At 2 p.m. the crush of nearly 150 men jammed into the dispatch room of Teamster Local 959 here suddenly falls silent with expectation as the voice of head dispatcher Douglas Yordy squawks out over the public address system.
"Listen up," Yordy orders, and he proceeds to read off the available work for the waiting Teamster job seekers. There are only four openings - all jobs in the soggy springtime bush country and none is scheduled to last more than a week. A palpable cloud of gloom covers the room full of men as Yordy announces that is it for the day.
People who come to this onetime pipeline boomtown these days are in for a shock. Like a hung-over drunk after a week-long binge, Fairbanks is coming down hard.
There is no doublt that the legendary oil pipeline bonanza has run its course. Two years ago, Fairbanks overflowed with boisterious pipeline workers and those who followed them. Still up along downtown's Second Avenue are signs reading, "No prostitutes or hookers allowed in this bar." But the streetwalkers have departed along with the big new Cadillacs that cruised the city during its heyday.
Fairbanks, which enjoyed that hey-day during the mid 1970s as the jumping-off [WORD ILLEGIBLE] construction of the $8 billion trans-Alaska pipeline is now filled with men and women waiting for a last chance at the big money that has stopped flowing here.
Someday soon - in a year or two years or not until 1990, depending on whom you listen to here these days - the construction of an even more expensive project, the Alaska natural gas pipeline, will begin. The line will move Prudhoe Bay's vast stores of up to 26 trillion cubic feets of natural gas some 4,800 miles from the Alaskan North Slope to the Midwest. Conservative estimates put the cost of the project at $10 billion, while others go considerably higher.
"There are people here," said Yordy, "who believe that the gas line is going to be like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."
Union officials, state officials and a spokesman for the Northwest Alaskan Pipeline Co., which represents the consortium of U.S. and Canadian firms which will build the gas line, are all cautioning against such an attitude. But there are already signs that the proposed project will touch off the economic roller coaster that has badly shaken this gritty, blue-collar city of 66,000.
At the state capital in Juneau recently a member of the legislature produced a copy of a newspaper ad that has been running in papers in the lower 48 states. For just $9.95 the ad promises an "Alaskan Employment Kit" and a shot at a $1,615-a-week job on the new gas pipeline.
This time, the ad says, "The Boom Promises to be even Bigger."
"That ad," said the labor department analyst Christopher Miller, " is nothing but unadulterated hooey." State officials have sought assurances from the pipeline consortium that it will work to squelch similar come-ons aimed at gullible out-of-staters.
"We want them told, 'Don't come to Alaska unless you've already got a job in your pocket,'" Miller said.
Nevertheless, officials here say they have begun getting calls from out-of-staters seeking jobs on the next pipeline. "We're getting feelers," said Miller. "People are already coming up here to be the first in line."
Unemployment here is running around 18 percent - the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Long lines of men and women, still wearing nylon jackets stitched with maps of the oil pipeline, wait patiently each day outside the state food stamp office, where extra help has been hired to handle the mounting load. The back pages of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner are cluttered with ads offering quick sales of houses, trailers, pick-ups and light planes.
"We've been telling people for a long time that some day it was going to get tough, real tough," said Teamster dispatcher Yordy. "Now that time is here."
Officials of the union recently eccouraged members through the local's newsletter to "hang tough." "There's not much we can do now," said Teamster spokesman Dean Berg, "But it's looking good down the road."
But when Local 959's boss, Jesse Carr, put out feelers last year to get the Canadian segment of the proposed gas line opened for jobs for his men, he was quickly rebuffed by Teamster international headquarters.
The rejection of the proposal by Carr, who is called by some here the most powerful man in Alaska, came as no surprise. The head of the Canadian Teamsters also serves as vice president of the international union.
"The fight is not over," a 959 official said the other day. But others in the state say they believe Carr may have overshot his authority and will eventually have to settle for putting his men to work only on the 731-mile Alaskan section of the gas line.
One quarter of the union local is now out of work, and the estimated 9,000 jobs that the limited Alaskan segment of the proposed line would bring would be a boost. But it wouldn't bring back the boom days that accompanied the oil line construction.
Moreover, some knowledgeable observers here question whether the line will ever be built. The pipeline consortium has been seeking a $1.5 billion guranteed financing package from the state and many legislators oppose despite support for the idea from Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond.
Earlier this month a University of Southern California petroleum engineering rprofessor, who is consultant to the state for the project, told a legislative committee in Juneau that no matter what the state does natural gas from the North Slope will be priced too high to be competitive until 1990. The consultant advised the legislators against committing themselves to fund the line until future gas prices become clear.
In Fairbanks such a delay would be a disaster for thousands of former oil pipeline workers who are just barely holding on after more than a year with no work since oil line construction wound down.
At the new union recreation complex here, the doors to the indoor swimming pool, the saunas are locked most of the day. The new facilities are available to Teamsters who have worked during the last six months, or those who pay an extra monthly fee. It is an extravagance that few can afford.
"When you're working up on the slope and making big money, who cares about tennis courts?" asked Jack Forrest, a truck pipeline driver who has been out of work here since 1976. "Now," said the husky, bearded Forrest, "I've got plenty of time to play tennis, but the money is all gone."
Like many of his unemployed colleagues, Forrest shows up at the twice-daily job call held in the Teamster dispatch room. The rest of the time he spends at the Sunset Strip, a bar and diner here featuring Eskimo hill-billy band or in the living room of his rented $600-a month house.
With his pipeline savings nearly exhausted and his wife, Marilynn, expecting their first baby in July, Forrest said he is beginning to see no hope for a future here.
"By July," he said, "there'll either be a job in the union or it's down the road for us."
If they go, the Forrests won't be the first to give up and leave here. Alaska has one of the highest costs of living in the nation and since the oil line construction ended, Fairbanks' population has been dropping.
"We've got a lot of people who are at the end of their rope," said Susan Fison, head of the community information service here. "After the money runs out there's not much reason to hang around. It's cheaper to be unemployed in California than it is in Alaska."