’s bounty.
An earlier attempt to save jobs for Alaskans, a 3-year-old local hire law, was recently declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. The statute mandated that at least 95 percent of workers on public projects be Alaskans.
The court sided with a Montana steelworker sacked in 1983 from a school construction job after inspectors found that more than 5 percent of the project’s workers were from outside Alaska.
Legislation to replace the stricken law has been introduced by state Rep. H.A. ″Red″ Boucher, who said his bill skirts the court’s criticism that high unemployment is not a serious enough factor to allow discrimination against non-residents.
″We have shaped this bill so that it deals with the social causes that unemployment brings about in Alaska,″ he said, explaining he hoped the courts would consider that alcoholism, child abuse and state costs for dealing with such problems grow when joblessness rises.
Meanwhile, Congress has issued a directive that defense contractors in Alaska give preference to Alaskans. The directive, attached to the Pentagon’s 1986 appropriations bill, was sponsored by Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski.
The oil and gas industry, ranking low in numbers of non-residents hired but the highest in wages paid to outsiders, has taken much of the heat in the Alaska-hire debate.
The 33-member Alaska Oil and Gas Association, including the state’s largest oil and gas companies, said it generally supports the idea of Alaska hire.
ARCO Alaska Inc. and Sohio Alaska Petroleum Co. have said they require subcontractors to detail their commitment to Alaska hire, and the responses carry substantial weight in the bidding process.
″We’ve been dealing with Alaska hire for a number of years,″ said ARCO Alaska President Harold Heinze. ″Certainly before it became fashionable.″
Preliminary results from an association survey show that more than 90 percent of its member companies’ 6,000 employees are residents, said AOGA spokeswoman Ardie Merbs.
Union officials scoff at such claims. ″It has been our contention that a great majority of them have children in school in the Lower 48 and mortgages in the Lower 48,″ said Steve Seplocha, a Teamsters spokesman.
″They come here for wages considerably better than wages in their home states,″ he said.
Seplocha said many would be willing to work for $8 to $10 an hour, while Teamsters could make as much as $20 an hour, or $25 an hour with fringe benefits included.
As oil companies plan hiring, he said, ″Our beef is not that it will be all non-union, our beef is that it will not be all-Alaskan.″