Judge OKs movement to overturn new city labor law

Nathaniel Herz

A Superior Court judge Monday sided with municipal unions on the new labor law championed by Mayor Dan Sullivan, concluding after a three-month-long case that a referendum to repeal the measure could go to the ballot.

Just 15 minutes after the conclusion of oral arguments, the judge, Eric Aarseth, delivered his ruling from the bench, finding that Anchorage officials were wrong when they refused in April to authorize the unions' petition drive for the referendum.

The decision was sweeping: Aarseth ordered the ordinance to be suspended immediately and said that Anchorage officials should issue the union groups their petition forms by Thursday at noon. But it was not immediately clear whether the city would comply: Sullivan and City Attorney Dennis Wheeler said that the administration may ask for Aarseth's order to be put on hold, pending an appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court.

"This is too important an issue to simply sit back, and not consider seriously whether to appeal or not," Wheeler said. "If the municipality is going to be compelled down this path, I would love for it to get the directive from the Supreme Court, so that we have the full bench weighing in on this issue."

The city has 30 days to appeal Aarseth's decision. It will also file a motion asking the judge to reconsider his order to suspend the law immediately, which both sides acknowledged was a mistake; according to the city charter, a new law is only suspended once petitioners submit the more than 7,100 signatures required to get their referendum on the city ballot.

Andy Holleman, the president of Anchorage's teachers union and one of the plaintiffs in the case, said that city labor groups hoped to begin gathering signatures soon. But in the mean time, he said he relished the decision from Aarseth after the city had repeatedly stymied the unions' efforts to get the new law before voters.

"The city ought to be protecting our right to participate in the process as outlined in the charter, as outlined in the state constitution," he said. "And so, we've finally hit that part of government that, to me, feels like it's setting things right."

Municipal unions have targeted a referendum on the labor law -- which caps pay raises, restricts bonuses, and limits city employees' right to strike -- ever since it squeaked past the Anchorage Assembly in March, 6 to 5.

But later in the spring, when the unions brought their proposed referendum to the City Clerk for certification, Wheeler rejected it on legal grounds, saying that the new labor law was too narrow and complicated an issue for voters to consider.

That launched the court case, which generated hundreds of pages of briefs and exhibits.

In his decision, Aarseth said he was convinced by union arguments that the law set out broad policy changes in several areas -- in a section that allows the city to pit private companies against union employees for jobs, and in two more provisions eliminating unions' rights to binding arbitration, and to strike.

"It is a new law," Aarseth said. "It is not one that existed before, and has far-sweeping implications."

During the hour-long proceedings, Aarseth sat poker-faced, before an audience of 30 that included several union officials and Assemblyman Dick Traini.

The judge asked just one question, when he interrupted city attorney Theresa Hillhouse and requested that she explain why the labor law wasn't a significant policy shift.

Both sides recognized that Aarseth's decision was not final; Susan Orlansky, the lawyer for the unions, said that she and her clients retreated to her office after the ruling for water, not champagne.

The whole case would have to be reargued if the city appeals to the Supreme Court, Orlansky said.

The high court "is required to give its own view of the law," she said. "Legally, the Supreme Court doesn't have to defer to Judge Aarseth's decision in any way."

If Aarseth's decision does stand, Sullivan said he feared it could open the floodgates on a rush of citizen initiatives and referendums forcing the administration to grant concessions to unions on perks like raises and new benefit packages. That, however, was an assertion Aarseth specifically rejected in his ruling, saying that the new labor law did not prescribe actions on "specific assets," or a "specific budget."

Sullivan also said he was concerned about how the suspension of the labor law would effect contract negotiations with labor unions.

The mayor, who learned of the decision in a text message while waiting to board a flight for Valdez for a conference, said that he plans to meet with attorneys to review the city's position.

If the petition effort ultimately is approved, whether by the Supreme Court or by the city, Sullivan said he expected the unions to be able to gather the requisite number of signatures -- but that prospect does not worry him.

"Quite frankly, we won't mind it going to the ballot," he said. "I think the public will agree with us."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.