Dunleavy administration’s fight with public unions heats up as ASEA files countersuit

The Alaska State Employees Association, which represents some 8,000 state employees, is countersuing the Dunleavy administration over changes it made in recent weeks to how union dues are collected by the state, arguing that it’s a violation of state law and the negotiated union contract.

It’s the latest turn in a fight between the conservative Dunleavy administration, an effort that’s being led by Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, and the public sector union. The ASEA countersuit seeks to stop the state from implementing Attorney General Kevin Clarkson’s newfound and vastly expanded reading of the 2018 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Janus vs. AFSCME.

“Rest assured, ASEA members will stick together to resist this extremist attack on their First Amendment rights. The administration has violated the contract it signed in August, it is violating our state law and the Governor is threatening the freedom of state employees to come together as a union,” said Jake Metcalfe, Executive Director or ASEA/AFSCME Local 52, in a prepared statement.

Last week, the state announced that it was preemptively suing ASEA over the collection of union dues. The state argues that First Amendment issues raised in Janus, which primarily dealt with compelling non-union employees into state unions, should be expanded to cover already unionized members who no longer wish to be in unions.

To that end, the administration has already stopped the collection of dues for a handful of ASEA members who say they want out of the union. Typically, those employees would have to wait until the annual 10-day window to opt out of the union, as is laid out in the labor contract.

According to the lawsuit filed by ASEA, the state’s attack on the union hasn’t stopped at just that. It accuses Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka of spreading misinformation to state employees and illegally interfering in the relationship between the union and employees.

The suit argues that ASEA has already been harmed by the decisions because members have left the union based on Tshibaka’s misinformation, undermining the finances and ability of the union to properly representing its employees.

“By incorrectly instructing ASEA’s members that their written authorizations of dues deductions are invalid, that they must ‘waive’ their First Amendment rights to authorize dues deductions, and that the State must control the process of dues authorizations through imposing new, onerous, one-sided requirements that make the continued deduction of member dues far more difficult, the third-party defendants are discouraging prospective and current ASEA members from joining or continuing their membership with ASEA and encouraging current members to withdraw their memberships and dues deduction authorizations,” explained the suit.

ASEA argues that the changes should have been made through proper legal channels and negotiations with the union. Instead, the state has made them unilaterally based on Clarkson’s legal opinion.

Why it matters

The collection of union dues is the first major change that came out of Clarkson’s expanded interpretation of the Janus and it’s likely that more changes are on the way. The state has already argued that it needs to take a more proactive role between the state and union members, which gives the state more opportunities to make unionization more difficult and to spread what the union says is misinformation.

ASEA and other organized labor groups in the state say the efforts are a clear effort by the conservative administration to undermine unions, which have long been a political booster to more progressive efforts.

The chief argument brought up by ASEA is not necessarily against these changes but that the state should be making these changes through the normal legal channels and through negotiations with the unions themselves. The unions say that none of these concerns were raised before the state inked its latest contract with ASEA in August.

Public unions haven’t taken a serious hit in the immediate wake of the Janus decision, but the threats are expected to be more serious as states, like what Alaska is doing, implement new rules to further restrict unions. Metcalfe said that this latest suit appears to be one of the most extreme efforts in the country.

It’s through all these lenses that the latest action is considered to be an effort by Clarkson and Dunleavy to run a test case with the hopes of it reaching the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to further undermine public sector unions. The Department of Law hired an Outside law firm with a reputation for taking up conservative issues to take up this case to the tune of $600 per hour.

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