Unions pledge legal fight after state announces plans to intervene in union membership process

Alaska’s organized labor is pledging to take the Dunleavy administration to court if it implements what they say will be one of the harshest implementations of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found government employees can’t be forced to pay union dues.

The Dunleavy administration announced this week plans to take an active role in overseeing the relationship between government employees and the unions representing them based on the advice of Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who this week released a memo saying the state had failed to properly meet the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME.

That 5-4 decision delivered what many saw as a blow to public-sector unions, arguing that government employees couldn’t be compelled to contribute to unions because it could be a violation of employees’ First Amendment rights.

It’s unclear what the state has in store for employees. In an email sent to employees, statewide Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka said the details will “be rolled out in the next couple of weeks.”

Clarkson’s legal opinion suggests that the state should take an active role in getting employees’ consent to join a union and require employees to renew their decision to be in a union annually. Union members can withdraw at any point, but Clarkson wrote that he’s worried that consent could be come “stale.”

Alaska State Employees Association Executive Director Jake Metcalfe said the most concerning part of the announcement is that the state plans to get between unions and employees, circumventing the negotiated contracts between the state and the unions. Currently, state employees can join a union by signing a card distributed by the unions.

“The main concern is that it’s the state getting involved in the contractual relationship between the union and the member. That’s not their role to be part of that relationship. They (the state) have a collective bargaining relationship with the unions and have agreed to a contract as to how dues deduction shall be done,” he said. “If they don’t like the contract language, then they need to try negotiate some different language. They’re going around the contract and they’re violating the law, so that breaks down negotiations and it violates the law.”

Metcalfe said he believes such a requirement would be unique in the country, arguing that Clarkson’s opinion isn’t based on any legal precedent. He said the unions will plan to fight the implementation of any changes through the court.

“There’s not one AG opinion out there that supports Clarkson’s opinion. This is an outlier opinion and it’s not based on any case law dealing with Janus, so it doesn’t stand up. It doesn’t meet the red-faced test,” he said. “They can go ahead and do it and there will be a long fight before there is a decision on their move.”

Clarkson has defended the decision as a way to protect employees’ First Amendment rights, which were core to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME. He also denied accusations that the move is specifically anti-union.

Metcalfe said he’s not convinced.

“They don’t like collective bargaining and they don’t want to follow that they signed,” he said, adding that the claimed concern about state employees’ First Amendment rights rings hollow when the administration is facing a lawsuit for firing employees over their political speech outside of work. “I find it completely ironic that they request people to sign a loyalty oath and then fired two lawyers for stating a public opinion on social media… and now they have some great concern about First Amendment rights?”

Janus fallout

The forecasted financial fallout for public-sector unions from the Janus decision hasn’t been immediate, with reporting a year after the decision showing that in general public-sector union finances actually improved a year after the ruling. Other reporting noted that it would take time for conservative legislators to pass legislation and enact other policies that begin the process of undermining unions.

Metcalfe said the actions taken by Dunleavy and other conservatives is transparently anti-union and anti-worker and, if anything, have made the case for why union organization is important.

“Union membership is at a 50-year high. I think the Janus decision and what Dunleavy is doing here is having the opposite effect of what they intended,” he said. They’re driving people to become members because they see what Dunleavy’s done, which is to violate the contract and people’s constitutional right to association and ability to organize. They see this is just an ideology to take power away from people, and they don’t like it. He is the best organizer we’ve had.”

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