Supreme Court rules ballot measure over Anchorage labor-law repeal may proceed

Nathaniel Herz

A referendum effort launched by city unions over a controversial labor law can go ahead, according to a ruling from the Alaska Supreme Court on Friday.

The ruling comes just two days after the court heard oral arguments in the case, which city officials had appealed after an unfavorable ruling from a lower court judge in August.

The ruling is a victory for the city unions, who had initially been barred by the city from gathering signatures to put the labor law to a public vote, following passage of the measure by the Anchorage Assembly in March.

The speed of the decision "demonstrates that there wasn't a case there to begin with," said Andy Holleman, the president of the Anchorage Education Association and one of the union officials involved in the lawsuit. "I was wondering why it took so long," he joked.

"The outcome never really felt in doubt," he added. "But it's frustrating it's taken this long, it's taken this much money to get here."

The unions have spent at least $120,000 on legal fees, Holleman estimated, with about $20,000 of those costs covered by the city based on the lower court decision.

The city also entered into a $60,000 contract with an outside law firm to argue the Supreme Court case.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Dan Sullivan, a conservative whose administration drafted the "Responsible Labor Act" and spearheaded its passage, said he was unavailable for an interview Friday.

"I appreciate that this decision was a difficult one to make for the Supreme Court," Sullivan said in a written statement. "Their ruling will help provide some certainty in an otherwise murky area of law, and will allow voters to decide on whether fiscal and policy guidance on labor relations should be in the hands of the municipal Assembly or directed by special interests."

The collective-bargaining law, and the political process that led to its passage last spring, infuriated union officials and many city workers.

Following several packed hearings, the Assembly passed the measure by a 6-to-5 vote, after moving to cut off public testimony with dozens of people still waiting to speak.

In the arguments before the Supreme Court, the unions' attorney characterized the law as a sweeping measure curtailing the power of organized labor.

It limits raises to the rate of inflation plus 1 percent, and it also restricts the unions' right to strike, and eliminates the use of binding arbitration, among many provisions.

After the Assembly passed the law, the unions quickly tried to initiate a referendum campaign to repeal it. But their initial efforts were blocked in April by the city clerk, based on legal advice from the city attorney.

The attorney, Dennis Wheeler, said at the time that the labor law was "administrative" rather than "legislative," and thus too narrow and technical to legally be the subject of a referendum,

The unions then took the case to the lower court, where Judge Eric Aarseth ruled in August that the referendum campaign could go ahead.

Following Aarseth's ruling, the unions collected what they claimed was more than 22,000 signatures to put the question on the ballot -- far more than the 7,100 needed.

That effort suspended the law, pending the outcome of the referendum.

It's still unclear, however, when that referendum will occur. The Assembly has voted to schedule the referendum with the city election in April, but a parallel court case is pending over whether Sullivan can veto that date.

The two-page Supreme Court order was released early Friday afternoon. It says simply that the five justices had affirmed the lower court decision.

"An opinion will follow," the ruling said, without specifying a date.

While Holleman characterized the quick decision as evidence of the strength of the unions' case, Wheeler, the municipal attorney, maintained that courts often rule quickly in cases involving a public vote.

Both sides had asked the justices to rule by early February.

"This is typical for election issues," said Wheeler, referring to the two-day turnaround. "They will do hurry-up decisions, because everyone's waiting."

Wheeler acknowledged his office had been in an "uphill battle" in the case, but added that it would be difficult to determine how the judges viewed the city's arguments until a full opinion is released.

City officials have argued that a decision against them could open the door to more direct action involving unions that could interfere with government administration.

"Our greatest concern is whether or not labor relations becomes a playground for a whole lot of initiatives and referendum on both sides of the national tug of war between unions and local governments, and state governments," Wheeler said.

Despite the uncertainty around the referendum date, Gerard Asselin, a police officer and the chairman of the city's Coalition of Municipal Unions, said his group was preparing for the labor law to be placed on the ballot at the April election.

It's still a little early to kick off a campaign pushing for passage, he added. So in the mean time, Asselin and his fellow union members were relishing the Supreme Court decision.

He said that within half an hour of posting the news on Facebook, "I get like 35 likes and reposts."

"Clearly, people are invigorated by it," he said.