Anchorage voters' right to repeal labor law lands in court

Casey Grove

The fight over changes to Anchorage labor laws has landed on a new battleground: state civil court.

Last month, the city rejected a proposed referendum that would have asked Anchorage voters whether they wanted to keep the Assembly's March labor law rewrite, which stripped city unions of many powers. The city's attorney said the new law is administrative in nature, rather than legislative, and therefore exempt from repeal by voters. The referendum's sponsors sued the municipality last week, saying the city's characterization of the new labor law as administrative is wrong. The law is more broad than that, they say.

The Assembly passed the rewrite March 26 in a 6-5 vote and affects the city's eight unions. It eliminates the unions' right to strike, eliminates performance-based bonuses or incentives in future contracts, and limits annual pay increases to a maximum of 1 percent of the local cost of living.

Both sides agree that, legally, it's muddy water as for what decisions qualify as "administrative" or "legislative." But both sides also claim that the limited Alaska case law on the subject -- that is, the legal precedent for rejecting a referendum -- supports their opposing positions.

Anchorage teachers union president Andy Holleman and Jason Alward, of the International Union of Operating Engineers, were among the referendum's sponsors and are the two plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the city May 2.

"This is an ordinance passed by the city, and it may have some administrative stuff in it, but by and large they changed the laws, and voters need to have a chance to reverse it," Holleman said.

And many of those people, including hundreds of union members and their family members, were angered not only by specific changes in the new law, but also by the way the city pushed it through, Holleman said.

"I would equate it with arguing with your kid over their allowance, saying, 'We're not going to talk about your chores and all that stuff. I'm just going to lay out the rules, and if you want a bigger allowance, you can ask me, and if it's not more than 1 percent of inflation, I might consider that,' " Holleman said. "I think they used the process to be able to slide this along as far as they could without anybody noticing."

Even on an expedited court schedule, which the city has agreed to, Holleman said he does not expect attorneys to argue on the lawsuit anytime before June or July. The referendum's supporters say that by the time the case is decided and, if the lawsuit prevails, lands on a ballot, it might not be fresh in voters' minds anymore. Still, Dennis Wheeler, the city attorney, said the city's intention is not to keep the issue locked up in court.

"There's nothing to be gained by trying to delay it," Wheeler said. "(Expediting it) saves everybody a lot of time and effort , and we get some certainty."

The law has a "laundry" list of amendments that are specific about how to administer policies, which are narrow enough to qualify as administrative matters, Wheeler said. He compared the changes in the new law to things like setting work rules and conditions, benefit and insurance programs, and performance reviews.

"Those things are more administrative and require a level of expertise in daily operation of the city, city finances, and so on," Wheeler said.

The idea is that voters not familiar with those subjects should not decide such specific, nuanced policies, Wheeler said. While referenda have been rare in Alaska, and rejections even rarer, there is a "test" established by case law for what is administrative versus legislative, Wheeler said.

Both sides in the current referendum fight point to a 2009 Alaska Supreme Court decision from the Pribilof Island community of St. Paul. According to the decision, sponsors of the referendum wanted to ask voters if the city should get out of the electric power generation business, but a city clerk rejected the referendum. The Supreme Court ultimately approved the referendum, on the basis that it dealt with a legislative matter, but Wheeler said the decision also spells out what is to be considered administrative. That case and several others set the legal foundation on which the city built its case to correctly reject the referendum to repeal the labor law, Wheeler said.

Not surprisingly, Holleman and the referendum's other supporters do not see it that way. The Supreme Court decision is clear about what is considered a legislative policy, they say, but not so clear on what is administrative. If it is unclear at all which category the labor law fits into, the voters' right to repeal it outweighs any potential risk to the city, Holleman said.

Either way, both the city and the referendum's sponsors are hoping a decision by the state court or a higher court, if it comes to that, will clarify the issue for future reference.

"What we need is an answer," Wheeler said.

Holleman said it's unfortunate the referendum's sponsors had to file a lawsuit.

"The real goal was to make sure people have absolute voice, to put the balance of power back in the citizens' hands on this," Holleman said. "If it turns out that we get it on the ballot, and it fails, that's good, we know where we're at. If it passes, they can take a reset and figure out how to do this right."


Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4589.