The Alaska State Employees Association countersued the state of Alaska on Wednesday as it responded to a state lawsuit alleging that the union’s existing dues-payment system is illegal.
The suit is the latest turn in an ongoing conflict between the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the public employees union. The union accuses the state of violating its latest contract “by changing union member dues deduction procedures, spreading misinformation to our members, and interfering with the relationship between our union and our membership.”
The union is asking a judge to stop the state from changing the existing union dues system and to issue a ruling that the state’s actions are unlawful. The union says both cases will have a significant impact on the ability of public employee unions in Alaska to pay for their operations and advocate for their members.
“Rest assured, ASEA members will stick together to resist this extremist attack on their First Amendment rights," Jake Metcalfe, executive director of the ASEA, said in a written statement. "The administration has violated the contract it signed in August, it is violating our state law and the governor is threatening the freedom of state employees to come together as a union.”
Dunleavy spokesman Matt Shuckerow and senior assistant attorney general Cori Mills each said by email that they had only just received the documents filed by ASEA and were reviewing the information.
ASEA represents about 8,000 of the state’s 14,546 public employees, according to figures quoted by the union and the Alaska Department of Administration’s 2018 workforce profile. The state’s latest contract with ASEA took effect July 1; the state sued the union earlier this month after Attorney General Kevin Clarkson said the state was not adequately enforcing the requirements of a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
In its lawsuit, the state challenges a provision of state law and ASEA’s collective bargaining agreement that allows an employee a window of 10 days per year to opt out of paying dues. The state argues that window restricts an employee’s First Amendment rights to free speech because he or she cannot freely opt out and, even if they disagree with a union action, “must continue to subsidize the union’s speech for another year.”
After the suit was filed, the Alaska Department of Administration sent an email to all state employees explaining its position on the lawsuit. ASEA contends that message contained incorrect information that it was forced to correct. ASEA also claims the state has begun “unilaterally” stopping dues payments for some state employees, an act that the union says violates the Public Employment Relations Act as well as its collective bargaining agreement with the state.
ASEA claims the state is attempting to harm “ASEA and other public employee unions across Alaska that have been critical of the governor’s polices — unlawfully attacking their status and negotiating strength, their standing with their current and prospective members, and their basic ability to function.”
Earlier this year, workers from the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific went on strike after a breakdown in negotiations that had begun under former Gov. Bill Walker. ASEA sued the state in April to block the privatization of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in a case that is still progressing. The state is also facing lawsuits in federal court from non-unionized workers who said they were unlawfully fired as part of the transition from the Walker administration.
Metcalfe said by phone that since the administration stated its position on union dues, six ASEA members have tried to leave the union. Three were permitted to leave, but the remainder had signed cards surrendering their opt-out privileges outside the 10-day window. The state stopped their dues payments anyway, Metcalfe said.
While the union is not “seeing a bunch of people fleeing,” Metcalfe said, the stoppage matters because the governor “has basically unilaterally decided to not abide by the contract” and then filed a lawsuit against 8,000 of his own employees.
“I don’t know of any governor who’s sued his own employees,” Metcalfe said.
The state is being represented in the case by the Alaska Department of Law and has hired Virginia-based Consovoy McCarthy for assistance. Their contract allows them to bill the state $600 per hour, plus expenses, not to exceed $50,000.
ASEA is being represented by the Anchorage-based Dillon & Findley law firm but is also getting help from San Francisco-based Altshuler Berzon, a firm that has defended similar cases nationwide. Metcalfe said he did not immediately know the cost of the support.