November vote set for controversial labor-law referendum

Nathaniel Herz

The long-awaited referendum on a controversial labor law will occur next fall, following a vote by the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night.

The Assembly's 11 members split narrowly along typical lines to schedule the vote for November. The six who backed the November date -- Chris Birch, Jennifer Johnston, Ernie Hall, Adam Trombley, Amy Demboski, and Bill Starr -- are the six who are most often aligned with Mayor Dan Sullivan.

The five who voted against the measure -- Tim Steele, Dick Traini, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Paul Honeman, and Patrick Flynn -- are typically opposed to Sullivan's initiatives, and all oppose the labor law.

The vote concluded nine months of uncertainty surrounding the referendum -- a period that included two separate lawsuits, one filed by Sullivan and one filed by leaders of city unions, which reached state Supreme Court.

The Assembly decision Tuesday was a victory for Sullivan, and for the labor law's backers, who have argued that pushing back the vote to match the state election in November would result in higher turnout.

It also would likely diminish the impact of pro-union voters, who were expected to surge to the polls if the referendum had been set for the regular municipal election in April -- the date that labor leaders had been hoping the Assembly would set for the referendum.

In October, Assembly members had passed a measure setting the referendum for April, but Sullivan vetoed it.

The labor law has been enormously controversial since it passed in March by a 6 to 5 vote, with municipal unions mounting a vigorous campaign to repeal it.

The law is currently suspended, pending the outcome of the referendum vote.

Sullivan, whose administration introduced the measure, had said it would bring the Anchorage's labor relations code up to date, and make the city more efficient.

But the city unions objected to many of the provisions in the law, which curtailed their rights to strike, capped the growth in their compensation, and eliminated the use of binding arbitration.

Brief debate during Tuesday's meeting focused on the city charter. It allowed the Assembly to set the referendum either for a regular or special election within 75 days of the most recent court decision -- which most likely would have been the April 1 municipal election -- or, at "a later regular or special election," as long as members agreed to keep the labor law suspended in the mean time.

Steele, who represents West Anchorage, argued that the charter's authors simply meant to allow Assembly members to push a referendum back to the next city election, even if it's more than 75 days away -- but not any later.

"It may satisfy the letter but not the intent of the law," he said, referring to the November option. "The assumption, and I think that's borne out by the 75-day rule, is that it will be held in a timely manner."

Demboski, who represents Chugiak and Eagle River, maintained that the postponement was "consistent" with the charter.


By Nathaniel Herz