AO37 Testimony Still Going Strong
After 15 combined hours of testimony, the line of people waiting to address Assembly members stretched to the back of the room, and the auditorium was more than half full. It was 11:00 at night on a Wednesday.
There is no doubt that the issue of Ordinance 37, which would radically alter the collective bargaining rights, and benefits of city workers, has hit Alaskans close to home. Longevity and performance bonuses, the right to strike, binding arbitration, and who exactly will decide the outcome of contract negotiations all hang in the balance.
For the last week and a half, the Assembly has listened to firefighters and police officers talk about why they came to Anchorage, or why they stayed. Lifelong Alaskans were among the officers too, talking about their civic pride, their desire to serve their home city, and about how if the ordinance passes, they don’t know if they can continue to do what they love, raise a family, and stay in their home state.
Workers for Municipal Light and Power talked about a shortage of qualified people, and how hard it already was to compete with the private sector for job applicants. One journeyman lineman explained:
The guys I work with are highly skilled, and highly trained. I’m scared to think of doing this job without people that have the skills and knowledge required. Safety is the #1 priority. You need to think of what this will mean. We get good pay because our job is difficult to learn – high voltage, high altitude. This ordinance needs time to be studied. I don’t want to be forced to make this decision but if my safety or my family’s quality of life is affected, I will take my training somewhere else.
The notion of managed competition brought forth a torrent of testimony about the nightmare that is Kronos, the city’s timekeeping system. It sounded great, but by the time it was all said and done, it became a giant money pit that costs the city money, and time.
There is now applause at the end of each testimony. For the first couple meetings, Chairman Hall went completely gavel-happy and kept banging it saying, “I will have decorum!” This made me laugh, because since it was pointed out to me by a reader, all I can think of when Ernie Hall makes trouble is this:
Those of you of a certain age will remember Oliver, the annoying mischievous cousin on the Brady Bunch that was brought in for the last six episodes to help flagging ratings. It didn’t help.
The testimony has been overwhelmingly one-sided. Only two people who actually support the ordinance have testified. One came last night. He’s a regular at the Assembly, usually testifying about fluoride use in the water. He also took the Tea Party soapbox recently at the Second Amendment “Day of Resistance” on the Park Strip. At that event, he bragged to the crowd that he exercised his freedom of speech by regularly testifying before the Assembly.
But last night, he started off by “thanking” Assemblyman Dick Traini for “mocking” his fluoride fears, and saying that was the only reason he showed up. Apparently, not sufficiently motivated by the actual issue at hand, his anger at Traini fueled three minutes of belligerence and vitriol in which he stated that “teachers are no more than indoctrinators” and that public servants should do what they do because it’s a calling, and wages and benefits shouldn’t matter. ”The government worker class is dependent and think they are better and entitled to more than the regular working schmuck.” The crowd remained polite, but eye rolls were plentiful as the barrage continued. After the signal, Chairman Hall indicated that time was up, but he stated it was now “his turn” and implied that the three minute time limit didn’t apply to him.
Sure enough, he went on, and on, and refused to yield the mic to the next person. Finally, he had to be escorted out of the building by security. This is nothing new for him. His hobby seems to be getting ejected from meetings. Before he was hauled out, he did manage to sing Mayor Sullivan’s praises, and encourage him to run for the Senate against Mark Begich. That pretty much tells you all you need to know.
A police officer who has worked SWAT, and is now on the bomb squad said that he tried to talk to his Assembly member about Ordinance 37. “She said she’d already made up her mind she was voting for it, and there was nothing I could do to change her mind.” That attitude brought him out to testify, he said.
It echoed another testimony from last week in which a woman said she asked her Assemblyman if he was going to vote for the Ordinance and he said, “HELL, yeah!” She realized, she said, that this was all about retribution and “sticking it to the unions.”
The attitudes of these lawmakers (which we can assume to be Jennifer Johnston and Day of Resistance featured speaker Adam Trombley) disgusted many who pointed out that the ordinance was drafted without any input from labor, in secrecy, and was now being forced through with a sense of urgency inappropriate to the magnitude of the changes it will bring. The administration would like the vote to happen while they already know how this Assembly will vote, and before the Municipal election in early April, which is also the same time several contracts with the unions will be up for renegotiation. And city workers are left with the legitimate impression that it doesn’t actually matter what they say.
But still, despite the attack on morale, the disrespect, and the perceived futility of their efforts, they came night after night to tell their stories, talk about their jobs and why they were important, discuss the ordinance itself and what specific parts of it will actually do to the city. They stood and recounted their hopes, and fears for themselves and their families. After one particularly powerful and emotional testimony from a police officer about what exactly his job entails, he asked the Assembly how many of them had gone for a police “ride along.” Only three raised their hands – Paul Honeman (a retired police officer), Elvi Gray-Jackson, and Dick Traini – all of whom oppose the ordinance. Those in favor have never even bothered to see what our officers do every day.
