Already Under Siege, Labor Unions Face a New Threat From Alaska

ANCHORAGE — For decades, Alaska has been a stronghold for organized labor, boasting one of the nation’s highest union participation rates even as membership rolls declined across the United States in the face of broad economic shifts and sustained ideological attack.

Now, a conservative new governor, Mike Dunleavy, is trying to push through a plan that could hobble Alaska’s public sector unions — and put the state on the leading edge of a fight over the collective bargaining power of teachers, police officers and other civil servants.

Under a recent administrative order, the governor proposes to halt payroll deductions for union dues and require state workers to go through a cumbersome, multi-step process to restore that option.

Mr. Dunleavy, 58, a former teacher and state senator, had already established himself as a close ally of President Trump and national conservative leaders, drawing praise for his proposals to slash the state budget and veto funds for the Alaska Supreme Court after a decision that upheld abortion access.

His move against unionized state workers is drawing even more attention as states across the country consider how to respond to a Supreme Court decision last year that limited the power of unions to collect fees from nonmembers.

The escalating battle in Alaska recalls a much bigger one by former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who rose to prominence in 2011 as he championed a set of laws that undermined labor organizations and set off a precipitous decline in the state’s union rolls before losing re-election last year.

Union membership has been declining for decades, in part as a result of wider moves to make it harder to sign and hold dues-paying members. Legislation to impose additional restrictions on union enrollments was proposed this year in Montana, Kansas and Pennsylvania.

Alaska’s plan has gone the furthest. Under Mr. Dunleavy’s new policy, state workers will have to declare that they want to opt into the union and sign an acknowledgement that they know they do not have to have such representation. They will then need a second layer of authentication, such as an email exchange, to reaffirm their intentions.

And they will have to repeat the opt-in process every year.

Mr. Dunleavy said the plan was intended not to harm unions, but to comply with the Supreme Court, which ruled last year that government workers who elect not to join the union do not have to help pay for collective bargaining.

Labor leaders said Alaska was imposing new restrictions on top of a court ruling that already made it more difficult for unions to operate. “No other governor across the country is going to this extreme,” said Lee Saunders, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Union officials and supporters said that the process would make it harder to maintain robust membership and place the government in a disruptive role between the union and its members.

“Forcibly opting everyone out and forcing them to opt back in: It’s essentially telling everyone, ‘You are out of the church, you have to go get baptized again,’” said Scott Kendall, a lawyer who has worked for Republican politicians and was chief of staff under Mr. Dunleavy’s predecessor.

On Thursday, a judge in Anchorage sided with the union, temporarily halting Mr. Dunleavy’s plans while a legal case on the issue advances.

National pressures

Alaska officials see the proposed new policy as the beginning of a broader reassessment by states in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. The Alaska attorney general, Kevin Clarkson, said in an interview that he had already heard from seven counterparts around the country who were re-evaluating their public union guidelines.

“There are lots of other A.G.s out there that I’ve had discussions with that are looking hard at what we’re doing,” said Mr. Clarkson, who declined to disclose which state representatives had contacted him. “They are expressing significant interest.”

Alaska has a long history of labor solidarity, demonstrated this year by a strike that shut down the state’s ferry system over work conditions and compensation. Nearly one out of every five workers in Alaska is a member of a union, the fourth-highest rate in the country behind Hawaii, New York and Washington, with about 55,000 union members over all, including both public and private sector employees.

The latest policy battles come at a critical juncture for unions. Federal reports suggest that unions lost hundreds of thousands of fee-payers in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision, but unions have indicated they have largely been able to sustain or grow their membership in recent months, even as they have lost dues revenue.

Union leaders said the recent legal moves have motivated workers concerned about rising income inequality to take further steps to organize. Last year, the number of large strikes reached the highest level since 1986.

“Working families are under attack like never before,” Mr. Saunders said. “We have people standing up. This, in my mind, is a moment in time when workers are coming together like never before.”

In the Supreme Court ruling, known as the Janus decision, justices considered the case of Mark Janus, a state government worker in Illinois who sued the union, arguing that he should not be forced to pay fees to support its work.

