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Anchorage labor law referendum: When will voters get to weigh in?

Sean Doogan
Tara Young photo

Members of the Anchorage Assembly took public testimony Wednesday night on several proposals to set an election date for voters to weigh in on a controversial rewrite of the labor law that governs negotiations between the city of Anchorage and unions representing municipal employees.

Noticeably absent from the meeting was the labor rewrite’s biggest proponent, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan 

At the meeting, Assembly Chair Ernie Hall of West Anchorage confirmed that the new rule, known as AO-37, is suspended pending the outcome of the recall election and an Alaska Supreme Court decision over whether a recall can even proceed. The city thinks the ordinance is an administrative ruling and thus ineligible for a voter referendum. But a lower court found thst AO-37 is a legislative matter, and not an administrative one. Legislation can be recalled by voters under the Municipal Charter.

The Supreme Court told city and union attorneys earlier Wednesday that it would be able to hear the case and make a decision before February 16, 2014.  That’s the deadline for the City Clerk to get the issue on the ballot in time for the April 1, 2014 municipal election.

Controversial cost saving measure, or union-busting?

AO-37 was passed by a narrow 6-5 margin in March. It was introduced by Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan’s office as a way of limiting growing city labor costs. It would limit the ability of municipal unions to negotiate with the city, and would also empower the Assembly -- not an independent arbiter -- as the final word in contract negotiations. 

AO-37 was fast-tracked by the Sullivan administration over the fierce objection of organized labor. And almost as soon as the ordinance passed, the eight unions representing anchorage municipal workers got to work organizing a repeal.

Signatures were gathered from voters across the city to place the issue before voters in an upcoming municipal election. On Sept. 6 the City Clerk certified the AO-37 "Responsible Labor Act" veto referendum -- had garnered more than the necessary 7,124 voter signatures.

Most of the people who testified before the Assembly Wednesday supported a quick vote on the referendum to overturn AO-37. Many were upset with Assembly proposals to delay until as late as April 2015.

AO-37 would limit city employee raises to 1% per year, prevent municipal unions from striking, eliminate seniority bonuses, set the Anchorage Assembly as the arbiter in the event of a labor dispute, and limit union contracts to three-year terms.  Mayor Sullivan said it would save the city money. Unions see it as an attack on collective bargaining.

“It has created a lot of distrust between the employees and the Administration,” said Derek Hsieh, president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association (APDEA) – the union representing the city’s police force.

Hsieh said the ordinance, if not repealed, would force the city to negotiate with the APDEA using the National Fair Labor Standards Act. Hsieh said that would mean police officers would not be subject to normal overtime rules – where officers get paid extra for working more than 8 hours in a day or 40 hours in a week.  Hsieh said the Act would require future APDEA contracts to include paying officers overtime, only if they work more than 171 hours over 4 weeks. 

“Time off would not count, so if an officer went moose hunting for a week, he would then have to work almost 60 hours per week before he would get overtime pay,” Hsieh said.

City unions say AO-37 already affecting municipal departments

Despite a union contract that’s good through Dec. 31, 2014, the prospect of the new ordinance, and its impact on police pay, is already hurting Anchorage Police Department recruitment efforts, according to Hsieh.

Anchorage’s population is growing at a healthy clip yet its force – responsible for policing inside municipal boundaries, which stretch from the 

Knik River Bridge north of Chugiak all the way to Girdwood, 40 miles south of city limits – is down to around 340 sworn officers. That’s the smallest force in more than a decade, Hsieh said, adding that applicants are dwindling.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) is a labor union representing two groups of municipal personnel: 70 fleet mechanics and the employees of Municipal Light & Power electric utility. The mechanics have completed their negotiations with the Sullivan administration for a new contract but Mike Hodsdon, the union’s business manager, said the specter of AO 37 is complicating the process for ML&P.

“It’s affecting the negotiations, because no one is sure if they should be using the current negotiating rules, or be using the ones outlined in AO-37,” he said.

A decision on how quickly the city may get to vote on the issue – assuming the Supreme Court allows a vote to proceed – was tabled Wednesday night and rescheduled for the next Assembly meeting, on Oct. 22.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com