By Vince Beltrami
What would you say if your daughter, sister or best friend confided she had received inappropriate text messages from a supervisor — comments on her appearance, invitations for late night drinks at his home, questions about whether her children slept in her bed? What if she received 558 such messages and they were accompanied by not just heart emojis but unwanted physical touch? What if she said she had repeatedly tried to brush off these advances (tactfully, because she couldn’t afford to lose her job) but the harassment continued? For months.
Your first reaction would likely be anger and very possibly fear for her safety. Then you would immediately urge her to notify her supervisor’s boss. This is exactly what an unnamed state worker did this spring when Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s former attorney general, Kevin Clarkson, launched a barrage of texts, hair-stroking, hugs and kisses. First, she approached the governor’s chief of staff, Ben Stevens, who told her to keep quiet. She had a meeting with Gov. Dunleavy himself, too, after which he took no action. (Only after the story was reported this fall by local media did Clarkson resign.)
Unions have a name for the kind of willful neglect demonstrated by Gov. Dunleavy and his top advisors: contributing to a hostile work environment. It didn’t surprise me that the governor was unmoved by his employee’s personal and professional suffering and the gross imbalances of power that eventually made her leave a job she needed and loved. After all, his tenure had been marked by a hostility so extreme that Alaskans are in the midst of an effort to recall him.
From the moment Dunleavy took office the disdain for his own employees was on full display. Demanding fealty pledges from exempt longtime dedicated state employees, firing of those whose political ideology he disagreed with, or simply firing employees for activities they engaged in outside of work foretold how callous the incoming administration was determined to act when it came to dealing with state employees.
Gov. Dunleavy’s first budget in February of 2019 was designed to intimidate the very people he was elected to serve, with a proposed 25% cut to education, a 40% cut to the UA system, $714 million in Medicaid cuts, and an end to ferry service, among many others. It was a program of shock and awe, to use a military term. Alaskans were frightened at what these cuts would mean for their jobs, their children, elderly relatives and the future of their state. The governor ignored their letters and phone calls, their emails and legislative testimony. These Alaskans weren’t his constituents, they were the enemy.
The governor went on to create a hostile environment in the Legislature, too. Do you remember the red veto pen he kept in his breast pocket, a threat to lawmakers who might dare stand up for average Alaskans relying on schools, health care and transportation? Eventually, he even sued the Legislature over the school funding cuts it denied him, so badly did he want to bring public education to its knees. The ways in which Gov. Dunleavy has tried to make Alaskans suffer are too many to list here, but if you look around your community you’ll see the scars.
Had Alaska been under the protection of a union like mine, we could have helped it make a good case in court for pain and suffering. It turns out Alaskans found the power and protection they needed elsewhere — in our laws and constitution. When the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed that Gov. Dunleavy broke the law and violated the constitution (on multiple occasions) during his campaign of intimidation, the way was paved for a recall effort that is now approaching a special election.
As a union leader, I regret I’m unable to directly help Gov. Dunleavy’s staffer fight for her workplace rights (she isn’t a union member). What I can do is help my fellow Alaskans fight for the foundations of our state — our people, our laws, and our constitution — which remain in the Dunleavy administration’s line of fire. Visit the Recall Dunleavy website to request a mail-in petition. This effort needs just over 22,000 more signatures to reach an election, and yours can be the one that gets us there so we can finally put an end to this reign of error.
Vince Beltrami is the executive president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, Alaska’s largest and oldest federation of labor unions.