Court Upholds Workers’ Right to Not Fund Union Political Campaigns

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker won 38 percent of the union-household vote, but he didn’t get much support from union bosses. They spent more than $20 million to defeat him. This disconnect makes today’s Supreme Court ruling in Knox v. SEIU a very big deal. For the first time, the Supreme Court has required unions to ask for permission before spending non-union workers’ dues on politics.

Unions have become very political. Government unions admit to spending at least 20 to 30 percent of their budget on politics and lobbying—virtually all of it to advance liberal policies and candidates. Many rank-and-file union members are less enthused about raising taxes and electing liberals than their union bosses who make the spending decisions. The average worker (whether union or non-union) would rather spend their money elsewhere.

The Supreme Court has previously ruled that unions cannot force non-union workers to fund their political activities, even in states where they must support some of the collective-bargaining costs. That would violate their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association.

However, workers have to jump through hoops to exercise this right. Unions send workers they legally represent who do not belong to the union an annual “Hudson” notice. The notice tells non-members how much of their dues is spent on collective-bargaining activities. They have 30 days to object to the rest of the spending and pay reduced dues. Otherwise, the union can spend their money any way it wants.

#more#In 2005, after the Hudson-notice period had expired, the Service Employees International Union in California hiked dues 25 percent –supposedly to fight several ballot initiatives. (Ironically, one of those initiatives would have required unions to get permission from their members before spending dues on politics.) The SEIU did not notify non-members about this increase, or give them the chance to opt out. It took their money and (successfully) spent it fighting an initiative that many union-represented employees supported.

The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 (with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor concurring in the judgment only, and not the reasoning of the majority) that the SEIU could not do that. The union has to notify non-members before it levies any additional assessments.

Importantly, the opinion by Samuel Alito for five justices also held that it was not enough for the union merely to notify workers of their right to opt out. The Court required the union to get the affirmative consent of non-members before raising dues or levying a special assessment to fund political activism. Unions cannot presume that workers are willing to support their political agenda. That comes too close to forcing workers to fund an agenda they oppose.

This legal reasoning of the five-justice majority, however, strongly suggests that unions should need workers’ permission to spend dues on politics in all cases, not just dues hikes or special assessments. In Justice Alito’s words:

By authorizing a union to collect fees from non-members and permitting the use of an opt-out system for the collec­tion of fees levied to cover non-chargeable expenses, our prior decisions approach, if they do not cross, the limit of what the First Amendment can tolerate.

If future cases or legislation require unions to get consent before spending dues on politics, it would be an enormous victory for workers. Polls show that large majorities of union members oppose their union’s political spending. Most union members think they don’t get enough value for their dues. Union political spending would also plummet.

Unions know many workers won’t consent to spending their dues on politics. They would rather force workers to jump through hoops to opt out. After all, it’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission.