Anchorage labor battle inches forward as mayor, unions hold firm

Kyle Hopkins
Mayor Dan Sullivan confers with Director of Employee Relations Danielle Fegley, left, and Assistant Municipal Attorney William Earnhart prior to the start of an Anchorage Assembly work session on a proposed ordinance concerning city unions Friday Feb. 15, 2013 at City Hall.
Erik Hill
Mayor Dan Sullivan, left, Anchorage Assembly members and an audience composed primarily of city union members listen as Assistant Municipal Attorney William Earnhart explains sections of a proposed ordinance concerning city unions at an Anchorage Assembly work session Friday Feb. 15, 2013 at City Hall.
Erik Hill

Anchorage's high-stakes labor fight moved to a quiet battleground Friday afternoon as dozens of people sat flipping pages in a hot conference room high in City Hall.

"We have now heard in more detail that (Mayor Dan Sullivan's) administration clearly intends some of the things that we thought were kind of worst-case scenarios," said Sgt. Gerard Asselin, treasurer for the police employees union.

For example, he said, the proposal calls for police dispatchers to be hired through "managed competition," meaning private companies could bid to replace city workers who currently answer 911 calls for the police and fire departments.

Sullivan says the changes are long overdue, necessary to streamline labor negotiations and will save taxpayers money on municipal services.

Assembly members and union officials learned more details of the 30-page proposal at an early afternoon work session outside the mayor's offices. Public hearings begin later this month. If adopted, the plan would limit pay increases, extinguish the right to strike and hand the final decision on stalled labor negotiations to the Assembly rather than a third-party arbitrator.

Unions made a show of force on Tuesday night, swamping an Assembly meeting and the surrounding Loussac Library with 1,000 or more workers and allies. On Friday, Sullivan showed no signs of backing away from the major tenets of his plan.

The mayor expects the right-leaning Assembly to approve both the no-strike and no-arbitration measures, he said.

"They (city unions) have leverage and we don't," Sullivan said. "I can't move my business. I can't shut down my business. I can't go bankrupt. But they can go on strike and deny the public the public services that are being paid for by the taxpayers of this community?"

"That's not fair," Sullivan said.

Asselin said the city is rushing an ill-conceived proposal and overstating labor's bargaining power.

"They would like to try and say that we hold all the cards," Asselin said. Under the current arbitration process, unreasonable pay and benefits requests would be struck down, he said.

East Anchorage Assemblyman Paul Honeman, who tried unsuccessfully to kill the labor rewrite at Tuesday's Assembly meeting, targeted the idea of companies bidding on work now performed by city employees.

"Could, conceivably, our ... 911 be answered in India?" he asked.

Assistant city attorney William Earnhart replied that others at City Hall would need to answer the question but noted that any contract over $30,000 would go to the Assembly for approval.

The jobs of employees who deliver "direct law enforcement or direct fire protection services" would not be subject to private competition under Sullivan's proposal. An amendment will likely be added to also exclude emergency services workers, city officials said.

Only 11 states give public employees the right to strike and only 22 allow public workers to unionize, Earnhart told Assembly members.

He said the mayor's proposal is not a Wisconsin-style effort to effectively abolish city employee unions: "We've had a long history of collective bargaining here in Anchorage and it's going to continue."

Union leaders say the new plan was written without input from city workers who stand to lose pay increases and benefits in future negotiations.

Assembly members on Friday asked about the provision allowing the 11-member Assembly to make the final decision on stalled contract negotiations. Rather than take the case to an arbitrator, Sullivan's proposal calls for the Assembly to pick the last, best offer made by either the union or City Hall.

City leaders change often, Midtown Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson said. "I just think it's unfair to the public to leave that decision up to the Assembly."

Sullivan later defended the idea in an interview. The same system has worked for the city of Juneau for decades, he said.

"This is not designed to be some conservative dogma; it's designed to create a fair process," he said. "Because sometimes it will be a more liberal assembly. And when contracts come up under that regime, they are probably more likely to favor the last, best offer of the unions."

Ultimately, unions wouldn't be able to force unreasonable pay requests through a left-leaning Assembly because the plan caps wage increases, he said.

Asselin, the police union treasurer, said the comparison to Juneau is flawed.

"The mayor doesn't have nearly the power in Juneau that he has here, because it's a strong city manager form of government," he said.

The Sullivan proposal is scheduled for a Feb. 26 public hearing. The long-simmering rewrite of the city zoning code is also scheduled for consideration that night and could dominate the Assembly's time, however.

Chairman Ernie Hall said he's not sure if the Title 21 zoning code hearings will finish that night. Another meeting will likely be held Feb. 27 to address the labor law overhaul, he said.

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