Our View: Wrong way to make labor law

March 28, 2013 

The vote was 6-5 on Tuesday, and the supporters of Mayor Dan Sullivan's rewrite of the city's labor law had little to say.

Foes had much to say, but remained a vote shy.

The mayor has said he aimed to restore balance to management-labor relations with the city's unions. Clearly, he's pulled the advantage to the management side, particularly with regard to wages, arbitration, work rules and the right to outsource some services to private contractors. (The latter hasn't been settled yet -- as far as we know -- and whatever managed competition program is proposed will require further Assembly approval.)

Some issues that used to be subject to collective bargaining are now off the table, and others are restricted.

This was a cleverly calculated power play months in the making behind closed doors and weeks in the execution out in the open -- weeks that went longer than the mayor first intended because of workers' and members of the public's demand to be heard.

The secrecy, the timing to favor political allies and the fast track to a vote served the mayor's purpose to pass the ordinance as swiftly as possible.

Politically, this worked -- for now. The mayor got the vote he wanted and most of what he wanted in the ordinance. The city's hand is now much stronger than the unions' hand in negotiations, because there's much less to negotiate and the administration is likely to have the upper hand in any impasse. That's because the Assembly has to approve any arbitrator's decision with an eight-vote super majority, or the city can impose its last best offer.

There wasn't much love lost between the mayor and many city workers even before this ordinance. There's none now. Workers feel the mayor doesn't respect them, and they have reason to feel that way.

Is that healthy for the city?

No, but then maybe we can take heart in what longtime Anchorage firefighter Joe Albrecht wrote on these pages a few weeks ago. He wrote that while Mayor Sullivan signs his paycheck, he doesn't work for the mayor. He works for the people of Anchorage. City workers who earn their pay with pride and care will continue to do just that -- no matter what they think about the mayor and the ordinance. In the long run, that is city workers' strongest argument for their neighbors' support.

As we wrote before, we agreed with some of what the mayor was after. We disagreed with the generosity of the labor contracts approved at the end of former Mayor Mark Begich's administration in 2008 and said so. But we also remember that city unions, led by the firefighters, stepped up to defer pay increases when Anchorage took the economic hits of the Great Recession.

Budget hawks and public union foes may argue that it doesn't matter how the mayor went about this business, that he played hardball politics for the taxpayers' benefit and was right to do so.

But respect and good faith do matter. So does transparency in government.

All three were lacking in this case. So we wouldn't assume this case is closed.

BOTTOM LINE: Labor law passage closes a poor process -- and opens the door to challenges.

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