ANCHORAGE - Mayor Dan Sullivan’s office released a proposal last Friday afternoon that aims to dramatically overhaul the city’s relationship with unions. And representatives from eight unions gathered this morning to respond.
Their response was unanimous: they don’t like it.
“These changes have been proposed without conversation with the employee groups affected,” said Jillane Inglis, vice president of the Anchorage Municipal Employee Association. Representing over 500 employees—from public health nurses to librarians—she said the mayor’s ordinance “does not show good faith negotiation.”
The union representatives said they had an early morning meeting with the mayor at eight o’clock Monday. They described a ten-minute meeting that left them with more questions than answers.
“We have a model that's been in place for about 44 years,” said Sgt. Gerard Asselin with the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association. “And the mayor appears to have sought to change this, and… I'm concerned at how much impact this might have, yet how little planning went into it.”
One part of the ordinance unions took issue with was the significant changes to how the city undertakes collective bargaining with unions. Under the new ordinance, strikes are prohibited, and the Anchorage Assembly can be called upon to decide which contract—the one offered by the city, or the one offered by the union—will ultimately be accepted.
“The proposal completely usurps the collective bargaining process by changing how the game is played,” said Greg Walker, who represents about 140 plumbers and steamfitters in Local 367. “But more importantly it changed the standard for how the process works in the future, the administration simply doesn't like how things are working, so it change the rules and changes the game again.”
Anchorage Fire Fighters Union President Rod Harris agreed, and said that giving final arbitration to the Anchorage Assembly would overtly politicize elections. “Right now, our work is done at the negotiating table,” he said. But if the ordinance passes, “our work will have to be done electing officials who will support public safety and community services.”
Harris also took issue with the ordinance’s introduction of managed competition, what the ordinance calls “the right of the municipality to contract with other entities” to do city work.
“Managed competition is another word for privatization,” Harris said. “It allows the mayor to hire private contractors to perform city services,” and while the ordinance exempts fire fighters and police from managed competition, Harris has concerns about how it could limit ambulance services in the city.
“When we take a chunk of that away, not only are we losing the ability to deliver EMS to the city any more, but we're losing a lot of our fire fighting resources,” Harris said. And private ambulances have not always worked, he continued: in some cities that replaced a municipal service with a private company, Harris said “those companies have closed up shop and gone away at a moments notice, and left the city holding the bag wondering how we can provide these services.”
Anchorage Assembly Chair Ernie Hall is sponsoring the mayor’s ordinance. He said he doesn’t agree with everything in the mayor’s proposal, but things that the negotiations have to start somewhere. “We’ve got a lot of incongruities in our labor contracts,” Hall said, describing a Byzantine system involving hundreds of healthcare providers, separate calendars for holidays, and different standards for compensation. “It's unbelievable, and if there’s one thing we should do as an organization, it’s try to sort it out, so we're all playing by the same rules.”
After his morning meeting with the unions, Mayor Sullivan traveled to Juneau for the Alaska Municipal League. In a phone interview this afternoon, he said many of the ordinance’s provisions were inspired by the rules in Juneau, and that the timing was right. “We need to do it before we get in to contract negotiations which will start here in just a few weeks,” he said, “and the reason was we want labor agreements that are consistent, that are simple to understand, and that are fair to both sides.”
As for putting the final decision on contracts with the assembly, and eliminating a third-party arbiter for contract negotiations, Sullivan said it’s the right move. “We're putting forth our idea, there are certainly free to disagree and put forth their own idea,” he said in response to the concerns raised by union reps. “Arbitrators are expensive, and we feel the assembly has been elected to make these kinds of decisions. Remember that arbitrator’s decisions go to the assembly anyway, so what you've added is just an extra step in the process.”
And the mayor said he thinks unifying the city’s thousands of employees under one set of rules—and implementing strict three-year limits for those contracts—is a good idea.
“Three year contracts allow you to be more nimble, to allow you to respond to economic downturns,” he said. “As we've seen, in the midst of the worst recession in 70 years, in 2008, the then-mayor and then-assembly passed a contract that has locked us in to terms that, quite frankly, given the economic realities, were probably not appropriate.”
Both the mayor and Assembly Chair Hall stressed that the ordinance is just a starting point for the discussion. But it already is facing some opposition in the assembly—former police officer and current Assemblyman Paul Honeman said he’s against the ordinance in its entirety—today the union workers were clear when they said it's the exact opposite of where they want to end up.