Community Perspective

Is Alaska now a union-busting state?

The Community Perspective by Attorney General Kevin Clarkson in the Thursday, Aug. 29, Daily News-Miner has opened my eyes further to the real plan of the Dunleavy Destroyers. Now they are going after the core element of public employees’ capability to gain and protect their benefits, and all labor unions are at risk from this same pressure.

How did this happen?

A very conservative and anti-union U.S. Supreme Court made it so. This decision overturned a law known as the union shop/agency fee arrangement. This system of funding union action and representation had been tested and tried in court cases many times over many years, because it does something that is difficult to do without bad will from some working people. It makes you pay, usually only partially, for the benefits and representation by unions even if you don’t vote for union representation and join a union.

Some people will always feel they don’t need a union for their interests to be served, but unions are elected democratically by majority, and so in the past workers represented by the union paid a membership dues rate. Those nonmembers were still required to pay for the union representation, in part, because it is only fair for them to pay for benefits from union representation that all union employees receive. This is where the court case quoted by Clarkson in his article changes things in a big way. The court case is the 2018 Janus v. the Federation of State, County and Municipal employees, and the court somehow connected this system to a violation of free speech and the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that such union fees in the public sector violate the First Amendment right to free speech, overturning the 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that had previously allowed such fees.

But now we have the Koch brothers hyper-libertarian Dunleavy regime jumping on the chance to undermine unions’ role in giving employees a share of the power they deserve to make their lives better and make a living wage. Make no mistake, this ruling will cause financial stress in fair representation of collective bargaining, because a number of employees who don’t appreciate or want union representation for whatever reason will opt out of the payment if they can. And they will.

And yes, I do believe that this Supreme Court decision is not only dead wrong but also is very unfair and irresponsible in the extreme. Whose interest is being served? The analogy that should make my reasoning clear to all Alaskans is this: The union shop rule, where everyone pays a fair share of the effort to secure benefits for all, is similar (not the same, but similar) to taxation. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but what if you could opt out if you don’t like the things your taxes are going for? We all benefit from roads, airports, sidewalks and fire departments. And, likewise, all union members benefit from health care benefits, vacations and pay raises. If all benefit, all should pay. I cannot see how this is unfair or violates someone’s free speech rights. I can’t even see the logical arguments that free speech should even enter into this case, but I am not a libertarian lawyer.

We all do better when we all do better, as Paul Wellstone so well said. But now several ways to not pay for those benefits are available for those who want a free ride. I doubt the ride will be good for long.

One more thing. In Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court held that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political communications by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions and other associations. Notice that it includes labor unions. That decision essentially gave corporations and labor unions free speech rights as money.

Now, the Supreme Court has ruled that that same money, which is collected from members under previously existing law, cannot be used for the free speech right of expression. A contradiction? I believe it is, but again I am not a libertarian lawyer. Instead, I just want a fairer world, with the rule of good laws.

Rich Seifert is a professor emeritus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He lives in Fairbanks.

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