The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in a case about political spending by the union that represents California state workers.
California requires all state employees to either join the Service Employees International Union or pay a fee for the collective bargaining it does on their behalf. The Supreme Court already allows non-members to opt out of paying dues for the union's political activities. In 2005, the SEIU levied a temporary assessment to fight a pair of ballot propositions backed by then–Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Dianne Knox didn't support the action by the union. Knox writes regulations for a small agency of the state of California. She became the chief petitioner for the case before the high court. "I felt that they were taking money that they didn’t deserve."
Attorney William Young, arguing on behalf of Knox and other state employees who didn’t want to pay the added fee, says a previous Supreme Court ruling requires unions to detail what money is spent on organizing and what’s spent on politics. "These employees were in the dark about this assessment when they were given the opportunity to object," Young said, "and were never given a new opportunity to object when the union knew it was going to take this money for a political campaign."
Last fall, the union refunded the extra assessment to Knox and others who objected. Knox says, "It was still six years too late."
During oral arguments, Sonia Sotomayor and other justices painted the issue as an accounting matter, saying the union is required to annually disclose how much money it spends on collective bargaining and how much on politics. But Young argued the extra assessment was a free loan to the union.
Outside the Supreme Court, Young suggested the entire problem would be solved "if the state of California would allow workers to vote with their feet entirely and say 'yea' or 'nay' to supporting a union."
Proposition 75, one of the initiatives fought by the SEIU, would have prohibited public employee unions from using dues for political contributions without prior consent of employees. California voters defeated the measure.
The case is Knox v. Service Employees International Union. The Supreme Court will issue its ruling later this year.