Judge temporarily halts Dunleavy administration's plan to change collection of union dues

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - An Anchorage judge has dealt a blow to the Dunleavy administration, demanding that it temporarily halt a planned shake up of how public sector union dues are collected.

Gov. Dunleavy speaks at a press conference on Sept. 27, 2019.

Attorney General Kevin Clarkson argued that union members need to affirmatively opt in to a public sector union, instead of only being able to opt out, and that the state needs to oversee that process to guarantee that there are no violations. Clarkson said that change would bring Alaska into line with a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Janus.

The attorney general has argued that the case is a First Amendment issue and that union members shouldn't have to fund an organization they don't support.

The State of Alaska sued the Alaska State Employees Association in September, asking for a declaratory judgement as to whether Clarkson’s interpretation of the Janus case was correct.

The ASEA then countersued the state, alleging that Clarkson's interpretation was wrong and that it interfered with members' rights.

"We went in and said 'this was going to cause us irreperable harm, so we want it to stop right now and go back to the status quo." Says ASEA Executive Director Jake Metcalfe.

On Sept. 26, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an administrative order to set up a new system where union members could opt out of the union year round, rather than 10 days a year as currently required.

But Judge Gregory Miller wrote that "The State provides no colorable explanation for why the existing dues authorization form's annual opt-out period is not sufficient," and compared it to employer-sponsored health care plans, which have similar periods.

He also wrote that the state's plan to issue an authorization form that would be a "warning" that employees are "waiving" their First Amendment rights couldn't be neutral and that there would be no "guarantee under the State's proposed system that the State's method and/or language would not discourage employees from joining unions."

If the current program continues, the judge wrote, the Dunleavy administration's form would "discourage union membership will cause ASEA irreparable injury," adding that 11 state employees have already withdrawn from paying union dues.

The Department of Law said that it is "disappointed" with the ruling, but that it will follow it.

"The Attorney General continues to stand behind his opinion, and the State will continue to pursue the case to get final resolution on this important constitutional question," read a statement from the Department of Law.

Metcalfe called it a win for workers.

“This is a victory for all Alaska workers. As the judge has found in his issuance of the TRO (temporary restraining order), the state’s actions have no basis and are in violation of our contract and state law. It is clear this is a political agenda to rob workers of their freedom to come together for a voice on the job," he said in a statement.

He added that he didn't think that the result would change in a final ruling.

"I think that the decision today is a good indication of where it'll end up at the conclusion of this issue."

Melodie Bowler, Associate Director of the right-leaning Alaska Policy Forum was less enthused but saw a way forward for the administration.

"Obviously this is a bit of a setback, but not really much. It's just an injunction, it doesn't mean that the state won't move forward."

The judge ordered that that process must stop while the case proceeds so that a final judgment can be made.

Matt Leseman contributed to reporting.

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