Alaska Supreme Court rejects Dunleavy administration’s plan to change union dues rules

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that state employees who are union members can opt out of union membership at any time during the year. In fact, most of Alaska’s public-sector union members are restricted to leaving the union only during an annual revocation period.

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JUNEAU — The Alaska Supreme Court rejected the Dunleavy administration’s plans to overhaul public sector union membership rules in a unanimous decision issued Friday.

The court’s 24-page opinion said the administration’s interpretation of a landmark 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that limited collection of union dues was incorrect, and that the state’s current procedures do not violate members’ First Amendment rights.

The Alaska dispute stems from a 2019 legal opinion written by former state Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, and a subsequent administrative order issued by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy to change state policy.

The Dunleavy administration contacted state employees directly in 2019 and informed them that they would need to fill out a form each year to tell the state they wanted to join a union. The Alaska Supreme Court said that violated state law and the state’s collective bargaining agreements — describing “an anti-union animus” behind the administration’s actions.

In October 2019, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller had temporarily halted the Dunleavy administration’s new union dues rules. Almost 18 months later, Miller ruled against the state and in favor of the unions — a decision that was affirmed by the Alaska Supreme Court on Friday.

Currently in Alaska, union-eligible state employees can voluntarily decide to join a union and most can opt out during an annual revocation period. The Alaska Supreme Court ruled that process was sufficient to comply with the Janus decision, after changes were made by independent former Gov. Bill Walker’s administration to prohibit the mandatory collection of union fees from non-members.


“We are thrilled. We are unsurprised,” said Heidi Drygas, executive director of the Alaska State Employees Association, in an interview about Friday’s decision. “We felt really strongly about our case, and the Supreme Court basically confirmed that — with quite a walloping.”

The 2018 Janus decision stated that non-union state employees could not be forced to pay fees in order to receive benefits negotiated by unions representing their co-workers. But like other courts across the country, the Alaska Supreme Court said that the Janus decision did not extend to requiring opt-in procedures for union members.

In a prepared statement, Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said Friday that the case was about protecting the First Amendment rights of public sector employees. He suggested the state would petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

“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,” Taylor said. “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 U.S. Supreme Court has consistently denied appeals in recent years that have sought to expand the Janus decision to other labor-management questions.

National right-wing advocacy and anti-union groups were supportive of the Dunleavy administration’s plans to overhaul state union membership requirements. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which was one group behind the Janus decision, encouraged other state attorneys general to follow the Dunleavy administration’s example.

Jacob Comello, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Foundation, said in an emailed statement Friday that Clarkson and Dunleavy seemed to have a better understanding of union members’ First Amendment protections than the Alaska Supreme Court. He added that “the decision to pay dues must be left in the hands of workers fully informed of their Janus rights, not self-interested union officials.”

Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, said Friday’s opinion was “a great decision” by the state’s highest court. State employees and teachers have reported receiving mailers from Outside groups, which encourage them to leave their unions, she said, adding, “that’s an annoying outcome of Janus, that we have to constantly push back against these people.”

The Alaska Supreme Court found the state liable for damages and the Alaska State Employees Association’s attorney’s fees. Drygas said the union’s costs were expected to be in excess of $430,000, which does not include the state’s attorney’s fees or the contract — worth upwards of $500,000 — that the state signed with a conservative-leaning Virginia-based law firm for help with the case.

A legislative audit into the state’s contracts related to the case is expected to be released later this year.

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Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at