New effort to repeal Anchorage labor law comes from a Sullivan ally

Nathaniel Herz

There's a new effort to repeal Mayor Dan Sullivan's controversial labor law, and this time it comes from Jennifer Johnston, one of Sullivan's traditional allies on the Anchorage Assembly.

Johnston says she wants to avoid the $400,000-plus expense of a scheduled November referendum law -- and she acknowledged she's also concerned about the potential for the public to overturn the measure, which has been fiercely opposed by unions.

If voters repeal the law, the Assembly would be barred from re-enacting the measure for two years under city code.

At a Friday meeting of a new Assembly subcommittee on labor issues, Johnston unveiled a proposal that would repeal the labor law, known as AO-37, and replace it with a watered-down substitute that includes some, but not all, of the original changes.

Johnston's version removes prohibitions on striking, provisions that allowed the city to outsource union work, and language that eliminated binding arbitration. Gerard Asselin, the president of the Anchorage Coalition of Municipal Unions, called Johnston's proposal "AO-37 lite."

"This is trying to hit something down the middle," Johnston said in a phone interview Friday. "I'm hoping that I get a consensus from the mayor, consensus from the Assembly members, and somewhat of a consensus from the unions. Not all of us will like all of it."

A spokeswoman for Sullivan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Johnston said she wants more discussion about her proposal at the Assembly subcommittee's next meeting, in two weeks.

Sullivan has been battling Anchorage's municipal unions and their Assembly allies over the labor law since it was passed by a 6-5 margin more than a year ago.

The measure has been suspended since August, when a Superior Court judge ruled that a union referendum campaign was legally valid, in spite of arguments from city officials.

Assembly members then voted in October to repeal the law entirely, but Sullivan vetoed that effort, and proponents of the repeal lacked the eight votes required for an override by the 11-member body.

Labor law opponents said Friday they were open to discussing Johnston's proposal, though they were not particularly enthusiastic about its contents. Assemblyman Dick Traini, who's been the chief advocate of repeal, said Johnston was only compromising because she was afraid voters would reject the law in November.

Traini said he will propose his own measure at the Assembly's first meeting in June that would repeal the law without leaving any of its changes in place. If that passes, Traini said, then he'd be willing to discuss a compromise package.

While Traini acknowledged that there might not be eight Assembly members who'd support his proposal in a vacuum -- the number needed to get past Sullivan's veto -- he stressed that he's now working from a position of strength.

If his opponents don't want to play ball, Traini said, then he'll simply withhold his support for Johnston's measure and let the public decide.

"Can we get to eight? That's the million dollar question. But I am willing, if we can't get eight, to give it to voters in November," he said. "I have no doubt at all it will go down in flames. If this side wants to get something out of it, negotiate with us -- let's see what common ground we can find."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.