Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan backtracked Wednesday from controversial remarks he made earlier this week comparing rules that require union membership and payment of union dues to slavery.
The Anchorage arm of the NAACP called on Sullivan to apologize for his comments and released a statement to the Associated Press saying that the comparison "diminishes how horrible and tragic" slavery was.
Unions have also attacked Sullivan's comments, which he made at a candidate forum Monday. Sullivan, a Republican, is running for lieutenant governor.
After first defending the remarks at a press conference mid-day Wednesday, Sullivan released a statement at 4:30 p.m. saying he understands the sensitivity of the word "slavery."
"To me, the term has no racial connotations except that people of all races may be prohibited from holding certain jobs unless they pay tribute to an organization they may not support," he said in the later statement. "I do, however, understand the sensitivity that the term slavery connotes and I apologize if the use of the word offended anyone."
At Monday's forum, Sullivan was asked about right-to-work legislation, which guarantees that employees can perform work without having to join a union or pay union dues.
He responded by saying that he supports the legislation, adding, "Nobody should ever have to basically pay a fee to someone else to get a job in this state. We ended slavery a long time ago."
He told reporters afterward that he viewed mandatory payment of dues as "economic slavery."
At hispress conference mid-day Wednesday, Sullivan was asked to respond to the NAACP's request.
"I don't think an apology is necessary, considering that the remark was made in terms of economic slavery," he said then. "Economically, if you have to pay somebody else that you don't want to associate with just to have a job, that's a form of economic slavery. I realize that some people think that's a hot-button term, but it has meaning beyond just what its historical context might have been for a particular group in America."
Sullivan has been in a high-profile battle with local unions over the last year, following the passage of a city labor law in March 2013 that sharply curtailed union power.
Unions have also condemned Sullivan's remarks. The Anchorage Central Labor Council issued its own press release Wednesday responding to what it called "inflammatory rhetoric."
"Likening the payment of union dues, a condition of voluntary employment known well in advance by job seekers who accept represented employment, to slavery, a condition of involuntary servitude, demonstrates the depth of his misguided agenda to weaken the middle class," the CLC said in a statement.
Reach Nathaniel Herz at email@example.com or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