Fairness prevails in union-dues ruling

July 2, 2012

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — For people who truly are interested in a just and fair society, there’s one easy test for sorting through some seemingly complex issues: Turn the tables. For instance, while considering a controversial law affecting a particular group, it’s best to think about how fair it would seem if that law were applied in the same way to you.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision a few days ago in Knox v. Service Employees International UnionLocal 1000, showing how deeply it understands that basic concept. By a 7-2 vote, the high court slapped down the local — California’s largest state-employee union — for deducting money from employees’ paychecks and using it to fight against California campaign initiatives — without giving its covered nonmembers a chance to opt out of these political campaign contributions.

Typically, a union official told the Sacramento Bee that the ruling was another “attack on the right of public-sector workers to act collectively.” But let’s apply our test to these outraged union officials. What if money was deducted by force from their paychecks and used to support conservative tax-limiting initiatives?

Would they be OK with that? We know the answer.

The court majority said, “Public-sector unions have the right under the First Amendment to express their views on political and social issues without government interference. … But employees who choose not to join a union have the same rights.”

There’s a legal requirement (the Hudson rule) that nonmembers, who must pay union dues in union-shop states such as California to cover the cost of union efforts negotiate salaries and benefits for all covered workers, have a chance to opt out of paying the portion of dues used for political purposes.

The idea is that nonmembers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize political activities that may fly in the face of their own beliefs. But the SEIU concocted a scheme to evade that requirement in order to, ironically, battle a statewide ballot initiative that would have limited unions’ ability to continued unilaterally taking such dues from members.

As the Supreme Court explained, “In June 2005 [the union] sent to California employees its annual Hudson notice, setting and capping monthly dues and estimating that 56.35 (percent) of its total expenditures in the coming year would be chargeable [related to collective bargaining] expenses. A nonmember had 30 days to object to full payment of dues but would still have to pay the chargeable portion.”

After that 30-day time period expired, the union then imposed a huge surcharge on dues — a 25 percent assessment that would be used for the 2006 election. Because the 30-day opt-out period had expired, union officials figured they had come up with a clever way to circumvent the law. Nonmembers had to pay the amount and were provided with no opt-out provision for the temporary dues increase. Eventually, the union offered to return the dues, but the court ruled that it is not a moot case — the union can collect dues, use them for political purposes and then, after the political damage is done, return the money if anyone bothers to sue.

Here’s the court again: “Under the First Amendment, when a union imposes a special assessment or dues increase levied to meet expenses that were not disclosed when the regular assessment was set, it must provide a fresh notice and may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent.” That’s clear, and that’s fair.

The justices also made it clear that they are open to consider the broader matter of whether it’s appropriate for unions to be able to have the government deduct union dues from paychecks. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito’s explained: “By authorizing a union to collect fees from nonmembers and permitting the use of an opt-out system for the collection of fees levied to cover [unrelated to collective bargaining] expenses, our prior decisions approach, if they do not cross, the limit of what the First Amendment can tolerate.”

Interpretation: Please bring this broader opt-in/op-out issue to the court, and we will invalidate the current, unfair way unions grab money from workers.

Currently, union members and nonmembers have their dues taken out of their paychecks by force, and there’s nothing they can do about it if they want to keep their jobs. In practice, unions make it extremely formidable to opt out. They provide a small window of opportunity, require complex paperwork, and union members who opt out at times report harassment and intimidation by union authorities. I am not against unions per se, but no one should be forced to fund them.

A dissenting opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by Justice Elena Kagan, stated, “The decision is particularly unfortunate given the fact that each reason the court offers in support of its ‘opt-in’ conclusion seems in logic to apply, not just to special assessments, but to ordinary yearly fee charges as well. At least, its opinion can be so read. And that fact virtually guarantees that the opinion will play a central role in an ongoing, intense political debate.”

The dissenters’ main problem was not the substance of the opinion, but their concern that the court has intruded too deeply into the opt-in/opt-out debate – a political contest facing California voters in another “paycheck protection” initiative in November.

