The Alaska Supreme Court has affirmed that the state of Alaska 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, then affirmed an injunction barring the state from attempting a similar action again.
The decision ends a four-year-old dispute that has likely cost Alaska more than $1 million in court costs, and 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.
She said officials will get back to work after the Memorial Day weekend, but for now, “Today, we’re going to celebrate.”
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 in order to make sure state action does not jeopardize individual liberties.”
The case stems from the state’s interpretation of a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Janus v. AFSCME.
In that case, the justices found that state employees who aren’t 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 Supreme 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. Justice Dario Borghesan, a Dunleavy appointee, did not hear the case; Senior Justice Robert Eastaugh was appointed in his place.
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.
Alaska justices followed suit.
“The state’s interpretation of Janus is incorrect,” they wrote. “We join courts across the country that have rejected similar arguments and hold that Janus did not compel the state’s actions set in motion by Attorney General Clarkson and Governor Dunleavy.”
The justices concluded that the facts of the case showed that the state was not motivated by First Amendment concerns, as it had argued, but by hostility toward unions.
“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 a 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,” they said.
Drygas, speaking by phone, said she hopes the state can now begin to work with unions on addressing the problems that have hampered employee retention and led to understaffing at state agencies.
“Maybe now, we can recognize the contributions they make to Alaska and respect those employees again instead of taking actions that continually harm them,” she said.
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