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Anchorage Assembly to debate compromise on labor law Tuesday

Devin Kelly

A proposal spearheaded by Anchorage Assembly member Jennifer Johnston to hammer out a compromise on the municipality’s controversial labor law is coming down to the wire, with a vote scheduled for Tuesday.

The labor law, also known as Assembly Ordinance 37 -- the March 2013 passage of which was led by Mayor Dan Sullivan -- sharply cut back union power and stirred up a firestorm among labor leaders.

They ultimately led a referendum campaign to repeal the law that gathered more than 20,000 signatures. The measure has been suspended since last August as Sullivan sparred with Anchorage Assembly members over when the election would take place.

The referendum is currently scheduled for November. In mid-May, Johnston unveiled the compromise measure as a way to avert what was expected to be a $400,000-plus expense of holding a special election. Her measure, which labor unions have referred to as “AO-37 lite,” omits provisions in the original law, like eliminating unions’ right to strike and seek binding arbitration.

The state has since offered to place the referendum on its Nov. 4 general election ballot for free, but Johnston continued to confer with the municipal attorney’s office and union representatives to “hit something down the middle,” as she put it.

"The municipality is working with the unions, and not for the unions," she said Friday. 

Tuesday’s Assembly meeting is the last chance for the Assembly to repeal the labor law in its entirety and replace it with Johnston’s compromise measure for the purpose of avoiding the referendum. The deadline for the Assembly to ask the state to remove the referendum from the November ballot is Aug. 18; the next scheduled Assembly meeting is Aug. 26.

But if Johnston’s measure passes, it’s not yet clear whether she has the eight votes required to override a mayoral veto.

At an hourlong work session on Friday, Bill Evans, the chair of the Assembly subcommittee on labor, said the parties involved -- Johnston, the municipal attorney’s office and various unions -- have been working to find common ground.

“I think both sides have made a good-faith effort to reach agreement,” Evans said.

Will Aitchison, the attorney for the police union, was also upbeat. He pointed out that of the 52 changes proposed by Johnston, the unions are willing to agree to 49 of them.

“Progress, right?” he said, addressing the Assembly members.  

But three sticking points remain before Tuesday’s meeting. The Anchorage Coalition of Unions has proposed amendments to elements of Johnston’s measure that it says take collective bargaining rights away from some of its members and give the city authority over equipment, staffing and scheduling. The coalition is trying to return to the language of the original ordinance, before the new labor law passed.

Gerard Asselin, president of the union coalition, called its proposed amendments “imperative.” Johnston, meanwhile, said she’ll work with the union representatives but also plans to hold firm.   

“It’s going to be a very testy weekend,” she said.

Johnston said that if there aren’t eight votes to override a mayoral veto going into Tuesday’s meeting, she plans to table the measure indefinitely. She said she also plans to postpone it in the event of a public filibuster.

The municipal attorney, Dennis Wheeler, is recommending that the Assembly vote first on the repeal of the labor law on Tuesday and then take up Johnston’s measure.