Labor law repeal to hit Assembly, again, on Tuesday

Nathaniel Herz

The latest effort to defeat a controversial city labor law will hit the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night as members consider a complicated array of options from repealing the measure outright to replacing it with a watered-down version to leaving it as a referendum question on the state ballot in November's election.

The fight over the labor law, a measure Mayor Dan Sullivan spearheaded last year, has already been through two separate court cases and a referendum campaign for repeal that organizers say drew more than 20,000 petition signatures.

The measure's future is now murky as ever as Assembly members and representatives of 10 labor groups chewed over their options at a 40-minute committee meeting Friday.

"It's really confusing," Derek Hsieh, president of the city police union, said in a phone interview. Asked what was likely to happen next, he responded: "I actually have no idea."

Friday's meeting was technically a gathering of the Assembly's four-member "Ad Hoc Labor Subcommittee" appointed by Assembly Chair Patrick Flynn, who represents downtown.

Flynn had charged the group -- South Anchorage members Bill Evans and Jennifer Johnston as well as West Anchorage's Tim Steele and Midtown's Dick Traini -- with finding a way to avoid the expected costs of holding a referendum vote on the labor law, known as AO-37, alongside the state election in November.

The referendum had been scheduled for that date following an Assembly vote this year, with an expected $440,000 price tag for running a parallel city vote with the state election.

But Deputy Municipal Clerk Amanda Moser announced at Friday's meeting that state officials have tentatively agreed to put the city's referendum question on the state ballot at no cost.

Assembly members now have four options to consider, according to Evans, a labor attorney who's chairing the committee. They include:

• Allowing the referendum to go ahead at the November election, as it's currently scheduled.

• Postponing the referendum to next April's regular city election, which was earlier being weighed as a way to avoid the $440,000 cost that officials initially predicted for holding the referendum in November.

• Repeal the labor law entirely, which will be an option at Tuesday evening's Assembly meeting when a measure sponsored by Traini comes up for a public hearing.

• Repeal the law and replace it with a watered-down version -- potentially a compromise measure that Johnston will introduce Tuesday, which labor officials are referring to as "AO-37 lite."

City union members -- who numbered just over 1,350 as of last fall -- are vehemently opposed to the labor law in its current form, though the measure is currently suspended pending the outcome of the referendum.

The law, which passed by a 6-5 vote just days before a city election, was a sweeping rewrite of city code that tilted the balance toward management. Among many elements it curtailed unions' rights to strike, capped the growth in their compensation and set up systems to outsource some of their work.

While more than half of the Assembly's 11 members now oppose the law and are likely to vote for Traini's repeal measure, it's unclear whether he has the eight votes needed to override a potential veto by Sullivan.

A spokeswoman for Sullivan didn't respond to a request for an interview but in a text message the mayor said his position hasn't changed on a repeal of the law, which he successfully vetoed after an Assembly vote in October.

Johnston's proposal, she has said, is designed to "hit something down the middle" and to avoid the repeal of the labor law through a referendum. The city charter bars the Assembly from re-enacting a law in the two years following a repeal by voters.

Johnston's measure removes some of the labor law's provisions most offensive to unions, like its restrictions on striking.

She introduced an initial draft of her proposal at the labor committee's first meeting, in May, and has since solicited feedback on it from municipal unions.

Several labor officials said in interviews Friday that they were open to some kind of a compromise.

"The Assembly members and the unions could come to an agreement on AO-37 lite," said Hsieh, the police union president, adding that there are elements of "housekeeping" in union contracts that could be revised.

"People in labor -- we're used to negotiating a lot of different issues, solving all sorts of personnel issues and stuff. It's doable," he said.

But that process could take several months and would require flexibility from Johnston, according to labor officials.

Several unions have already provided Johnston with feedback about elements of her proposal that still don't work for them.

The firefighters union, for example, says Johnston's new measure would force them to give the city all authority over equipment, staffing and scheduling decisions.

"It's definitely stacking the deck toward the house," said Eric Tuott, the union's vice president. "It still completely takes us away from being able to bargain and being able to advocate for us and the safety of our members."

Johnston, a Sullivan ally who supported the original version of the labor law, said she couldn't attend Friday's committee meeting but added in a phone interview that she's open to the unions' ideas.

"I'm more than willing to have a conversation about it -- I really am," she said. "I want the municipality to be working with the unions, but I don't want them to be working for the unions. That is my policy, that's my goal, and so, how do we work that out?"

Sullivan, in his text message, said he doesn't believe that there are enough votes on the Assembly to pass a compromise version of the labor law.

In an interview, Traini said Sullivan will have to budge in his opposition to repeal if he wants to preserve any elements of the original labor law.

If the decision is left to voters, Traini added, they'll repeal it in the referendum and put the original changes off-limits, thanks to the city charter.

"If (Sullivan) is really interested in substantial changes in his dealings with labor then he's got to change his policy," Traini said. "Otherwise, come November it's going to get repealed, and then for two years you can't address those issues.

Sullivan didn't reply to a follow-up text message asking for a response.

Barbara Huff, president of a local Teamsters group, told members at Friday's committee meeting that she was getting impatient with the drawn-out fight over the labor law.

"Can we just drop this and move forward? We just sat here this afternoon and wasted everybody's time," she said. "It's frustrating. It's real frustrating. And we all have jobs."