Alaska Voices: Dichotomies of a false narrative

Alaskans are at risk of becoming underpaid workforce slaves.

I’ve gleaned much from working in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in Alaska. The narrative being grassed by the current administration is a false one reliant on pitting the private and public sectors against one another.

During the global housing market crash in 2008, I was positioned to make difficult decisions at a private corporation. Our management team started with cutting private business contracts, such as landscaping and janitorial services. While such calls were painful to make, the ensuing layoffs were excruciating. I received requests from former employees needing proof of termination for various assistance applications. They were Alaskans … and they were suffering.

We were a small branch located in the Big Lake area — a community driven by recreational commerce. Folks simply were not fixing up weekend cabins and purchasing groceries with gas prices surpassing $4 per gallon. I resigned just two months before the doors closed to pursue nonprofit work.

Herein lies the biggest false narrative of all. I’ve read many comments suggesting that the public sector has grown at the demise of the private sector. Government does not participate in the type of competition underlying this argument. In fact, when the private sector experiences downturns, the demand for government services (not goods and manufacturing) increases to provide critical safety nets. Families turn to temporary assistance like unemployment insurance benefits, supplemental nutrition, housing, health care, vocational and technical training, childcare, and many other supports that prepare Alaskans to re-enter the workforce. Essentially, the public sector serves the private sector.

Inefficiency is often regarded as sound reasoning for cutting vital services. Government and nonprofit entities operate under a level of accountability that is unfelt in much of the private sector. Service outcomes are but one of many checks and balances that are labor intensive to demonstrate. We must consider the time and research that goes into accomplishing this task — as well as the education required to carry it out.

There are so many intervening variables on the topic of university administration costs. Our institutions of higher education do not simply provide for the traditional classroom experience. They encompass libraries, bookstores, online learning environments, cafeterias, athletic departments, housing, and research labs. They must comply with regulations pertaining to accreditation, state and federal financial aid, Internal Review Boards, employment laws for vast departments, campus security, and many more. Universities also generate something we can all appreciate — employment opportunities at every rung of the ladder. College communities consume local goods and services and are significant contributors to our economy.

I was on campus when UA President Jim Johnsen introduced Strategic Pathways (SP), a budget reducing plan to cut and consolidate education programs. You may be unaware of the protests held in classrooms. Johnsen was not popular among faculty, staff and the student body. We were faced with tuition increases overnight. My graduate acceptance letter was received shortly before notification that the program was being terminated. My seat was safe, as SP sought to complete admitted students over a five-year period. These savings haven’t yet been realized. Faculty continue to teach out these degree programs with dwindling enrollment rates. When Jim Johnsen sat before the Senate Finance Committee and stated that he was in advocacy mode without a contingency plan, our legislators looked annoyed. But I got it. There was a backstory in which he had been cast as the enemy. Truthfully, his support was a bit relieving.

Education is essential to every state economy. Not only because it generates business activity, but because it develops human capital. This applies to all forms of “education” — imagine a bookkeeper running a backhoe. Specialized industry knowledge provides for the very efficiencies that counter the anti-government/anti-education position. Those who toil in so-called “unskilled” jobs are cheaper to hire but rely more heavily on government assistance to make ends meet. There is a script for getting around the cost of education and providing for living wages. It’s not appealing to 99 percent of the population.

One way to accomplish this is through privatization of government services — not to be confused with the private sector as we typically regard it. This model is tantamount to unregulated government with centralized power. It is exclusive from local corporations and small businesses. By dismantling the system of public education, consolidating buying power, cutting off media, drawing down savings, and buying legislative power, Alaskans are at risk of becoming underpaid workforce slaves.

Doctor Mouhcine Guettabi, Associate Professor of Economics at the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research, reported that Alaska did not feel the depth of the recession we’re currently climbing out of. This is attributed to 30 percent of laid off workers living out of state while collecting off Alaska’s natural resources. In the government privatization model, it is merely financially prudent to hire skilled employees for which other states bear the burden of training.

I think one glaring sign of a fouled plan is the label “special interest” used to discredit even ordinary citizens. If you are a teacher, government or nonprofit employee, parent of a child enrolled in the public school system, college student, construction worker, senior, harvester, private business owner hoping for a PFD stimulus, or even someone who wants a PFD — you are now a special interest. All are Alaskans participating in commerce … keeping the business of Alaska flowing.

These are few examples of the many false dichotomies dividing Alaskans. We have been fed the poison of fallacies: public sector v. private sector, PFD v. government services, UAA v. UAF, Republican v. Democrat, caucus minority v. caucus majority.

To the public employees immediately impacted, who are so discouraged from using their voices — I’m very sorry. Thanks for your service to the great state of Alaska.

– Rus’sel Sampson, Wasilla

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