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7/23/2013
Anchorage unions and city argue

ANCHORAGE (AP) — A battle over a new Anchorage labor ordinance is making its way through court where a Superior Court judge will rule on whether voters should get an opportunity to repeal the law through a referendum.

The city and two labor unions have presented preliminary filings, and oral arguments are set for Aug. 19, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

The fight stems from a lawsuit targeting a rewrite of the labor law spearheaded by Mayor Dan Sullivan. The ordinance was narrowly passed by the Anchorage Assembly in March.

The new law limits annual raises for city employees, restricts incentive pay and bonuses in future contracts and takes away the right to strike.

The city rejected a referendum proposed by workers and labor officials, setting up the unions’ legal challenge.

A decision by Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth is expected to hinge on his interpretation of a 2009 state Supreme Court decision. That ruling said citizens could bring forward referenda only on laws that make significant changes and set new policies, as opposed to laws that clarify measures already on the books.

The unions argue that the new labor law makes both small and large changes, but its wide overall sweep makes it legislative and subject to a popular vote.

"(T)he breadth of the changes and the uniform direction — all increasing control by management and decreasing the rights of unions and union members — cannot reasonably be dismissed as administrative changes," the unions’ brief states. "Collectively, the changes establish new law."

The city concedes that some aspects of the ordinance qualify as legislative but said in its own filing that the majority of the law "generally meets the guidelines that fall within the administrative rather than legislative type matters."

City Attorney Dennis Wheeler said the proposed referendum could have been limited to broader, policy related changes in the ordinance, and the city would have accepted it.

"But they chose not to," he said.

Susan Orlansky, an attorney representing the unions, said the law allows a referendum only on a complete ordinance.

The loser of the legal fight can appeal to the state Supreme Court.

If the unions win, they would have to circulate petitions and gather more than 7,000 signatures before the referendum could be placed on the ballot.

If signatures are gathered quickly, the referendum would have to be the subject of a special election, which the city estimates would cost $280,000.

The vote could be pushed back to the city’s regular election in April if the Assembly decided to suspend the new labor law.