Municipal unions on Monday turned in a petition with what they say is triple the number of signatures needed to force a citywide vote over a new law that sharply limits the power of unions. Also on Monday, the Anchorage municipal clerk's office rejected an application for a separate ballot measure that sought to stop the city from deducting union dues from employee pay.
The challenge to the new city labor law known as AO-37 is moving ahead fast, backers said.
The unions say they collected 22,136 voter signatures, far above the 7,124 needed to put to voters the decision on whether to keep the new law. The required number represents 10 percent of the voters in the last mayoral election.
A vote is not yet certain. The city has until week's end to appeal the Aug. 19 ruling by Anchorage Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth that allowed the referendum effort to move forward, said Dee Ennis, deputy municipal attorney. The city also still must verify the group collected enough signatures of registered voters.
If the referendum goes ahead, the Assembly could either schedule a special election or put the matter on the ballot in the regular April city election, the unions said. A special election would cost $280,000, according to Amanda Moser, deputy municipal clerk for elections.
The signature gathering was completed in 25 days, one day earlier than needed to put the new law on hold until the vote, said Gerard Asselin, a police patrol sergeant who is president of the Coalition of Municipal Unions and treasurer of the police union.
Under the city charter, a new law is suspended if a petition with signatures is turned in within 60 days of its effective date. The new law — rigorously protested by unions before the vote — passed March 26, and the unions succeeded in getting Aarseth to restart the 60-day clock with 26 days remaining, arguing that the city should have approved their application back in April.
Mayor Dan Sullivan, who pushed for the new law he calls The Responsible Labor Act, discussed it Monday in his State of the City speech to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. The Assembly approved it on a 6-5 vote. The issue drew out big crowds for heated testimony.
Among other things, the ordinance takes away the ability of unions to strike and eliminates binding arbitration. Police and firefighters already were barred from striking, but they could push for better pay, benefits and working conditions from a mediator.
“On the part of the mayor and his administration, it's an attack on unions,” Asselin said. “But the downstream effect is, and the reality is, it's an attack on employees themselves and their own stability.”
The referendum effort drew on paid signature gatherers, union workers, their families and friends, as well as people from the community who showed up at union halls asking to sign, Asselin said.
The measure affects eight city unions, most of which have contracts now in negotiation, he said.
The city clerk's office will begin reviewing the signatures for the referendum on Tuesday and will complete the review by Sept. 26, Moser said.
In the meantime, the city could appeal the decision allowing the referendum to move forward.
If the separate initiative on union dues is reworked and allowed to move forward, city voters could be voting on one pro-labor referendum and one anti-labor initiative at the same time.