The court’s conservative justices agreed. The court said government agencies should not deduct union fees from paychecks unless workers affirmatively consent to it.

The ruling has left lingering questions. Should anyone be provided back pay for past union dues? How should workers be provided an opportunity to opt out? Should nonmembers be compelled to pay for grievance services? What qualifies as consent?

Lawmakers in Montana considered a plan that would have required unions to accept disenrollments at any time, instead of during designated periods. A proposal in Kansas would have required public agencies to notify their employees each year of the option to opt out. A proposal in Pennsylvania would have required such a notification at every payday. Those measures have not passed.

Groups such as the Liberty Justice Center have pursued lawsuits in 10 states, trying to make it easier for workers to drop out of their unions and to learn of their rights to decline to participate in collective bargaining.

Lawmakers in more union-friendly states, meanwhile, have sought to codify narrow interpretations of the Janus ruling in order to provide leeway for unions.

Alaska’s reading

A year ago, under Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, the attorney general at the time wrote a legal memo concluding that, in the wake of the court decision, existing union memberships and payroll deductions should be honored. The memo called for halting automatic dues assessments for nonmembers.

Mr. Dunleavy, who came into office at the end of 2018, said he had asked his new attorney general to examine the state’s positions on a variety of issues. Mr. Clarkson said he and lawyers in the office had taken a close look at the issue of union dues, speaking with organizations around the country.

Mr. Clarkson said he had determined that the previous legal memo, and similar guidance in other states that continued to allow the collection of union dues, did not go far enough.

“There was an effort to take Janus and put it in a box — a tiny box — and to make it have as minimum impact as possible,” Mr. Clarkson said. “That’s not a correct reading of Janus.”

“I would admit and acknowledge that we’re probably the first to read Janus to its full extent,” he said.

State officials say the new process would not make it overly difficult to sign up for union membership, comparing it to ticking off a box during annual health care enrollments. But the decision to require a multistep opt-in process has alarmed some of Alaska’s state employees.

Erin Gleason, who works in the Department of Environmental Conservation’s contaminated sites program, said state workers have been in anxious conversation about the governor’s union plans, which she sees as an alarming tactic to weaken the power of their voice. She also said Alaska appeared to be a test case for the union issue nationally.

“Alaska might just be the first one in a grander national maneuver to get rid of unions,” Ms. Gleason said.

Even people who want to join and pay for union representation could forget to continually opt in, Ms. Gleason said.

Kathy McCollum, a first-grade teacher at Cottonwood Creek Elementary School in Wasilla, has welcomed the change proposed by the governor. For years, she said, she did not know she could opt out, and then found it difficult to do so. She has since helped others in her school get out of their union. She said she believed the governor’s policy would force unions to demonstrate their value if they want to incentivize people to sign up.

“I think it should have been like that all along,” Ms. McCollum said.

Mr. Dunleavy insists his battle is not with unions per se. He has been in a union in the past, he said, and found it to be sometimes helpful and sometimes not. Asked whether he believed that unions were a positive or negative influence, he said, “they can be both.”

Alaska leaders said they were planning to have discussions with union officials about how to carry out the governor’s plan, should the court lift its temporary restraining order.

The state is working to develop an electronic system in which workers would submit forms, Mr. Clarkson said, and the next step might be an email asking them to confirm that their decision was indeed their intention.

Mr. Dunleavy’s order requires that workers be given information explaining that they do not have to participate in the union.

“I understand that I have a constitutional right to refrain from paying union dues and fees,” the planned authorization form reads. “I hereby freely and without any coercion whatsoever affix my signature to this form.”

Workers would be able to leave or join the union at any time and would not be limited to the annual election period, Mr. Clarkson said.

Union officials, meanwhile, are looking to continue the fight against Mr. Dunleavy’s plans in court.

“We’re going to fight that tooth and nail,” Mr. Saunders said. “Our members understand that this is a power grab. He doesn’t want them to have a voice.”

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