By Larry Sand
LOS ANGELES – A recently filed lawsuit in California picks up where Knox v. SEIU left off.
In a case brought to the Supreme Court by the National Right to Work Foundation last June, the justices ruled 7-2 that the Service Employees International Union could not force its members to pay the part of union dues that goes for political activities, even if the union felt it was for the workers’ own good. As I wrote at the time,
Actually this decision didn’t break any new ground. Unions haven’t been allowed to force workers to pay for their political agenda since the 1970s and 1980s when several landmark decisions were handed down by the court. But SEIU Local 1,000 in California tried to hoodwink the rank and file. The case probably never should have reached the high court, but their involvement became necessary in order to overturn a decision from the far left Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (or as it’s affectionately known to us left coasters – the Ninth Circus), which has become a regular occurrence these days.
The Wall Street Journal explained the specifics of SEIU’s chicanery,
The California SEIU local attempted to end run these protections in a special 2005 election and the midterms in 2006, amid a furious debate about union government perks. The SEIU joined a “Political Fight-Back Fund” to defeat two propositions that would have given then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger the ability in some cases to modify salaries, benefits and pensions. To fund this advocacy, the SEIU imposed a temporary 25% hike in union dues, never providing its 28,000 non-union members the Hudson notice that would have let them opt out.
The SEIU argued that lobbying against the ballot initiatives was really work on behalf of all workers. Yet that would erase the legal distinction between politics and collective bargaining. These activities may be especially fungible in public employee practice already, but this was too much even for liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who concurred with the majority on the narrow if obvious grounds of technical precedent.
The chutzpah here is dazzling. As Steve Greenhut noted,
It’s ironic that SEIU took money from nonmembers to specifically battle a statewide proposition that would have stopped them from being able to take such money in the future. There’s something disturbingly totalitarian about that – making me give you money that you can use to stop me from exerting my rights.
In a lesser-known but very important ruling, the court went beyond Knox and addressed two larger issues:
1. Should union members have to opt out of paying the political part of union dues? (The way things stand, the default position is “in” and a worker must take action to opt out.) 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. (Emphasis added)
2. Should public employees be forced to pay any union dues at all? (At this time, workers in 26 states and Washington, D.C. must pay union dues as a condition of employment. The other 24 states are “right-to-work” states where workers can choose whether or not to join.) Alito again,
Because a public-sector union takes many positions during collective bargaining that have powerful political and civic consequences, the compulsory fees constitute a form of compelled speech and association that imposes a significant impingement on First Amendment rights. (Emphasis added.)
As Huffington Post blogger Cole Stangler wrote at the time,
Knox v. SEIU could lay the foundation for future legal challenges over unions’ political spending and the dues collection process in general.
And lay the foundation it did on both counts.
… on behalf of 10 California teachers and the Christian Educators Association International, challenging the constitutionality of California’s “agency shop” law, which violates the First Amendment by forcing public school teachers to pay annual fees to support powerful teachers’ unions extensively involved in political activity. The suit was filed against the lead defendants, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the National Education Association (NEA), as well as ten affiliated local teachers’ unions, and local school officials.
The lawyers in this case claim that the lines between “chargeable” or “agency fee” and “political” are very blurry and that the unions use their power
… to extract compulsory fees as a convenient method of forcing teachers to pay for activities that have little to do with collective bargaining. For example, the CTA considers the publication and dissemination of The California Educator, its internal and highly political magazine, to be a mostly “chargeable” collective bargaining expense. The CTA likewise deems programs dealing with gays and lesbians, including a “GLBT Conference,” to be predominantly “chargeable.” Also, the CTA spends millions of dollars every year on political contributions, mostly to support Democratic Party causes. The NEA, which receives a portion of the fees paid by every California public school teacher, likewise classifies expenditures as chargeable even though they appear to have little to do with collective bargaining, such as programs advancing various education policies or expensive conferences for NEA staff.
The litigation also addresses right-to-work issues,
Given the severe and ongoing infringement of Plaintiffs’ rights to free speech and free association, Plaintiffs respectfully request that this Court declare that California’s practice of forcing non-union members to contribute funds to unions, including funds to support their collective-bargaining activities, violates the First Amendment, and enjoin Defendants from enforcing this unconstitutional arrangement.
Needless to say, the unions are not happy about the lawsuit. CTA spokesman Frank Wells, speaking in boilerplate language, said that it is a “baseless challenge intended to dilute worker rights.” He went on to say that the claims are “another baseless attack on the concept of agency fees” and that “the concept of agency fees is sound.”
If the suit isn’t settled at the local level, it could wind up in the Supreme Court. Should that happen, the justices could take their opinion in Knox one step further and make joining a union voluntary. What a victory for liberty that would be! Greenhut is right – there is something indeed “disturbingly totalitarian” about forced union dues. It’s time to take Knox to its logical conclusion and give all workers the freedom to choose.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.