||Deborah J. La Fetra
Pacific Legal Foundation
Pacific Legal Foundation
PLF applauds Supreme Court’s Knox v. SEIU ruling for workers’ free speech rights
Washington, D.C.; June 21, 2012: In a major decision that reaffirmed workers’ First Amendment rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that a public-sector union may not force nonmember government employees to fund political activities with a special assessment, without the employees’ express, affirmative consent. The case, Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, was decided 7-2, and was the latest in a series of decisions protecting the rights of workers who choose not to support unions’ political campaigns.
“This decision is a major victory for workers,” explained Deborah J. La Fetra, a principal attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, who authored a friend of the court brief in the case. “Public employee unions cannot use workers as ATMs every time they want to fund another political campaign.”
The Knox case began when a public employee union increased the fees without issuing the legally required notice, in order to defeat two California budget initiatives related to the state budget process. “The union essentially forced government employees to give them a loan so it could run a political campaign, regardless of whether the workers agreed with that campaign,” explained La Fetra. “But the Constitution protects the workers’ right not to speak just as much as it protects their right to speak.” As the Court bluntly stated: “This aggressive use of power by the SEIU to collect fees from nonmembers is indefensible.”
For decades, unions could deduct so-called “agency fees” from the paychecks of workers who chose not to join the union and place the burden on the worker to jump through procedural hoops to get a refund for the amount of the fee used for politicking. Today, with regard to special mid-year assessments, the Court endorsed an approach that PLF urged in its friend of the Court brief: the First Amendment does not allow the union to assume that workers are willing to subsidize the unions, therefore unions must obtain consent — an “opt-in” from workers before assessing fees for political campaigns. This protects the workers’ First Amendment right not to support political campaigns they don’t endorse.
In recent years, the Supreme Court has issued several cases involving compulsory union fees and the First Amendment rights of workers who do not join the union, including a case that upheld Washington State’s paycheck protection act. “Unions keep finding different ways to evade the clear mandate of the Constitution,” said La Fetra. “And that’s not surprising, because polls show that many union members — not to mention nonunion members — do not agree with union leadership on political issues.”
As Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the Court: “Our cases have tolerated a substantial impingement on First Amendment rights by allowing unions to impose an opt-out requirement at all. Even if this burden can be justified during the collection of regular dues on an annual basis, there is no way to justify the additional burden of imposing yet another opt-out requirement to collect special fees whenever the union desires.”
La Fetra applauded the decision that requires unions to ask nonmembers before taking their money for a special assessment, rather than providing a rebate procedure. “In every other walk of life, people have to ask you before they take your money,” she said. “Today the Court said enough is enough. Unions will have to persuade workers to support their politicking, rather than just garnishing their wages.”
La Fetra continued, “There is also no reason why this ruling should not be applied to all union fee collections from nonmembers. We expect to see that issue brought to the courts very soon.”
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