Mayor Sullivan, union reps argue Anchorage labor law in televised forum

The first televised forum on the Anchorage labor law referendum aired Thursday night on KTVA, with Mayor Dan Sullivan and former Assembly member Chris Birch facing off with union representatives in a generally polite, if tense, event less than a month before the November vote.

KTVA anchor and moderator James Gaddis opened by saying the forum and others planned by KTVA are not meant to be formal debates on general election propositions "but more of a conversation with people on either side of important issues of the day."

For a measure as complicated as the labor law, the length and format of the broadcast offered little opportunity for new information to come to light. Gaddis ticked through the more controversial aspects of the law -- eliminating the binding arbitration process for police and fire unions, removing the right to strike (which applies only to non-public-safety unions), eliminating bonuses based on seniority and outsourcing some work done by city employees -- and asked each side to weigh in.

Sullivan was joined by Birch, who is chairing a Yes on 1 campaign committee to uphold the law, also known as Anchorage Ordinance 37 or AO-37.

The labor side was represented by Tom Wescott, a captain in the Anchorage Fire Department and president of the Alaska Professional Firefighters Association, and Angelina Fraize, a member of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association and an APD sergeant.

Sullivan and Birch used words like "accountability" in discussing the goals of the law, such as curbing labor costs and transferring some powers from unions to management. Wescott and Fraize, meanwhile, focused on recruitment and retention, and fairness in the negotiation process.

The opposing views on the law were reflected in a discussion about its elimination of binding arbitration for public-safety unions, which would end the practice of bringing in an independent authority to resolve disputes between unions and the city. The seven other municipal bargaining units have had the ability to strike but do not have binding arbitration; the Anchorage Assembly essentially acts as the arbiter.


Sullivan said the labor law restores control of the negotiation process to voters, through their elected representatives; Fraize and Wescott said the law would take away the ability for unions to have fair, reasonable negotiations.

On employee overtime, often framed as costly to the municipality, Fraize and Wescott stressed that it is a result of reduced staffing levels, as employees are forced to work extra hours to fill the gaps.

Sullivan went on the defensive, rejecting a suggestion that he had "berated" public employees for working overtime. He noted that the Assembly recently allocated funds to increase paramedic staffing and that a police academy graduated 20 new officers this week.

Only at certain moments did the atmosphere become heated. At the end of the forum, Sullivan and Wescott began to spar across the table over who was responsible for a city software project's missed deadlines and cost overruns.

KTVA will be airing similarly structured programs on the Bristol Bay mining ban on Oct. 16 and on the legalization of marijuana on Oct. 23.

The second half of Thursday's broadcast, following the labor law forum, featured a new set of panelists discussing the minimum wage.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.