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Unions dig in against mayor's labor law rewrite

Rosemary Shinohara
Erik Hill

Union leaders on Monday described Mayor Dan Sullivan's proposed rewrite of city labor law as poorly planned, drastic, hasty and just plain wrong.

The Sullivan administration and two key Anchorage Assembly members are sponsoring a measure that would curb unions' power, limit raises and eliminate the right to strike, among many new provisions.

The measure was under wraps until Friday afternoon, when unions, most Anchorage Assembly members and even city department heads first heard about it.

The plan is scheduled to be introduced at Tuesday's Assembly meeting, and up for public hearing and a possible vote on Feb. 26, two weeks later.

Unions are calling on their members to rally at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Loussac Library where the Assembly meets. A notice on the Anchorage Education Association web page from teachers union president Andy Holleman says city bargaining units are calling on all organized labor to turn out. "We hope to pack Midtown," the notice says.

Representatives of the eight unions that represent municipal employees reacted to the proposal at a news briefing Monday at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 302 headquarters on Denali Street.

"Why are they moving something so drastic forward without any input from anybody else in the city?" asked Rod Harris, Anchorage Fire Fighters Union president. "There's a political agenda at play here. The whole thing just smells bad."

"I'm concerned about how much impact this could have, yet how little planning went into it," said Sgt. Gerard Asselin, a patrol sergeant and an officer of the police union. "This isn't a simple change as the mayor might suggest."

Dan Repasky of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said he was "confused and stunned" when he learned Assembly chairman Ernie Hall is a sponsor of the measure, with Assembly vice-chairwoman Jennifer Johnston. Hall has told members of the IBEW that he respected workers' rights, Repasky said. "This action appears to us to be a betrayal of his position."

"I think that's jumping to a conclusion," Hall said later Monday, when asked about the comment. "What they are looking at is the draft ... put together as a starting point. What they have to do before they make decisions about Ernie Hall is wait and see how we work through this document."

The Assembly will hold a two-hour work session on it at 1 p.m. Friday in City Hall, Hall said. It is open to the public.

Sullivan agrees the schedule for approving the labor law rewrite is compressed. "I would like to have introduced it earlier," he said in an interview Monday.

But it wasn't ready to go until Friday afternoon, he said, and he wanted to get it before the Assembly in time to affect contracts that expire at mid-year. Nine contracts with members of eight unions all come up for renewal within the next two years, he said.

The mayor said he didn't tell most city department heads about the measure until Friday afternoon because up until then, it had been a confidential work draft. But concerns department heads have raised about working with the union contracts over the past three years were at the heart of the process, Sullivan said.

Sullivan met with the union leaders early Monday, and said they brought up some good points.

"We're going to consider those," he said. For example, the rewrite calls for all supervisors to be non-union. But the fire and police departments operate differently than other organizations, and the same rules regarding supervisors might not make sense in those departments, Sullivan said.

The comprehensive rewrite would also eliminate any longevity or pay-for-performance pay, standardize health benefits, and allow for "managed competition" in which a city group would compete against private businesses for certain work.

It would simplify the city's union negotiations and make them more efficient, Sullivan said.

The economics of the changes haven't been examined yet, he said. "In my opinion there's an opportunity to save money."

What would the revised code leave for unions and managers to bargain about?

Jason Alward of the Operating Engineers said not much.

"They totally reinforced management rights," he said. "I don't know. About the only thing there would be in the wages."

"Wages and benefits," Sullivan said. "The problem is all these other things have crept in that bargained away management rights." Examples he cited: The definition of a supervisor, or setting municipal holidays.

Sullivan said he's "pretty sure" a majority on the Assembly will support labor law revisions.

The topic will also become an issue in campaigns for six Assembly seats that are just ramping up for the April 2 city election.

Two Assembly members, including Hall, are unopposed, but the other four are in competitive races.

Union groups traditionally give substantial amounts to city candidates.

"This will drive unions to become more politically active," Harris said.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at or 257-4340.