Our View: Anchorage labor law battle isn't over

May 2, 2013 

City unions have made it clear they won't accept the city's rejection of a referendum to repeal the new labor ordinance passed in March. They intend to go to court for an expedited decision to put the issue to Anchorage voters.

The main legal dispute here is whether the labor law changes in Anchorage Ordinance 37 are legislative or administrative in nature, whether they cover broad public policy or simply rules implementing policy.

There's no question it's a major overhaul of the city's labor law; that's what Mayor Dan Sullivan and key advisers intended as they put the revision together beginning last fall.

We don't know how a judge will call this one. There's a simple argument on the face of it that if an act requires legislative action, it's a legislative act by definition, and thus potentially subject to referendum. But lawyers on both sides say Anchorage Ordinance 37 is grayer than that, with both legislative and administrative elements, and thus arguable.

Alaska courts generally have favored going to the voters in gray cases, on the principle that the people's right to vote should be liberally construed.

Legal issues aside, there would be poetic justice in a public vote, given the closed-door development of the legislation. More than that, a focused campaign would provide time to dig deeper into pay and contracts. What's out of line? What specifically should we change? What should change in basic labor law and what should be left to good faith bargaining? What benefits should the city streamline for efficiency and savings, and what exceptions to that make sense?

The goal should be city labor law and contracts that are fair to employees and keep good people in public service, and at the same time are fair to taxpayers footing the bill. The mayor would say that's his aim, but you don't accomplish that by pitting public employees against taxpayers like they were the enemy, or hatching a major labor-law overhaul in the dark, or alienating the public work force to the point that trust is dead and good faith bargaining almost impossible. Union members believe he's out to break the unions. They have reason to think so.

In March the mayor counted six votes on the Assembly and figured, game over. Not quite. The litigation game has just begun. Once that ends we may begin a referendum campaign.

No matter how he went about it, the mayor would have had a fight on his hands. But had he been up front, he would have had the leverage of more community support, a grudging respect from the people he faced across the bargaining table and a better result for all hands.

There may yet be a chance.

If the courts decide the referendum can go forward and its backers collect the required 7,200 signatures, the ordinance will be suspended until the vote. That could be an occasion for the mayor to say let's start over and set about reworking the labor law with all parties at the table.

That's more governance than politics or ideology, and it's harder than both. But that's the mayor's job.

BOTTOM LINE: If court OKs labor law referendum, the mayor will have an opportunity to do it right.

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