Deciphering AO-37, Anchorage’s Labor Law

Anchorage’s controversial labor law, commonly referred to as AO-37, will be on the ballot this November. The mayor and his administration want you to vote yes to keep it. The municipal unions want voters to get rid of it. 

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AO-37 is also called the Responsible Labor Law. The version that passed in 2013, and that the Assembly tried to repeal twice, is 36-pages long. Tucked into the endless verbiage, deletions, and changes, four points jump out.

Mayor Dan Sullivan said one of the goals of AO-37 is to make the municipality more efficient and save money by standardizing benefit packages, overtime pay and holiday schedules.

“When you’ve got department heads trying to manage a workforce and that workforce has different holiday schedules, different definitions of overtime, different benefit packages, it gets really difficult to manage that workforce,” he explained.

Sullivan said standardization makes the costs of union contracts more transparent to taxpayers as well, though all union contracts are already posted on the municipality’s website.

Another major change from the original 25-year-old labor law is the elimination of all pay incentives. Unions can no longer bargain for increased pay for specialized training or for earning a college degree. The mayor said the incentives don’t provide any benefits to the city.

Police Sgt. Gerard Asselin explained those pay incentives aren’t just bonuses, they’re necessary for recruiting top quality candidates to do things like join SWAT teams or develop critical thinking skills through higher education.

“I would suggest to you that what we’re doing is failing to recognize the additional work responsibility, liability that people take on over and above the average job,” he said referring to tasks like training new officers or repairing specialized equipment.

Asselin argued incentives are needed to balance quality of life issues, like being called to work on holidays. He said not all of the incentives are monetary, which brings us to point three: management rights.

Asselin said it’s easier to work a dangerous 24/7 job, like being a cop, when you know you have a say in when you work. Even though he knows he could get called out at any moment, he said, controlling his overall schedule gives him way to balance work and home life.

AO-37 takes away that right and gives it to management. Sullivan said that’s how it works in the private sector, and it should be the same in government.

“What’s the definition of management?” the mayor asked. “You manage your workforce. What does managing your workforce mean? It means you decide what shifts, what schedules, who gets assigned what work at what time. That’s what management does.”

Sullivan said the decisions would stay with department heads. Asselin said previous and present administrations have tried to override department scheduling decisions.

Finally, AO-37 prohibits strikes and binding arbitration. If the administration and the unions can’t reach an agreement during negotiations or mediation, an arbitrator will choose between the two sides’ last best offers. Then the Anchorage Assembly will vote on it. Asselin said it’s not fair to the employees.

“Under AO-37 it creates a structure where the municipality can start with something that’s completely unreasonable, stick with it through out the entire process, go to an arbitrator, and if a super majority of the assembly doesn’t approve it, it goes back to the management’s last best offer,” he explained. “So there’s no compelling interest to bargain in good faith when you hold all the cards and in the end, you get exactly what you want.”

Sullivan said the new process puts the decision into the hands of the locally elected Assembly instead of an arbitrator from outside. He said Anchorage residents can vote assembly members out of office if they don’t agree with their decisions. Those elections happen in April.

The decision to vote AO-37 on or off the books happens on November 4th.

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After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan. ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne