Win Gruening: Public sector unions vs. the First Amendment



In 1962, President John Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988, paving the way for federal workers to organize and bargain collectively. 

Few knew then the far-reaching effects of that order.

During the 60’s and ’70s, states and cities followed with a flood of laws granting state and local public employees collective-bargaining rights.  These laws required government employers to negotiate with unions regarding pay, benefits, and working conditions. They also required nonmembers to pay so-called “agency fees” to the union for its representation.

After the initial surge, the public-sector unionization rate remained steady for 40 years, with around 40 percent of government workers unionized. That rate began declining in 2011, due to passage of right-to-work laws in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia. 

In the last decade, government-labor relations has become intensely political. It has topped many state legislative agendas and been the subject of litigation in state and federal courts, including the Supreme Court.

The cost of union-negotiated public-sector pay and benefits (which can exceed what comparable private sector workers earn), combined with hundreds of billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities for retired government employees, are crushing state and city budgets. 

This has led many governors to attempt to roll back overly generous public-sector union contracts hoping to reduce the cost of government and improve employee efficiency.

Right-to-work laws now exist in 27 states, guaranteeing that no person can be required, as a condition of employment, to join a union, nor to pay dues to a labor union. 

In 23 other states, including Alaska, where public sector employees have been forced to join the union or pay agency fees, worker dissatisfaction has continued to mount with escalating annual union dues that increasingly are funneled to local, state, and federal political campaigns.  Often, unions take political positions and make contributions to candidates and causes in direct conflict with many union members’ own wishes.  

An egregious example of this was when the Los Angeles teachers union demanded, as a condition for re-opening schools last fall, a federal school bailout of $500 billion; Medicare for All; a $10 billion wealth tax; a $4.5 billion millionaire tax; defunding of the police; and eliminating charter schools.

Yet, teachers who disagreed had no recourse but to continue paying union dues if they wanted to keep their jobs.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Janus decision affirmed the First Amendment rights of all public employees. No longer can state or local government employees be forced, in order to take or keep a job, to belong to or pay union dues unless they “affirmatively consent” to do so. Agency fees are now illegal in all 50 states. In short, the decision extended right-to-work to all public-sector workers throughout the country. 

But the fight is far from over.

Some states are passing union-backed legislation making it more difficult to leave a union.  Many workers remain unaware of their rights under Janus.

In Alaska, Governor Dunleavy issued an administrative order in 2019 making it easier for workers to know their rights through an “opt-in” program where unionized state employees affirmatively agree to have union dues deducted from their paychecks.

Under Alaska’s new policy, state workers must declare each year that they want to opt into the union and acknowledge they are not required to have such representation. 

Unions immediately filed objections to this interpretation of the Janus decision and a judge temporarily halted implementation.  But, while the legal case advances, public employees still have the right to “opt-out”.

Predictably, union opposition to Janus in Alaska has reached hyperbolic proportions. The leadership of NEA-Alaska, representing our state’s teachers, is begging employees to ignore social media ads advising of them of their right to “opt-out” and declaring the ads are seeking to “destroy unions and public education across America”.

Nothing in the Janus decision suggests that. Individuals must have the right, but cannot be compelled, to join a labor union. Union membership, whether you’re a teacher, police officer, ferry worker, or clerk, should be a personal choice with each person weighing the pros and cons of joining. 

That is the freedom all Americans enjoy under the First Amendment. 

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening began writing op-eds for local and statewide media. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations and currently serves on the board of the Alaska Policy Forum.


  1. A good article and some truth in it but right here in Anchorage Alaska any construction electrician that went to work for the MOA always took a cut in pay !! However, in the 80s when many construction electrician were laid off the best of them did go to work for the city. They took at least a $5.00 per hr DECREASE in their hourly wage and of course never any overtime. A friend of mine was making about $25 an hour as a union electrician but had to start at $17.25 an hr with AWWU. And a 40 hr week. He had completed a 4 year union apprenticeship, was a VietNam veteran ,had foreman experience and at least 12 years of construction ( not maintenance ) experience. He had a wife ,two kids and a mortgage. He did anything he could on the side to make a dollar and his wife worked. As you might expect, when things improved most of those guys quickly left government employment to go back to work thru the union. My impression; if the MOA had a union trained and experienced electrician in their employment , they had the BEST man available!!

  2. Any worker may deny membership and accompanying dues in any labor union. Under the “Beck Exception”, workers have the right to refuse union membership and dues. Agency fees must be paid by anyone working under a union negotiated agreement. Agency fees are costs incurred by the workforce (union or not members) to negotiate and enforce the collective bargaining agreement. Dues entitle workers to participate in union politics and vote within the union. Workers paying only ‘fees’ are not entitled to vote for union officers or union rules, regulations or working conditions, unless unsafe and then the remedy has been OSHA alone (or lawyers). The current setup with public sector unions and forced or coerced dues by any means is illegal. Someone needs to challenge it.

  3. Traditionally, Maintenance and Operations employees make about 20% less than Construction employees; nothing new.

  4. Mr. Slone, You are neglecting to report the total wage and benefits in your comparison. The AVERAGE Anchorage municipal worker as reported here in MRAK and elsewhere, makes more than $120,000 per year; the AVERAGE State worker close to $180,000 per year. I don’t know your source, but $17.25/hour doesn’t do that and neither does $25. The private employers I know, employing both skilled and unskilled labor, can’t compete with those salary package scales. The public sector unions had a good thing going, but have gotten too greedy – and in tight budget times like now need to back off to protect their member’s job security. We just can’t afford them at those wages and benefits. Do the math – that average Muni employee is making salary + bene of nearly $58.00/hour for a 40-hour week.

  5. I love when Alaska buys/builds ferries that they have no clue on how to maintain, and then sells them pennies on the dollar to other Nations that don’t have our naval engineering technology, but are are fiscally responsible.

    It’s a true lose/win. Yaaaaa

    Fact Checkers, prove me wrong!

  6. Rich, I’m assuming you’re using the arithmetic average to establish your “average wage for state employees,”right? With such a simplistic look you get very skewed numbers held up by a very small group of investment officers, attorneys, physicians, state troopers, professors, political appointees and engineers just to name a few. Most of which demand far greater compensation in the private sector. Providing a median wage would be far more appropriate for you comparison, but that number would probably be drastically smaller and not have the same wow factor as saying the average state worker makes 180,000.

  7. Jay Jones, it would be fun to prove your wrong. However, that is not possible since you are absolutely right.

  8. In 1962 JFK was pandering for votes by ushering in government worker unions. Even the leftist FDR knew such an idea was an abomination. Unions must exist only in an economically competitive environment to prevent their running out of control. As an example, consumers were seeking more value for their dollar when buying autos in the 70’s…. when roughly 30% of the price of GM autos was for UAW retirement benefits. When Toyota and Honda entered the market GM and UAW found it necessary to make adjustments to survive…. the competition gave consumers the choice of obtaining more value per dollar spent on autos. Have you ever heard of government facing economic competition? Only a fool would grant private-sector-style collective bargaining rights to government employees. Look what the unions have done to the education bureaucracy…. its a form of child abuse.

  9. Word of advice to UAW or any union. Next time you shoot footage of a picket line or rally don’t put morbidly obese people in the shot, It’s not a good look.

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