Alaska Supreme Court hears arguments on Anchorage labor law

Nathaniel Herz

Attorneys for Anchorage unions and for the city took the fight over the controversial new labor law to Alaska Supreme Court on Wednesday, presenting their arguments to the five-judge panel over whether the law can be the subject of a public vote.

The two sides requested a decision by early February, which would give the city just enough time to put a repeal question on the ballot for the April election.

But the judges left without saying when they would give an answer -- and there's also the unresolved issue of a second case in lower court that could push back the referendum, even if the Supreme Court allows it to go ahead.

For now, the labor law remains in limbo -- suspended, pending the outcome of the public vote, or a court decision to put it back in place.

"It just got sidelined, and so, we're sitting on it," said Andy Holleman, the president of the Anchorage Education Association and one of two union officials involved in the Supreme Court case. "I think once the legal hurdles are cleared, it'll come back. We'll have a date for an election and suddenly, we'll be able to talk to people about. I think it'll be a pretty vibrant conversation."

The Anchorage Assembly passed the labor law last March, after hours of public testimony -- much of it from city workers who were incensed at the way the law curtailed union power.

The law, which Mayor Dan Sullivan spearheaded, limits raises to the rate of inflation plus one percent, and also restricts unions' right to strike and eliminates binding arbitration.

In Wednesday's proceedings, the city was appealing a lower-court ruling from Judge Eric Aarseth, who took just 10 minutes to rule for the unions after oral arguments last summer.

For the appeal, the city hired an attorney, Michael Gatti, from an outside law firm, who made three separate arguments to the Supreme Court justices Wednesday, before an audience of 60 people.

Broadly, one of Gatti's arguments pertained to limits on the public's ability to hold referendums on laws that affect city finances.

A second argument was that under city and state law, Anchorage residents have delegated the power to set specific labor relations policies to the Assembly.

And a third said, essentially, that the labor law is too technical and complicated for voters to consider.

"This is a complex subject area that involves a myriad of different laws, different issues," Gatti said. "I think the municipality is concerned that if an initiative or referendum on labor matters were approved to go forward, there could be some serious complications involved in the operation of government."

Gatti was sharply questioned by several justices, including Craig Stowers, who said he was skeptical of the city's argument that the Assembly's authority over labor matters precluded an initiative or a referendum -- given that specific restrictions on those public efforts are not specifically set out.

"I'm still struggling, because I'm still looking for that specific prohibition," Stowers said.

The attorney for the unions, Susan Orlansky, also took a few questions from the judges -- including one from Craig Stowers, who said understanding many of the issues in the labor law, "one could argue, require specialized training."

Orlansky responded that at a broad level, it's clear that the law "fundamentally shifts the balance of power" away from labor, and towards the city.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.

An earlier version of this story misidentified the source of a quote. The quote, which referred to "specialized training" needed to understand labor law, came from Justice Craig Stowers, not Justice Joel Bolger.