U.S. Supreme Court Smacks Down Service Employees Union

Friday, June 22, 2012

San Francisco’s 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called the lower-court ruling “practically unworkable,” but on a 7-2 vote, U.S. Supreme Court justices upheld the decision that closed union shops, like those in California government, must give workers a chance to opt out of unexpected dues increases and special assessments. Unions are already required to give an annual notice of impending increases, which the Court of Appeals had found sufficient.  

The court said that union opt-out fee policies “approach, if they do not cross, the limit of what the First Amendment can tolerate.” The decision in Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000 dealt a heavy blow to unions participating in political campaigns.

California law lets public-sector employees decline union membership, but requires they still pay an annual fee to cover collective bargaining costs.

The case arose out of actions by the union in 2005 when it tried to raise fees 25% to fight Propositions 75 and 76. The former would have required unions to obtain the consent of workers before it could charge them fees for a political purpose and the latter would have empowered the governor to reduce state funding for public employee salaries. Both initiatives eventually lost at the polls. A class-action suit was filed on behalf of 28,000 nonunion members who said they had not received proper notification to opt out of the assessment.

Justice Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan claimed no harm, no foul in their dissent, pointing out that the union rescinded the assessment for its nonunion members when they objected. “The special assessment as administered here has worked no constitutional harm upon those nonunion employees,” Breyer wrote.   

Two justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, agreed with the majority that the First Amendment required the SEIU to let nonunion members opt out of special assessments, but strongly disagreed that the union was required to ask nonmembers for consent before levying any assessments, instead of just not collecting the fee from them.

“The majority announces its novel rule without any analysis of potential countervailing arguments and without any reflection on the reliance interests our old rules have engendered,” Sotomayor wrote. “The majority's choice to reach an issue not presented by the parties, briefed, or argued, disregards our rules. … To cast serious doubt on longstanding precedent is a step we historically take only with the greatest caution and reticence. To do so, as the majority does, on our own invitation and without adversarial presentation is both unfair and unwise.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Union Political Drive Ran Afoul of 1st Amendment (by Barbara Leonard, Courthouse News)

Supreme Court Attacks Union Political Power (by Adam B, DailyKos)

Court: Union Must Give Fee Increase Notice (by Jessie J. Holland, Associated Press)

Knox et al v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000 (U.S. Supreme Court ruling)

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Against SEIU Local 1000 in Fee Case (by Jon Ortiz, Sacramento Bee)

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