Compass: Mayor's labor law guts a system that works for the city

By JOE ALBRECHTMarch 11, 2013 

On Feb. 8, Mayor Dan Sullivan laid out a proposed new labor ordinance for introduction to the Assembly. He claimed the old law was out of date, his would be simpler and easier to manage, and these changes would serve "to make labor contracts fair." But the simple truth is these drastic rules would end forever a cost-effective system that for decades has worked fairly for taxpayers and employees. Sullivan's new law is a stab in the back to every citizen of Anchorage.

When the mayor came into office, he immediately blamed alleged budget shortfalls on union workers, when really the Great Recession was caused by unregulated greed on Wall Street. Nevertheless, firefighters agreed to forgo scheduled raises for 2009, saving Anchorage taxpayers $4 million. The method used to achieve this was collective bargaining, which Sullivan now wants to restrict to the point of practical elimination. When actual surpluses turned up instead, he simply forgot how unions stepped up when the city really needed our help.

Over my 35-year fire department career, I have often seen unions work with officials to solve problems great and small, because as your neighbors and friends, we have a big stake in the future of Anchorage. Our commitment to this city goes far beyond a simple paycheck. We have homes here, our kids go to school here, and the wages we earn are spent right here in Alaska. Detractors often say that unions are only loyal to themselves, and that "union bosses" scheme to defraud the taxpayers of our town. Frankly, these are lies: Dan Sullivan signs my check at the moment, but my colleagues and I work for you, and are fellow travelers and taxpayers.

Sullivan's ordinance ends binding arbitration, which is wrongly portrayed as always favorable to unions. Actually, arbitration tends to favor the side with the most reasonable position, and works like this: a qualified third party is called in to review the positions of both sides, and makes final decisions on each of the disputed areas in a contract. Such a contract is already limited to two years, and all anybody needs is to be reasonable, so what is Dan Sullivan afraid of? The truth is that the firefighters haven't arbitrated a contract since 1994.

Unions fill a desperately needed niche in today's economy, safeguarding the last strongholds of America's once-great middle class. Despite this, unions have been unfairly blamed for state budget deficits in places like Wisconsin and Michigan. In reply, I say look at the way auto workers stepped up for Chrysler and GM, how we here in Anchorage have given up raises, or that Wisconsin workers offered concessions to their governor that equaled the savings he wanted. These things were real contributions, not windy talk, and they still blame us?

There's an old saying that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Another one is that people get the government they deserve, and in a perfect storm of old adages, Anchorage is about to test both.

We enjoy a fine city government here in our community, with competent and efficient delivery of services. If this disaster comes to pass, those may be replaced by chaotic, expensive private contracts with for-profit middlemen, and performance that will make Anchorage yearn for the good old days. Hundreds of young, talented employees that taxpayers already paid to train will leave for greener pastures, and hundreds more of the most experienced people will too, because it won't be worth staying here with better jobs available elsewhere.

Investment in a high-quality, committed work-force pays off in good government, but this attack on your city employees is more like government by Ouija board.

Joe Albrecht is a veteran Anchorage firefighter and former president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1264.

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