The City Council unanimously approved an agreement with the Seward Public Employees Association (SPEA) on Monday night, concluding a process that began in the last months of 2017. The city and the union are both to be congratulated on producing an agreement about which all parties seem enthusiastic.
But this is not the end of Seward’s labor policy saga. On March 19 Seward will vote on Referendum No. 1, which would subject the city – permanently – to the state Public Employment Relations Act, a move that would strip Seward and its citizens of the power and responsibility to govern our affairs ourselves.
As a reporter, I have typically refrained from expressing opinions on political questions in Seward. In this case, however, the case against Referendum No. 1 deserves to be made, if only because the “Yes” campaign has been so much more active than the campaign against. Consider me the devil’s advocate.
Opting into PERA is not only redundant, it is also hazardous to the future of robust political life in this town. Moreover, judging from discussions of the topic on social media, PERA itself will disappoint the expectation of many proponents, who seem to believe that the law applies to a wider set of circumstances that it actually does.
PERA governs collective bargaining between public employers and labor organizations. It provides a legal framework for the recognition of labor organizations and prohibits a set of “unfair labor practices” which mostly boil down to interfering with employees’ rights to organize.
However, PERA does not directly address any of the complaints about pay, discipline or hiring that employees and others have raised over the course of the unionization drive.
Consider a couple of examples from the Facebook group Seward Citizen’s Forum, which are representative of arguments I have heard in many public meetings on the subject. One supporter wrote that PERA “will give the city employees an outside arbitration option.” Another argued that if Referendum No. 1 passes, “future administrations will not be able to give outrageous raises as they please [and] they won’t be able to cherry pick friends [for] high-ranking positions.”
Strictly speaking, only one of these claims is even partly true. PERA contains no specific provisions about pay or hiring. Those matters are subject to bargaining. Neither does PERA address nepotism, which is already prohibited by state and local ethics laws.
The Alaska Labor Relations Agency does serve as an “outside arbitration option,” but only for disputes alleging an unfair labor practice or a contract violation. As far as other complaints go, PERA requires only that grievance procedures provide for binding arbitration as the final step. SPEA and the city have already agreed to such a grievance procedure; it is included in the agreement that the council approved on Monday.
In other words, that problem has already been addressed, and the same is true with other elements of PERA. Many things that PERA would require have largely been implemented by the City Council or included in the collective bargaining agreement. In other words, Seward’s citizens are capable of addressing these matters at the local level, in a transparent process. We do not need to abdicate that responsibility to an un-elected board.
Nevertheless, some proponents object that Seward still needs PERA to protect employees from future City Councils that may prove overtly hostile to organized labor. To be sure, a future council could put up a much stiffer fight or even refuse to consider certification at all.
But that is never the end of things in politics. After all, it is the responsibility of citizens to encourage their representatives to make wise, fair-minded decisions – or to give them the boot. If the council takes a hard line, it is the job of labor and its supporters in the citizenry to mount a campaign for the hearts and minds of voters.
Indeed, this is exactly what happened over the past year and a half. In the last two elections, the council has grown obviously more friendly to labor. Several council members explicitly favor the union. In the past 18 months, no member of council has ever raised categorical objections to unionization.
This gradual change in the makeup of the council has given all interested citizens the opportunity to speak their mind and inform the council of their feelings. It has allowed the city to act deliberately after thoroughly deliberating, so to speak.
Opting in to PERA would eliminate some of that openness. Instead of making its case to accountable elected officials, labor and management would resolve disputes before the unaccountable (though I’m sure very nice) board members of the Alaska Labor Relations Agency.
This is not to say that PERA has no redeeming features, only that we should deliberately adopt legislation that mirrors its upsides, rather than taking the whole thing at once and permanently. If all else fails, it will always be possible to opt in at a later date if it proves necessary. Once we do, though, we will never be able to opt out.
Rather than running away from the tough choices that go into governing a city fairly for its citizens and its employees, Sewardites should embrace the political process that gave us the Seward Public Employees Association. The process worked. Let’s give it a chance to keep working.