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Alaska Supreme Court Weighs Labor Law Referendum

By | January 9, 2014 - 5:09 pm

The Supreme Court is now weighing whether to allow a voter referendum that would repeal Anchorage’s controversial labor law.

Attorneys on both sides of the issue made their cases before the justices on Wednesday.

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Union supporters rally in protest of AO37 outside an Assembly meeting in February. Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA - Anchorage.

Union supporters rally in protest of AO37 outside an Assembly meeting in February. Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

About two dozen people sat in the audience while attorneys for the Municipality of Anchorage and Labor supporters argued before five Supreme Court Justices.

Attorney Michael Gatti argued for the city that the referendum should not go ahead. He said the labor law is inherently administrative in character not legislative, something the municipality has argued from the beginning, and therefore should not go before voters.

“We believe that this is not a matter that is subject to direct democracy an not subject to the referenda,” Gatti said.

The referendum allows voters to decide whether the labor ordinance, also known as AO-37, should be reversed. The Assembly passed the law last March despite protests. The ordinance takes away municipal workers right to strike and restricts collective bargaining rights. It would affect more than 2,000 city employees.

Related: Anchorage Labor Law Headed For Alaska Supreme Court

Attorney Susan Orlansky who represented labor supporters argued the referendum should proceed.

“What’s really going on here is that this ordinance in it’s entirely makes new law that fundamentally shifts the balance of power between labor and management in Anchorage,” Orlansky said. “And that’s what we’re asking the public to vote on.”

The overarching question, Orlansky says, is: does Anchorage want management to have more power and labor less?

Andy Holleman who is President of the Anchorage Education Association and one of the people who brought the case to court says it’s a simple decision that voters are equipped to make.

Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler and Anchorage Assembly Attorney Julie Tucker discuss the Mayor's veto power with Assembly Chair Ernie Hall as Assembly member Dick Traini rushes back to his seat in Assembly Chambers at Loussac Library Tuesday.

Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler and Anchorage Assembly Attorney Julie Tucker discuss the Mayor’s veto power with Assembly Chair Ernie Hall as Assembly member Dick Traini rushes back to his seat in Assembly Chambers at Loussac Library Tuesday.

“What we’re doing is reversing the Assembly’s action on a given night,” Hollemans aid. “This puts it back like it was and the city can come forward again with different aspects that they think matter.”

“And hopefully they can do it in the right way with real input from everybody in advance this time.”

Anchorage Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler disagrees and says if the Supreme Court allows the Referendum to go ahead and it passes it could undermine the power of the city’s legislative body and spur more litigation and referenda around labor issues.

“You know we already have a lot of give an take in our labor negotiations. We have arbitrations over what the contracts mean. We have grievances over what the contracts mean. We have nine different unions to deal with. We have budgetary issues every year,” Wheeler said. “So yeah, I was always worried that this would open a flood gate.”

A flood gate that would be hard to close, he says.

The Deputy Clerk for the Municipality requested the judges have a decision by late February so that she would have time to prepare ballots for elections slated for April.

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