WASHINGTON -- The ability of organized labor to spend money on political issues recently took a hit from the Supreme Court.
The case, Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, asked whether a local union needed to send out a notice before deducting certain fees from the paychecks of non-union members covered by SEIU-negotiated contracts. The fees in question constituted a "special assessment" to help challenge two California state ballot referendums in 2005. In a 7-2 ruling, the court on June 21 concluded that the public sector union did not give proper notice to non-union members before making the deductions.
But in a tighter 5-4 opinion -- one that has received relatively little attention in the midst of the Obamacare frenzy -- the court went above and beyond that question to address a larger issue of political spending by unions.
With Justice Samuel Alito writing the opinion, the court concluded that a longstanding precedent -- that the First Amendment demands that non-union members covered by union contracts be given the chance to "opt out" of such special fees -- was insufficient. Instead, the majority said, non-members should be sent a notice giving them the chance to "opt in" to the special fees.
The ruling appears to be the first significant limit on union political spending since the high court opened the floodgates with its 2010 Citizens United decision, allowing for unlimited electoral spending by unions and corporations. Knox v. SEIU could lay the foundation for future legal challenges over unions' political spending and the dues collection process in general.
"The court's opinion makes clear its displeasure with 60 years of precedent on the dues issue, which have placed the burden on employees who object [to political spending] to opt out," said William Gould, who from 1994 to 1998 chaired the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that governs labor relations in the private sector. "This decision is an invitation to litigate this issue."
Although the Knox case involved special assessments on non-union members, Gould said, the Supreme Court’s reasoning suggests that it could be applied to all union dues that fund political spending paid by non-members. The next time that a union goes through the standard process of notifying non-members they have the ability to opt out, the union may well be met with a legal challenge, warned Gould. "[This decision] indicates that if these five [justices] are there when these cases come back to the Court, that the Court will decide these cases adversely to unions," he said.
That thought has the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which represented the plaintiffs in the case, and similar groups celebrating -- and labor advocates fearing the worst.
Patrick Semmens, vice president of the foundation, said via email that while some justices have used similar language in the past, the Knox decision confirms that now a majority believe "compulsory unionism" is a violation of First Amendment rights.
"Predicting the Supreme Court's next step can be tricky, but we're certainly hopeful that Knox will open the door to cutting away more of Big Labor's power to coerce nonmember employees to pay money to a union they don't want and didn't ask for," said Semmens.
SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina said that the potential shift to an opt-in system could make "everything more complicated," but that such a transition was "do-able." He was more concerned that the court’s ruling might give momentum to what he sees as an anti-labor agenda being pursued in several states.
"It's gonna give the [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walkers of the world, the [Ohio Gov.] John Kasichs of the world, an implicit green light to continue with attacks on working people," Medina said. "It's going to create more litigation, it's going to create more fights in the states, because these governors in these states are interested in prosecuting an ideological war against workers."
Medina said he was also frustrated by what some labor advocates are calling the Supreme Court's double standard when it comes to political speech in the wake of Citizens United.
"There is nothing in this [Knox] decision that even speaks to the question of shareholders, or corporations having to tell shareholders about any of the contributions they make," Medina said, calling the ruling politically motivated. "The language, to me, signals what has been the rightward drift of the Supreme Court … Now they've come up with a decision to make it more difficult for workers to be able to effectively participate in the [political] process."
Carrie Biggs-Adams, a staff representative at the Communications Workers of America, also blasted the ruling as a "complete double standard."
"They're trying to find ways to make it harder and harder for us to exist," she said.