Assembly move to delay labor-law vote irks unions, allies

Nathaniel Herz

The 7-month-old fight over city's new labor law is back on familiar territory, before the Anchorage Assembly.

Union representatives and Assembly members opposing the ordinance are blasting a proposal introduced Tuesday night that could push a public vote on the law all the way back to 2015 -- more than two years after the Assembly first voted for it in March.

The opponents say that the delay would twist the intent of the city charter, which allows for a referendum to be postponed but doesn't specify for how long. They also say that the proposal's backers are trying to get the issue on a ballot where it won't hurt allied candidates at the polls.

But Assemblywoman Jennifer Johnston, who sponsored the measure to push back a vote, said she did so to maximize turnout, and to allow for the resolution of a Supreme Court case that could declare a referendum on the labor law invalid.

The bill passed with the backing of Mayor Dan Sullivan, and it limits pay raises, eliminates binding arbitration, and allows outsourcing of work currently done by municipal unions.

Afterward, the unions moved to put the issue before voters in a referendum, and turned in petitions last week with more than 22,000 unverified signatures--far more than the roughly 7,000 they needed to get the issue on the ballot.

Now, the Assembly has the option to either allow a special election on the law before the end of the year, or to push a vote to a future date.

Many union members and their allies on the Assembly assumed that that date would be in April, at the next city election. But Assembly members Amy Demboski, Johnston and Bill Starr surprised them with a proposal to schedule the vote at an unspecified date as late as April 2015.

That's permitted under the city charter, which says merely that the Assembly can push back a referendum to "a later regular or special election."

In the meantime, the labor law would be suspended. But the move still took its opponents off guard.

"I never even saw this as a possibility, of April 2015," Assemblyman Paul Honeman said in a phone interview. "I was totally surprised when I read about it."

Johnston said that she is pushing for a later election for two reasons. First, she said she would prefer a vote to occur after the Alaska Supreme Court issues a decision on an appeal by the city that could proclaim the referendum invalid.

Second, she said non-mayoral elections, like the one in April of 2014, tend to have lower turnout.

"I don't care what you say, whose side you're on," she said. "I'd think you'd want to have it with a large turnout."

Johnston said she had also requested that the city clerk explore scheduling the vote along with a statewide election in 2014.

In August, Alaskans will vote on several contentious ballot initiatives, plus for candidates in party primaries. Then the following November they'll vote on the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Mark Begich, and on the governorship.

Eric Tuott, the recording officer for the city firefighters union, said he thought that the long postponement skirted the intent of the city charter. His interpretation was that the vote should be scheduled no later than April, 2014.

Susan Orlansky, the attorney for the unions, agreed, saying that when she first heard about a potential delay, she pulled up the charter, expecting the postponement to be off-limits.

"The conspicuous words 'next election' are not there," she said. "A lot of times, laws get written more casually than people intend. It's just the way the world works."

Tuott said he was getting frustrated with the slow pace, after the unions' referendum effort on the bill, known as AO-37, was first rejected by the city clerk, then hung up in court.

"Every time something comes up that doesn't suit the people that tried to slam AO-37 through," he said, "they pull another rabbit out of their hat."

He said he thought part of the reason for the delay was political, since a referendum in April 2014 would likely rally voters who oppose the labor law.

Those voters could potentially help upset Assemblyman Adam Trombley, Johnston acknowledged, but she said that was not part of her thinking in setting the schedule.

Marc Hellenthal, a political consultant and pollster, said that he thought both sides were pushing for a referendum date that would give them the maximum advantage.

"Each side is motivated by self interest," he said in an interview. "Each one's trying to maximize the benefit to them, and minimize it to their opponent."

The election dates over the next 18 months present all kinds of scenarios, according to Hellenthal. Scheduling it in April of 2015, during a mayoral race, could actually help opponents of the labor law get an ally elected to that seat, he said.

Holding it on one of the dates in 2014, meanwhile, could complicate statewide races. There's the potential for the referendum on the labor law to draw voters hostile to Sullivan, who is running for lieutenant governor, in either a Republican primary or the general election, Hellenthal said.

All the complications, he said, make setting a date a "moving target."

"I think it's real fluid," Hellenthal said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.