In the latest of a series of recent blows to organized labor, in a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday in Knox v. SEIU, Local 1000 that the First Amendment prohibits public unions from forcing non-members to subsidize the union’s political activity.
What’s most shocking is that it took a Supreme Court decision to prevent what should have already been an intolerable practice: the forcible collection of money from individuals to advocate for political causes they don’t support.
California law permits public-sector unions to collect union dues from all public employees, even non-union members. Non-union members may “opt-out” of paying the portion of the dues used by the union for political activities after a brief objection period (The Court made it clear it was highly skeptical of this practice on First Amendment grounds, but did not pass direct judgment on it). Regardless, non-members are still forced to pay the other, allegedly non-political portion of the dues.
During California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failed 2005 push for two public union reforms, Propositions 75 and 76, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) forced an “Emergency Temporary Assessment” on all members and non-members explicitly to fight the anti-union measures. Over 28,000 non-union members filed a class-action lawsuit to protest the assessment.
Ironically, Proposition 75 would have allowed non-union members to opt-in to union dues rather than opt-out. In other words, non-union employees were forced to pay additional “emergency” dues so that the SEIU could lobby against a voter referendum specifically designed to increase non-union employee rights. They must be smoking more than medical marijuana out in California these days.
The loss is yet another blow to organized labor after a series of recent electoral defeats, the most dramatic of which was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s decisive victory in his recall election battle against his state’s public-employee unions. That same night, two major California cities, San Diego and San Jose, recently passed public pension reforms by overwhelming margins despite active campaigns against the measures by organized labor.
Incidentally, Walker’s reforms effectively illustrate the coercive nature of mandatory union dues that the Supreme Court noted in Knox. Prior to Walker’s reforms, union membership was mandatory and union dues were automatically deducted from public employees’ paychecks without any individual affirmative consent. Once Wisconsin permitted people to decide whether or not they wanted to pay dues, union membership plummeted, with some unions shrinking by as much as half of their initial size.
With these notable recent blows to public sector unions and union membership declining, this could spell out bad news for the president’s reelection if he is banking on the support of organized labor. Chances are likely that he will, as union members overwhelmingly support the Democratic candidate in presidential elections.
Obama-appointed Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred with the judgment of the court, while President Obama’s most recent appointment, Justice Elena Kagan, dissented.