When the U.S. Supreme Court speaks, it is usually accepted as the final word on an issue. Last year, it handed down a historic ruling restoring the rights of public employees to choose if they want to pay union dues. It should have been the last word. But for unions, it wasn’t. Instead of focusing on informing members about their options, they have focused on finding ways to undermine the court’s decision. Fortunately, Alaska’s attorney general has taken a stand to protect the rights of public employees across the state.
In its Janus v. AFSCME ruling last June, the nation’s high court ruled that no public employee in the country can be forced to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment. It was a decision based on the First Amendment rights of millions of workers in Alaska and elsewhere.
The decision went even further than simply allowing employees to opt out of paying a union. In speaking for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that employees must affirmatively opt into membership. What that means to public employees like me is that unions can no longer take dues out of their paychecks or collect them, in any way, until they agree to it.
I take pride in my job and work hard for my paycheck. When I started working for the Alaska Department of Transportation in 2006, there was no way for me to opt out of my union. I rarely interacted with my union, and I didn’t see the need to fund an organization which I hardly ever utilize, nor do I always agree with its politics.
The Supreme Court ruling, standing up for the rights of individual workers to have a choice, was welcome news. I certainly recognize the important role unions can play in advocating for workers’ rights, but their mission has strayed from the interests of workers who should be able to choose the option that works best for them. Nobody should be forced into, or out, of union membership.
That is why Attorney General Kevin Clarkson took such important action in favor of workers’ rights. In a recent opinion, he encouraged opt-in to be the standard in Alaska. This move provides clarity for Alaskans and will make it easier for anyone to overcome current regulations and laws that prevent workers from exercising their rights. Requiring employers to stop collecting dues until they get an affirmative opt-in from workers is the proper thing to do and consistent with the Court ruling.
Several states, from California and Oregon to New Jersey and Massachusetts, are considering or have passed legislation to prop up unions by limiting workers’ rights under Janus. But rather than weaken the high court’s ruling, state officials across the nation should follow Attorney General Clarkson’s recommendation and write into law the Janus rights that the Supreme Court spelled out over a year ago. After all, workers deserve a voice.
The Supreme Court got it right in siding with the First Amendment and workers’ choice. The Janus case may just be the beginning, but Alaska is paving the way for continued and essential protection of workers’ rights.
Lisa Idell-Sassi lives in Juneau and works for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
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