Alaska unions defiant in wake of punishing Supreme Court decision

Unionized state workers rally on the steps of Juneau’s State Office Building on February 28, 2013. A Supreme Court 5-4 decision made Wednesday says unions cannot force state workers to contribute to the union’s finances. (Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO)

One of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions released Wednesday dealt a blow to public sector unions.

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Alaska has one of the highest rates of unionization in the country.

The court ruled 5-4 that employees of state and local governments who opt out of union membership won’t have to pay any dues.

It was the result of a challenge by Mark Janus, a state employee in Illinois who argued he shouldn’t have to contribute to a union he didn’t agree with. He argued that to force him otherwise violated his First Amendment rights.

“It’s a great day for Alaska and a great day for public employees,” Jeremy Price, director of the Alaska chapter of Americans for Prosperity said. The activist group was founded and funded by the conservative billionaire Koch Brothers.

“For the first time in decades, the Supreme Court recognized the First Amendment rights of public employees,” Price said Wednesday.

The ruling affects state and local government workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, or about 10 percent of Alaska’s workforce.

Before the ruling, many state and local workers had union contributions automatically deducted from their paycheck.

They won’t have to pay anything now, but will still have the same rights and benefits of those who do.

“It’s like asking a car insurance company to pay for your damages while you’re not paying premiums,” Abel Bul-Ito of United Academics AAUP-AFT said. The union represents about 1,200 faculty within the University of Alaska system. “It’s politically motivated, it’s very unfortunate, but I believe that we as a union will be stronger because the members will realize how important we are and the union leadership will no longer take membership for granted.”

About 20 percent of eligible faculty aren’t union members. Now they won’t contribute to the union’s finances.

The leadership of the state’s largest public sector union said it’s been bracing for this change for about two years.

“I don’t buy that it’s doom-and-gloom. In fact, I say bring it on,” ASEA Local 52 Executive Director Jake Metcalfe said. He said the union has been making its case directly to state workers that it’s in their best interest to join the union. “They’re not going to be better off in opting out,” Metcalfe said. “In fact, they’re going to lose out on their ability to participate in that negotiation process and have their opinion be heard.”

The ruling could affect Alaska’s economy.

Economists at the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development said the short-term effects are unclear.

“One of the things we’ll watch for, though, is what happens to wages,” Dan Robinson, the department’s head of research, said. “For example, less collective bargaining tends to mean lower wages. So that’s one of the data elements we’ll watch.”

On the political side, Gov. Bill Walker released a statement hours after the ruling expressing his disappointment with the conservative majority’s decision.

“This creates an unnecessary obstacle for working people to join behind a unified voice,” the statement said. “Still, I am confident that public employee unions will remain the backbone of our state for the foreseeable future.”

Editor’s Note:The original text of this article quoted Americans for Prosperity Alaska director Jeremy Price, a supporter of the decision, as saying the decision relieves non-union public employees from being forced to also pay for the union’s political activity. That was actually never the case. Before the decision, fees paid by non-union members only went toward collective bargaining costs, not political activities. 

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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