“[My husband] is one of the thousands of heroes who selflessly goes towards the gunfire, toward the horrific car crash, towards the burning building, towards the lifeless infant, towards the reckless drunk drivers, towards the mentally ill homeless person threatening others…”
A police officer who was called to deal with a drunk man with a rifle the other day testified, “I can wrap my head around that guy. What I can’t wrap my head around is an administration that shakes my hand and tells me what a great job I’m doing, and with the other hand cuts my legs out from under me.”
The wife of a firefighter paramedic said what many had been muttering about to each other in the seats since last week. She was watching from home the night before, and her 12-year old son said, “Mommy, if I were in that room, I would walk right up to Mayor Sullivan and I would tell him to put his phone away.” Even her child, she said, knows that you look someone in the eye when they are talking to you.
Assembly members Chris Birch, and Adam Trombley, both who favor the ordinance were absent from the meeting yet again.
Chris Birch, an old hand at phoning it in from tropical locations was on the phone. We think.
An articulate 11-year old stood confidently before the Assembly and talked about her family. She brought down the house.
“Seniority is a privilege that should be rewarded,” said an Operating Engineer. “I was here last week and saw you honor a 30-year and a 35-year employee who were retiring. Removing seniority just turns it into the good ol’ boys club. The one who’s the favorite of the boss will get the good hours, and the overtime work. Operating engineers also works 24/7. We keep the roads safe for the police and fire so they can do their jobs. You guys have other stuff to deal with, like Chronos. You’re not labor attorneys.”
A senior patrol officer testified about what made him leave the east coast, and seek Anchorage as a place to make his career.
“The Anchorage Police Department has, for quite a long time, been viewed around the nation as an elite department with some of the highest standards for both the hiring process, and its training and work standards. Because of the compensation offered by the city, it has attracted and continues to attract some of the highest-quality candidates for employment. If this ordinance were to pass, and limited the union’s ability to fairly negotiate members’ benefits, the type of candidates, and hence the quality of officers the city will start to see over the next few years will decline, bringing with it problems far beyond what anyone is obviously anticipating. I know, I’ve seen it.”
Several people spoke this week who were not members of affected unions, or not union members at all but were there because they see how this ordinance will affect the community at large.
“This needs to stop. It is embarrassing and disappointing to many in our community. I am not a direct stakeholder in AO37, because I am not a member of any of the unions that will be negatively affected if this ordinance passes. But I am smart enough, and mature enough to understand that all of us in the Anchorage community are stakeholders. It will affect all of us personally and financially, for years to come. I have heard over and over again that this ordinance will protect our taxpayers, as though somehow union members are not paying taxes. We all do!”
Many IBEW members testified about the pride they take in their work, and the need for highly-competent skilled workers who have incentive to stay and work in Anchorage. “Do you want the cheapest guy working at high altitude with high voltage?” one asked.
As Wednesday’s testimony drew to a close, a police officer spoke who was called to deal with a drunk man with a rifle that had barricaded himself in his South Anchorage home the other day . “I can wrap my head around that guy, the drunk guy with the rifle. What I can’t wrap my head around is an administration that shakes my hand and tells me what a great job I’m doing, and with the other hand cuts my legs out from under me.”
Assembly Chair Ernie Hall, who had planned to end testimony last night, saw the writing on the wall as the line of people stretched to the back of the auditorium when it was time to wrap it up. A motion was made and approved to continue testimony on Monday night from 6pm to 11pm. “Then that will conclude the public testimony,” Hall declared. Boos and jeers went up from the audience. “Give us the time we need!,” “As long as it takes!”
Many who are fighting this ordinance remember the days of Ordinance 64 a couple years ago. Debbie Ossiander, who was Chair at the time, allowed people from well outside the Municipality of Anchorage (mostly from Wasilla and Palmer) to testify about the city’s Civil Rights ordinance which would add “sexual orientation and gender identity” to the city’s non-discrimination policy for housing, employment, education, and use of public facilities. There were more than 20 hours of testimony on that ordinance, and the people were heard until there was nobody left wishing to speak. Testimony for the ordinance was heartfelt, and heartbreaking. The words of those opposed to equality were full of fear, judgement, religious rhetoric and downright misinformation. The Assembly approved that ordinance, to the jubilation of many, only to have it vetoed by Mayor Dan Sullivan. It was a painful time, dubbed “The Summer of Hate.”
We will have to see on Monday how many people show up to testify, and how many remain at the bitter end. An Assembly member can make a motion to continue testimony at that time, but they’ll need the bodies in the room to justify it. Will that happen, or will Mayor Sullivan get his way and shove this ordinance through before the Municipal election that could see new faces on the Assembly, and before key union contracts for the city are up for renegotiation.
What will happen in this “Winter of Solidarity” remains to be seen.