State Supreme Court rules against Dunleavy administration in union lawsuit

The Alaska Supreme Court has affirmed that the state will not be allowed to go ahead with a plan intended to make it more difficult for state employees to participate in a union.

In a ruling released Friday, the court upheld and confirmed a lower-court decision that found the state acted illegally when it unilaterally attempted in 2019 to change the rules pertaining to employees’ dues deductions.

The five justices, ruling unanimously, said the state violated the Alaska Public Employment Relations Act and the Administrative Procedures Act, as well as the state’s rules for fair dealing. The justices also affirmed an injunction barring the state from attempting a similar action again.

The justices concluded that the state was not motivated by First Amendment concerns, as it had argued in its defense, but by hostility toward unions.

The decision ends a four-year-old dispute that has likely cost Alaska more than $1 million in costs. In addition, the state will now be required to pay legal fees and damages to the Alaska State Employees Association, the union that challenged the state’s action.

“We expected this, but it doesn’t make it any less exciting or thrilling,” said Heidi Drygas, the executive director of ASEA Local 52, the state’s largest public-employee union (Alaska State Employees Association).

Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor called the result “disappointing.”

“For the state, this case is about protecting the First Amendment rights of public sector employees,” he said in a prepared written statement. “While the decision from the Alaska Supreme Court was disappointing, it was not surprising as clarification in regard to the Janus decision ultimately has to come from the United States Supreme Court given its federal constitutional underpinnings. We are hopeful that we can get clear guidance from this court.”

The case stems from the state’s interpretation of a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Janus v. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).

In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that state employees who are not members of a union cannot be forced to pay fees to a union that negotiated benefits for them.

The following year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy — relying on a legal opinion from then-Attorney General Kevin Clarkson — determined that the court’s decision also applied to union members, not just non-members, and ordered that state employees opt in to their union membership annually.

ASEA and the AFL-CIO filed suit to block that action, and a state Superior Court judge ruled in their favor, stopping the Dunleavy administration’s rule — first temporarily, then permanently.

Clarkson left office amid a harassment scandal, but the state continued the case, appealing its lower-court defeat to the state Supreme Court. Oral arguments were held in October 2022.

As the state Supreme Court considered the issue, similar cases proceeded in federal courts in Alaska and elsewhere. In each case, judges ruled against arguments like those made by the state’s attorneys, saying that the U.S. Supreme Court clearly did not intend its decision to apply to union members, only non-members.

Alaska’s justices followed suit.

“The state’s interpretation of Janus is incorrect,” they wrote. “We join courts across the country that have rejected similar arguments.”

“There is evidence in the record, particularly in the parties’ stipulated facts, supporting the Superior Court’s conclusion that the state’s actions were ‘not neutral’ but rather were ‘hostile’ to ASEA, and we therefore reject the state’s argument to the contrary,” the justices wrote in their unanimous opinion.

The justice concluded that the state violated the law “by interfering with the statutory and contractual dues deduction process in a way that singled out and discouraged union membership.”

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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