Unions lose in Supreme Court decision over dues dispute
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court sharply criticized public-sector unions for using money from nonmembers to fund special political campaigns, stepping into the intense political debate about such unions and signaling that new constitutional limits may be coming.
The justices ruled Thursday that the Service Employees International Union in California violated the First Amendment rights of its dissident members by taking extra fees from their paychecks in 2005. The money was used to fight two anti-union ballot measures.
"This aggressive use of power by the SEIU to collect fees from nonmembers is indefensible," said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., speaking for the court's majority. "When a public-sector union imposes a special assessment or dues increase, the union ... may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent."
The court fight carried echoes of the recent battles in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states where Republican governors sought to limit the power of public-sector unions, and the two dissenters Thursday made reference to those tensions.
"The debate about public unions' collective bargaining rights is currently intense," Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in a dissent. "There is no good reason for this court suddenly to enter the debate, much less now to decide that the Constitution resolves it."
Alito's opinion resolved only a narrow issue. Its rule applies to "special assessments" during the year, not annual dues. Only a small amount of money was involved, and the union agreed to refund it. Some of the Sacramento-area employees who objected paid an extra $6.45 a month in 2005.
In California and most states that bargain with public-sector unions, dissident employees must opt out if they do not want their share of fees to pay for politics. Alito said the right rule might require unions to get an affirmative "opt in" from employees before they can collect full fees.
"Requiring objecting nonmembers to opt out of paying" the full dues "represents a remarkable boon for unions," Alito said. "Unions have no constitutional entitlement to the fees of nonmember employees."
One of the ballot measures pushed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 would have required public-sector unions to obtain an employee's affirmative consent before collecting fees that could be used for political purposes. Voters rejected the proposal.
Labor leaders in California downplayed the court's decision. "The implications here are extremely limited," said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation. He said the case involved a "very rare" circumstance of a special midyear assessment.