Regardless of what California’s fickle voters decide, it is unfair to require this system whereby the union takes the money, and the member or nonmember must plead for a portion of it back. The high-court majority in Knox got it right: “The general rule — individuals should not be compelled to subsidize private groups or private speech — should prevail.”

What a refreshingly fair and just ruling — and a reminder that the days of union special privilege might be subsiding.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity; write to him at: [email protected]


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  1. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 2 July, 2012, 11:33

    Why on earth anyone trusts any group escapes one….scandle after plucking after taking after dissing!

    Reply this comment
  2. us citizen
    us citizen 2 July, 2012, 12:11

    Unions were good in the “OLD” days……..now they are a scourge on the universe.

    Reply this comment
  3. Donkey
    Donkey 2 July, 2012, 12:22

    It is the Government Unions that are the problem. The RAGWUS, as fabricated, has had the effect of creating a royalness in the minds of its feeding members. With this mindset they believe everything is theirs for the taking, the taxpayers are only a source of food. 🙂

    Reply this comment
  4. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 2 July, 2012, 13:35

    Do you truly believe anyone cares about the party that gave us Propositions 187 and 1A and Pete Wilson and Herr Arnold?

    You need serious ideas and leadership in a State government gone hopelessly mad instead of pointing fingers by light weights.

    Reply this comment
  5. Ted Steele, The Decider
    Ted Steele, The Decider 2 July, 2012, 22:10

    Well said Senor U Haul !

    Reply this comment
  6. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 2 July, 2012, 22:46

    Sock puppets all day long……..hey John, Brian and Katy-when you going to stop the gimmick comments??????

    Reply this comment
  7. Ted Steele, The Decider
    Ted Steele, The Decider 3 July, 2012, 07:55

    Unions are allowed because of a pesky little thing we have….oh……The Bill of Rights.

    Reply this comment
  8. CalWatchdog
    CalWatchdog 3 July, 2012, 10:13

    Ted: The question isn’t whether to allow unions. The question is whether governments must be forced to enter into collective bargaining with them, as has been the case in California since the 1970s. When that happens, the unions buy the government. Effectively, as one union boss put it, “We elect our own bosses.” Then they run up the pay and benefits and bankrupt the city, county or state. Which is happening.

    — John Seiler

    Reply this comment
  9. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 3 July, 2012, 10:55

    “We elect our own bosses.” Then they run up the pay and benefits and bankrupt the city, county or state. Which is happening.

    The problems started in the ate 1970’s/early 1980’s and has now completely broken down the system. There can be no collective bargaining unless the two sides are adversaries driving for the best bargain, which we do not do, never have done, and never will.

    Reply this comment
  10. Ted Steele, The Decider
    Ted Steele, The Decider 3 July, 2012, 12:35

    John— If you read the cases interpreting California’s scheme you will see a heavy Constitutional component.

    Reply this comment
  11. Ted Steele, The Decider
    Ted Steele, The Decider 3 July, 2012, 13:00

    John— on the notion that unions can then buy the govment………….of course you hit on an important critical point, maybe THE most important. Corruption in its nascent forms is THE issue and in our system flourishes in the public and private sector because at this point there is essentially no campaign finance proscription…period!

    Reply this comment
  12. Ed the Independent Contractor
    Ed the Independent Contractor 4 July, 2012, 10:59

    My wife was forced to be a member of the SEIU as a requirement for her job working for the State of California. She “could” opt not to join the union, but the union would be entitled to deduct dues from her paycheck whether she opted to join the union or not. There was no choice in the matter. In addition, she was forced to pay special assessments to the union to use at their discretion for political purposes. She did not agree with the union’s positions on many issues, but had no recourse. This public employee union scam where the state gives the union the right to a closed shop where every employee must pay dues, deducted from the check prior to payment of their wages is peverse. Then in return for requiring the employees to pay forced union dues, the union financially and politically supports the same politcians to insure they remain in power. The politicians negotiate contracts with the unions who control their political contributions. Gee, the unions get what they want lest they withhold the financial support the hold as blackmail over the heads of the politicians. The circle of corruption is complete. The citizens of this state do not understand what is being done to fleece them of critical infrastructure and services in the name of keeping the prevailing party in power.

    Reply this comment

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