Supreme Court rules unions can't bill non-members for political spending
Jun 26, 2012
The Supreme Court has rejected, on First Amendment grounds, the idea that government-employee unions can charge non-members for political activities, even if they refund the money later.
The court held that employees can be required to pay dues in exchange for the benefits they get from collective bargaining, but can’t be forced to effectively lend money to the union for political activities they disagree with. It was a blow to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which first tried to make the case moot by offering refunds, and then argued it would be too difficult to get the assent of non-members before launching a campaign to defeat legislation it considered a threat to its existence.
Seven of the judges joined in the final judgment in the case, although Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said the majority went too far by ruling that government unions must use an “opt-in” system for collecting special assessments, instead of the traditional “opt-out” system where the onus is on non-members to tell the union they don’t want to pay. Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan dissented.
The ruling applies only to public-sector unions, presumably because they use the power of the government to compel all employees covered by a collective-bargaining agreement to pay dues.
Unions are supposed to separate out political expenses and give non-members a so-called “Hudson notice” explaining the split and giving them the opportunity to pay only the non-political share of expenses. In this case, SEIU passed a special assessment after the Hudson notice, charging employees a 25% dues increase for an emergency “Fight-Back Fund” to defeat Proposition 75, which would have limited public-sector union rights.
Several non-members sued, saying they were being compelled to give the union money for a political cause they disagreed with. The union offered to refund non-members the previous year’s percentage rate of political spending but they rejected that, saying the fund was clearly all for political purposes.
The court, in its decision, said it was unfair to require non-members to file lawsuits or take other action to avoid paying for speech they disagree with. There’s no balancing of the “right” of unions to collect dues against employees’ First Amendment rights, the court said, since unions have “no constitutional entitlement to the fees of nonmember-employees.”
Worse, in this case, Prop. 75 would have bolstered non-member rights by requiring their consent in future political spending. Thus the effect of the procedure was to force non-members “to subsidize a political effort designed to restrict their own rights.”
The most far-reaching effect of the decision might be the court’s requirement of an opt-in system for public-sector unions when they impose a special assessment or dues increase. The court seems to be carving out a special case for public-sector unions, perhaps because of the political power they have to elect politicians who will serve their interests and diminish the political power of employees who disagree with them.