Bill would restrict bargaining rights of some public workers

SOME EXEMPTIONS: Alaska measure is similar to Wisconsin's.

March 21, 2011 

JUNEAU-- Collective bargaining rights would be restricted for many Alaska public employees under a bill introduced Monday by a state lawmaker.

Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said the bill is similar to one passed recently in Wisconsin and is aimed at keeping the state on sound financial footing. It keeps intact bargaining rights for wages but strips them for such things as health and retirement benefits. The measure exempts police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians, who Gatto says cannot strike.

He likened his bill to the Legislature's doing away with a defined benefits program for workers and replacing it with a defined contribution system. The state is still paying an unfunded liability from the old system, and without the change, "we would've been another $20 billion in the hole," he said. "To get ahead of things is my goal."

Wisconsin's version of the bill sparked protests and it's not clear whether Gatto's bill will gain traction with less than four weeks left in this legislative session. He said he hadn't really discussed it with his colleagues, though he mentioned it to House Democratic Leader Beth Kerttula, who he said wasn't pleased.

Kerttula, in an interview with The Associated Press, said this proposal and others like it around the country don't honor the American worker. In Alaska, she said, a big reason that many work in the public sector for less than they could make in the private sector is the long-term benefits. She said the state already has trouble retaining teachers, police and other public employees.

She said she meant no disrespect to Gatto but called his proposal "rather foolish."

Gov. Sean Parnell hadn't reviewed the bill, his spokeswoman said early Monday afternoon, and couldn't immediately comment. Earlier this month, he told reporters that the state is negotiating with several unions and he is working within the confines of the collective bargaining system, "asking unions to be reasonable, of course, in those negotiations." Cindy Spanyers, legislative liaison for the Alaska Public Employees Association, said collective bargaining is a "fundamental right that's been part of our state's fabric for decades and decades.

"People deserve a voice at work," said Spanyers, whose union represents at least 9,000 workers, including some police officers and firefighters.

Spanyers said it seems like public workers are coming under fire.

"It's just not a healthy dialogue," she said. "We should be talking more about education and job creation."

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