“22,136 sigs to #repeal37! Thank you #anchorage!”
This was a tweet sent out yesterday just before lunch time. It came from the group fighting the controversial anti-labor law passed by the Anchorage Assembly in March of this year. The journey from then to today has been a roller coaster ride to say the least.
From there to here.
On February 8, Assembly Chair Ernie Hall (who at one point ran as a Democrat for Lieutenant Governor) surprised his West Anchorage constituents when he announced the ordinance at the request of Mayor Dan Sullivan. He did so one day after the candidate filing deadline for the municipality. Hall was up for reelection. Labor unions were shown the bill for the first time that same day, and it was put before the Assembly the next.
Droves of union members and supporters filled the Loussac Library in objection to the bill, which sought to radically change the city’s labor laws. Staggeringly lopsided testimony in opposition to the measure demanded the bulk of the next two regular meetings, and spurred three additional special meetings. Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson noted that out of 1,600 speakers, just three supported Ordinance 37. She reported that 72 percent of emails also were against the measure.
On March 12, with hundreds (including myself) still lined up to testify, Hall decided by majority vote of the body to close testimony. The following Tuesday, March 26, a 6-5 vote reversed the overwhelming public sentiment and made the ordinance law.
The following week, a repeal effort was underway. The effort would have to translate to 7,200 signatures collected over a month in order to suspend the law until it could be put on a ballot. City attorney Dennis Wheeler rejected the language petition. KTUU reported at the time:
In an 12-page memo explaining his counsel, Wheeler lays out three reasons for rejecting the petition: it didn’t specifically refer to the ordinance by its formal title — “AO 2013-37(S-2)(as amended)” — instead calling it “AO 37,” its supporting statements include material considered inaccurate by city officials, and it addressed an administrative measure rather than a legislative ordinance.
Democracy screeched to a halt due to an abbreviation?
Wheeler wasn’t just being nit picky about procedure. He also determined that the administrative nature of the ordinance exempted it from a voter referendum, as if the measure were just updating some typos in the existing code.
In late August, Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth disagreed. “It’s a new law,” he was quoted in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “It is not one that existed before, and has far-sweeping implications.”
The Anchorage Daily News covered the ruling from the bench: “The decision was sweeping: Aarseth ordered the ordinance to be suspended immediately and said that Anchorage officials should issue the union groups their petition forms by Thursday at noon.”
The Repeal 37 group wasted no time, bringing us back to Monday’s breaking news: In less than a month, they gathered close-to-triple the amount of needed signatures. Over 22,000 signed the petition to put a repeal vote on the ballot. That’s five times as many votes as Ernie Hall received in last year’s election; more than every municipal vote cast for the two seats in West Anchorage.
Where we’re going next.
The city still may choose to appeal Aarseth’s ruling, a course of action Wheeler has hinted might be pursued. If the ruling stands, the administration will have to decide one of three courses to take: schedule a special election, put it on the April ballot (the law would be suspended until voted upon), or nix the law outright.
We can confidently rule out the third option. But the remaining two force Mayor Sullivan to make a political calculation.
Option One: The repeal effort could go on a special election ballot. On his blog, Assemblyman Patrick Flynn projected those costs could run to $250,000 or more. That could anger his fiscally conservative base in the middle of a campaign for Lieutenant Governor.
Option Two: The repeal effort could be added to April’s regular municipal election. No added cost, but plenty of risk for Sullivan. The current makeup of the Assembly generally favors the mayor by a 6-5 margin (the same margin that afforded AO37 passage). April’s ballot includes a majority of the body – six seats – up for grabs. The addition of the labor law repeal could leave two seats – those currently held by Assembly members Adam Trombley and Chris Birch – vulnerable. Without it, he might have a better shot ousting Assembly members Elvi Gray-Jackson and Tim Steele. Eagle River and Downtown are not subject to any sudden political about face.
What the ordinance would do.
AO37 restricts the collective bargaining rights of city unions. It bans strikes, work stoppages, or slowdowns without exception. The measure also puts the Assembly in charge of labor disputes, taking that out of the hands of an independent arbitrator, but sticking them with a lot of the costs. Gone are the concepts of longevity and performance-based pay. Employee pay and benefits are frozen. And “managed competition” is instituted, allowing private contractors to bid against city workers.
In a state that already struggles to fill quality jobs, the answer is not to remove the “quality” part. The mayor’s wild dreams of turning Anchorage into the next seaside metropolis and host of the 2026 Winter Olympics have none chance of happening on the backs of cheap labor. There is no incentive for growth given Alaska’s already-high cost of living unless the pay offsets it.
Back during the public testimony period – the part where people were still allowed to speak – one opponent of Ordinance 37 caught my attention and reminded me one of the reasons I am so proud of Anchorage and her city workers.