Supreme Court delivers blow to public sector union fee hikes
The Supreme Court dealt a chastening blow to the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and organized labor Thursday, ruling 7-2 to reverse a decision that would force nonmembers of public-sector unions in California to pay a fee that would help to finance the unions’ activities.
Associate Justice Samuel Alito, a George W. Bush nominee, delivered the opinion of the court, with a concurring opinion by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and dissent were given by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
The case centered on a California regulation that allowed unions to charge employees in a particular “agency shop” annual fees to pay for union activities, even if the employees opted not to join the union.
In June 2005, a local branch of the Service Employees International Union sent out a notice telling employees in its shop what the monthly dues for the year would be, but also gave notice that the fee could be increased at any time without additional notice. Shortly after, SEIU would propose a temporary increase of 25 percent in employee fees in order to fund a pro-union political campaign.
When an employee called SEIU offices to complain about fee increases for political purposes, an area manager told the employee that nothing could be done and adding that “we (the union) are in the fight of our lives,’” according to court accounts. The employee would later become a plaintiff in the case.
While SEIU would later refund the fees, Alito said that nothing would stop the union from attempting to collect similar fees in the future, and maintained that a “live controversy” based on the strictures of the First Amendment, remained to be resolved.
“The First Amendment creates ‘an open marketplace’ in which differing ideas about political, economic, and social issues can compete freely for public acceptance without improper government interference,” he wrote. “…Closely related to compelled speech and compelled association is compelled funding of the speech of other private speakers or groups.”
Especially striking, Alito said, was the fact that the fees the unions were forcing employees to pay went to combat a ballot initiative that would have allowed them not to pay those fees if they chose.
“Thus, the effect of the SEIU’s procedure was to force many nonmembers to subsidize a political effort designed to restrict their own rights,” Alito wrote.
Ultimately, Alito stated, while public-sector unions can express views on political and social issues and require dues or fees, they must give ample notice of the fees to be assessed and cannot charge non-members without their consent.
A concurring opinion by Sotomayor and Ginsburg, two of the court’s most liberal justices, agreed that the First Amendment would allow non-union members a chance to opt out of political contributions, but said the majority had addressed constitutional issues outside of the scope of the case and regarding the unions’ charging nonmembers in general.
Breyer and Kagan dissented, saying the union had provided adequate notice and a rebate process for its constituents.