U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear Alaska union dues case

Jan. 16—The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday decided against hearing a case brought by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy that could have weakened public unions by making it easier for state workers to opt out of paying union dues.

Dunleavy, a Republican, attempted in 2019 to change the rules for public-employee members, citing a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that Dunleavy said required employees to opt into their union membership annually.

In the 2018 case, called Janus v. AFSCME, justices decided that government workers who do not join the unions that represent them in contract negotiations cannot be required to pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. Since then, the justices have declined several cases brought by Republicans and conservative groups seeking to extend the ruling.

Unions opposed the Dunleavy administration's interpretation. The Alaska Supreme Court rejected the state's argument last year in a case filed by Alaska's largest public-sector union. The Alaska court described "an anti-union animus" behind the Dunleavy administration's actions. The state said in August that it would appeal the decision.

Heidi Drygas, director of the Alaska State Employees Association, said the court's decision was "good news" for the union, "yet we can't help reflecting on the price Alaskans paid to reach this conclusion."

Drygas said the lawsuit was "politically motivated" and "frivolous," and that Dunleavy sought "to undermine (worker) rights to bargain collectively for better wages, benefits, and working conditions."

"ASEA hopes the Administration will focus now on pragmatic solutions for recruiting and retaining public employees," she said.

Dunleavy spokespeople referred questions on the case to the Department of Law. In a statement, Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said it was "disappointing the Court didn't take up the case."

"Where there is uncertainty about an employee's constitutional rights, the state should always defer to protecting those rights and seek clarity on the state's role through the third branch of government — which is what occurred here. As always, we are committed to upholding the law and will follow the court decisions," said Taylor.

Last month, the Alaska Legislature approved spending up to $100,000 on a lawsuit against Dunleavy's administration for ignoring legislative directing and funding the legal challenge using public funds.

Dunleavy spent more than $300,000 on out-of-state attorneys for work related to the case. The Legislature's auditor found Dunleavy likely violated state law by hiring outside counsel rather than relying on state attorneys.