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Community Perspective

A new threat to Alaska’s tourism industry

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As Alaska entices Covid-cautious travelers to again visit the Last Frontier, a bill being considered by our U.S. Congress called the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021 would put our tourism industry’s — and state’s — economic recovery at risk.

The PRO Act is a sweeping rewrite of American labor law, designed to disadvantage Alaska workers to the benefit of union leaders in desperate search of new members. Union membership has suffered a steep decline in recent years, in Alaska as well as nationally. Unlike when unions began, worker protections are now enshrined in federal, state and local law, which means unions are not as relevant as they were a century ago — or even two decades ago.

This proposed law would not fill any gap in existing law needed to protect workers — including those wanting to unionize. Instead, the bill contains a series of harmful provisions, including the effective elimination of the secret ballot vote for union organizing, and a dramatic weakening of employee privacy protections. It would effectively reclassify numerous independent contractors as employees, putting at risk the incomes of the 1 in 6 Alaskans who are self-employed.

Most concerning for Alaska’s economic recovery: The PRO Act would lift the 74-year-old ban on secondary boycotts, which would legalize unions’ ability to effectively shut down commerce when and where they desire.

Consider a hypothetical example of how the act could impact the tourism and hospitality industry. In order to gain leverage in a labor dispute with a restaurant, a union representing a restaurant’s employees could send unlimited emails and make unlimited calls to and otherwise harass and disrupt activities of neutral third-parties to pressure them to stop doing business with a food supplier until the supplier stops delivering groceries to the restaurant. The union could also picket and hand out flyers in front of the food supplier and other neutral third-party businesses in Alaska that have a working relationship with the restaurant to get customers to turn away from those businesses. It could do the same to businesses outside the state scheduled to hold events at the restaurant — and not let up until these businesses cancel their scheduled events and agree not to do business with the restaurant.

In this example, not only does the restaurant lose needed business and its employees lose wages/tips, the local food supplier is left with undelivered goods and its employees may also lose work. Guests of the canceled events do not visit Alaska, nor do they spend their money in local stores or attractions. The negative effect of boycott activity like this will ripple through the local economy not only for this industry but for other Alaskan businesses as well.

Such union actions are usually considered unlawful secondary boycotts under current law, and with good reason. Congress outlawed secondary boycotts with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, after a postwar wave of strikes in 1945-1946 threatened to shut down the American economy. If this type of conduct is made legal by the PRO Act, unions could once again bring the economy to a standstill — at a time when Alaska can least afford it.

In recent years, the tourism industry accounted for 10% of jobs and $4.5 billion in economic output in Alaska. It’s no secret the Covid-19 global pandemic devastated our tourism economy. Our state desperately needs these dollars back. Our federal government should be looking for ways to propel our economy forward. The PRO Act is a step in the wrong direction and if passed, it will be at the unacceptable expense of Alaska’s workers and business owners and most troubling, our tourism industry’s economic rebound.

Renea Saade is an Anchorage resident and management side labor/employment lawyer in private practice.

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