ANCHORAGE, Alaska – For decades, Alaska has been a stronghold for organized labor, boasting one of the nation’s highest union participation rates even as membership rolls declined across the United States in the face of broad economic shifts and sustained ideological attacks.
Now, a conservative new governor, Mike Dunleavy, is trying to push through a plan that could hobble Alaska’s public sector unions — and put the state on the leading edge of a fight over the collective bargaining power of teachers, police officers and other civil servants.
Under a recent administrative order, the governor proposes to halt payroll deductions for union dues and require state workers to go through a cumbersome process to restore that option.
Dunleavy, 58, a former teacher and state senator, had already established himself as a close ally of President Donald Trump and national conservative leaders, drawing praise for his proposals to slash the state budget and veto funds for the Alaska Supreme Court after a decision that upheld abortion access.
His move against unionized state workers is drawing even more attention as states across the country consider how to respond to a Supreme Court ruling, known as the Janus decision, last year that limited the power of unions to collect fees from nonmembers.
The escalating battle in Alaska recalls a much bigger one by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who rose to prominence in 2011 as he championed a set of laws that undermined labor organizations and set off a precipitous decline in the state’s union rolls before losing re-election last year.
Union membership has been declining for decades, in part as a result of wider moves to make it harder to sign and hold dues-paying members. Legislation to impose additional restrictions on union enrollments was proposed this year in Montana, Kansas and Pennsylvania.
Alaska’s plan has gone the furthest. Under Dunleavy’s new policy, state workers will have to declare that they want to opt into the union and sign an acknowledgment that they know they don’t have to have such representation. They will then need a second layer of authentication, such as an e-mail exchange, to reaffirm their intentions. And they will have to repeat the opt-in process every year.
Dunleavy said the plan was intended not to harm unions, but to comply with the Supreme Court, which ruled last year that government workers who elect not to join the union do not have to help pay for collective bargaining.
Labor leaders said Alaska was imposing new restrictions on top of a court ruling that already made it more difficult for unions to operate. “No other governor across the country is going to this extreme,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.
On Thursday, a judge in Anchorage sided with the union, temporarily halting Dunleavy’s plans while a legal case on the issue advances.
Alaska officials see the proposed new policy as the beginning of a broader reassessment by states in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.
Erin Gleason, who works in the Department of Environmental Conservation, said state workers have been in anxious conversation about the governor’s union plans, which she sees as an alarming tactic to weaken the power of their voice. She also said Alaska appeared to be a test case for the union issue nationally.
“Alaska might just be the first one in a grander national maneuver to get rid of unions,” Gleason said.