Sullivan Digs in to Battle with Unions, Assembly Questions Plan

Anchorage Assembly members met with Mayor Dan Sullivan and Municipal attorneys Friday for a work session on the Mayor’s proposal to limit unions. Ordinance number 37 is aimed at cutting costs and limiting the union power of municipal workers. It was introduced at the Anchorage Assembly last week, where and estimated more than 1,000 people showed up to rally against it.

In the Mayor’s conference room on the 8th floor of city hall on Friday, it was all paper shuffling and legalese. Municipal attorneys spent about two hours explaining Ordinance 37. It mostly sounded like this.

“And in section C, that’s on the bottom of page 17, what we’ve noted is that the parties can continue negotiating, but only up to 150 days by mutual consent. This is to avoid these negotiations that go on for a year, two years, three years – we get way down the road and have a big mess to unravel.”2013-02-15 02.46.54

That’s William Earnhart, who’s an assistant municipal attorney with the Municipality of Anchorage. Ordinance 37 would change a 40-plus-year-old part of city code that sets the rules for how union and the municipality interact. Mayor Sullivan says the changes are needed to control spending and update practices to make the municipality more efficient. The changes include a program of managed competition, that would allow the municipality to contract work out the lowest bidder. Police and fire would be exempt.

Friday, the mayor said EMT’s would be spared as well. One of the main things the ordinance does, is tie wages for workers to an average for the past five years of consumer price index. Why? Sullivan.

“It’s kind of the guiding number so that we don’t pass contracts that then force you to cut services because they’re so expensive. And that’s what I’ve been going through for the past five years. And I want to leave a legacy for future mayor’s will have a cap on those sort of costs so that you don’t have to cut services to the people.”

Mayor Sullivan said he had been preparing to propose the changes for several years and had attorneys working on the proposal for months. The changes would impact around 2,200 municipal employees, from accountants to police officers and firefighters. Besides putting time limits on union negotiations and locking pay to a 5-year average of the cpi, the ordinance would shrink benefit options, which Sullivan says are way to complicated.

“As was pointed out in the work session, we’ve got a healthcare plan with over 680 potential options. It is so difficult to manage. You go to any big organization today, including as was reference both the school district, the university, large corporations like ConocoPhillips and others. They offer good health care plans, but they’re so much simpler, that’s what we’re trying to get to.”

The Mayor’s proposal also takes away the option of arbitration when a third party settles a dispute between unions and the city. Instead, the final decision on labor agreements would come down to a vote of the Assembly. Some worried the Mayor could veto an Assembly decision. The ordinance would also take away the ability for municipal workers to strike. In addition, it standardizes leave and overtime across departments, among other things.

Assembly member Paul Honeman asked why such a comprehensive overhaul was needed in such a relatively short period of time. Sullivan says he wants the ordinance passed by the Anchorage Assembly before upcoming labor negotiations in late March or early April. Assembly member Elvi-Gray-Jackson said the mayor should have included labor in the formation of the proposal. She said putting the final word on labor agreements in the hands of the assembly would be poor public process.

“Assemblies change. You know you have, from any given year, a conservative assembly, a more progressive assembly and it’s just not fair to the public to have the assembly make the decision on a union contract, at that level. The arbitration process was put in place for a reason: to lead the Assembly out of that process. And to change it just doesn’t make sense. It’s just not fair to the public.”

There will be a second work session at noon on Wednesday, February 20 in the mayor’s conference room on the eighth floor of City Hall, where labor leaders will make a presentation. Assembly Chair Ernie Hall said he would likely move public testimony on Ordinance 37 to a special meeting on Wednesday, February 27th. Hall also said he was hoping to expand the meeting to include the Wilda Marston Theatre in addition to the assembly chambers.

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Daysha Eaton, KMXT - Kodiak
Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.