Supreme Court deals a blow to public employee unions with ruling on union political activities

Dianne Knox writes regulations for a small California agency and is the chief petitioner in a case against the SEIU over the union's political spending.
Dianne Knox writes regulations for a small California agency and is the chief petitioner in a case against the SEIU over the union's political spending.
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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Supreme Court watchers were disappointed today when the justices did not rule on either health care or Arizona’s immigration law, but the high court did issue a decision in a California case that could have broad implications for organized labor.

The case involved a California political battle seven years ago between then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a public employees union. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was gearing up to fight a pair of ballot propositions backed by the governor.

Because it was a special election, the union charged state employees an added fee to fund its campaign. But at the time, it didn’t give non-union workers the opportunity to say no to the fee.

State worker Diane Knox disagreed with the union’s political position and didn’t want to pay the fee, saying that she "felt that they were taking money that they didn’t deserve."

Knox sued the SEIU, which then argued in the courts that it had fulfilled its duty with an annual notification that non-union workers could opt out of having their money used for political purposes.

The Supreme Court disagreed, voting 7-2 in favor of Knox. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the fee was a “serious infringement” on employee free speech rights.

First Amendment protection, he said, “means we’re not forced to say things with which we disagree.”

Charles Craver teaches labor law at George Washington University School of Law. He said this case "in one sense is narrow, and in one sense may actually bode as a very significant decision."

Craver said it was no surprise the high court decided the union was wrong and should have allowed Dianne Knox and others to opt out of the special fee, but that the court went further.

"This decision held that not only did they have to send out notice," he explained, "but now they have to require all of the people who are not union members in a collective bargaining unit, that they have to opt in."

Dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer said the court went beyond the scope of the original case by imposing the "opt-in" requirement, and the nation’s biggest labor group agrees.

"We’re disturbed but not surprised that the conservative majority placed special burdens on public sector unions," said Alison Omens of the AFL-CIO. But, she adds, the ruling only applies to special fees imposed by public employee unions.

Horace Cooper of the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research thinks Omens is wrong. He believes the ruling will lay the groundwork for future lawsuits that will force public sector unions to get their members’ permission to use dues for any political activity.

"The ability to extract dollars involuntarily is going to be dramatically reduced," Cooper said, before pointing out that one in three union households in Wisconsin voted against the recall of Gov. Scott Walker.

He said the Knox decision and the Wisconsin election are a wakeup call for unions, and that the Supreme Court’s rule "makes it clear that the unions are going to have to be more careful to line up their political activities with that of their membership."

George Washington law professor Charles Craver also sees larger ramifications, predicting "the beginning of a conservative real attack on public sector unions."

While that remains to be seen, there’s no doubt that this Supreme Court ruling dealt a blow to public employee unions, coming on the heels of their defeat in Wisconsin.