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Labor lawyers try to rip apart mayor's proposal to rein in unions

Rosemary Shinohara

Three union lawyers tore into Mayor Dan Sullivan's proposed rewrite of city labor law Wednesday, calling it ill-defined, drastic and poorly thought out.

The Anchorage Assembly heard from the administration last Friday in support of the rewrite, and invited labor unions to critique the plan in a work session Wednesday at City Hall. The plan goes before the Assembly for public testimony at 6 p.m. Feb. 27 -- next Wednesday -- and is expected to come up for Assembly discussion and vote on March 12th, Assembly chairman Ernie Hall said.

The proposal takes power from the unions to strike or arbitrate disputes with the city, making the Assembly the final decision-maker. It also sets up " managed competition," in which city employees would bid against private contractors for work. And it limits raises to a five-year-average of the consumer price index.

Sullivan says current city labor law is out of date. His goal is to streamline the bargaining, match up union benefit programs, and control labor and administrative costs, he says.

Attorney Mike Tedesco, who has represented the police union, said the proposal contains many undefined but important terms, for example, when it says the Assembly can't ratify a contract if "direct labor costs" exceed the consumer price index.

The term "direct labor costs" doesn't exist in labor law and has no generally accepted meaning, he said.

In addition, the limits on raises don't take into account market considerations, or changes like new requirements in the federal Affordable Care Act, Tedesco said.

The end result would be to tie the hands of the Assembly, he said.

Attorney Chuck Dunnagan, representing the firefighters union, Plumbers and Pipefitters, and the Anchorage Municipal Employees Association, addressed benefits provisions of the proposal.

The rewrite calls for benefits offered to city employees to all be the same, and if employees get health insurance, for example, from a union, the city contribution can't be higher than the city-sponsored plan.

"This sets up a massive benefit rollback for all city employees," Dunnagan said. That's the only way to get from the current set-up to uniform benefits, he said.

Dunnagan raised the specter that the city might pull out of the public employee retirement system , the state retirement program that covers other city workers around the state as well.

"The proposal could well mandate that the municipality replace pension systems with self-administered pension plans," the union lawyers said in a written presentation.

If the city did pull out of the state system, it would trigger a liability that the city would have to pay the state, Dunnagan said.

"The liability is so huge, it's staggering," he said.

Sullivan said after the meeting that there's no way the city would withdraw from the state system.

"What we're trying to do is make some life and health insurance standardized," Sullivan said.

Regarding the managed competition provisions, Dunnagan said, "Nobody knows what this means."

Justin Roberts, general counsel to the IBEW -- the electrical workers union -- spoke after the other two attorneys and said he didn't want to repeat what they had said.

He summed up: "This ordinance is a mess."

He cited some more terms he said were unclear, such as "pay enhancements," which the proposal would eliminate. The administration has said that doesn't mean step raises for experience would be eliminated, the union analysis said.

Roberts questioned that.

"If it's not intended to eliminate step progression, what do those words mean?" he asked.

Assembly member Debbie Ossiander said after the meeting that she has concerns with definitions of terms in the administration proposals, and the managed competition section.

Hall, the chairman, said the law needs to specify that the city won't outsource emergency services, including the 911 dispatch center.

"That's absolutely not going to happen," Hall said.

The managed competition section of the proposed law has already caused a stir.

Assemblyman Paul Honeman asked at Friday's Assembly meeting if Anchorage's 911 emergency lines could be answered in India. He didn't get a clear answer, but a coalition of city unions picked up on the idea and produced a radio ad in which a 911 operator speaks in a foreign-sounding voice. The coalition took the ad down, said police union president Derek Hsieh, because some people thought it sounded racist. "It wasn't meant to be derogatory," he said.

The unions have begun airing another radio ad about potholes. They are also planning to run print advertising, put up signs, and use social media such as Facebook, said Police Sgt. Gerard Asselin, who heads up the coalition of city unions.

And the city administration has a radio commercial out with Sullivan talking against a background of soft music touting the benefits of the revised law, and assuring residents emergency services such as the 9-1-1 dispatch center would never be considered for bid. Sullivan said he has budgeted $28,000 for advertising.

"It's perfectly OK to inform he public of issues of key importance," Sullivan said.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at or 257-4340.