The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that unions can no longer force workers to pay for political speech and activism they do not agree with.
The ruling came down 7-2 in the case of Knox v. Service Employees International Union.
The decision is a massive blow to government unions, which must now allow workers to opt-in to special short-term assessments for political advocacy. They also can no longer charge “interim assessments” to employees who have previously objected to them.
The suit was filed after SEIU levied fees to pay for political activism in California without providing advance notice. This meant that non-union workers had no way of objecting to how the money was being spent.
Because they had no prior knowledge of how fees were being spent, a non-union worker who did not agree with their money funding political activities could only ask for a refund after the money was already spent.
Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, said providing a refund to the workers was “cold comfort” because the money had already been used to achieve political objectives they did not agree with.
The case stems from two 2005 California propositions. Proposition 75 would have required unions to obtain consent from employees before charging them fees to be used for political purposes. Prop 76 would have limited state spending and given the Governor the ability to reduce state funds for public sector employee compensation. Both propositions were vigorously opposed by SEIU and other public-sector unions.
Almost all of the $10 million raised by the two groups to oppose the propositions came from public employee unions.
Later that year, SEIU proposed a 25 percent increase in fees which would “achieve its political objectives.”
Feeling First Amendment rights had been violated by the fee, several petitioners brought the suit on behalf of non-union employees who paid into the fund.
One of the plaintiffs involved in the case received a letter outlining the union’s fee increase for the purpose of “defeating Props 75 and 76.” She complained to SEIU’s office and was told by a local manager that, even if the employee objected to the fee increase there was nothing she could do.
Justice Alito wrote, “To respect the limits of the First Amendment, the union should have sent out a new notice allowing non-members to opt-in to the special fee rather than requiring them to opt out. Our cases have tolerated a substantial impingement on First Amendment rights by allowing unions to impose an opt-out requirement at all.”
Ivan Osorio, of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute said, “The Court’s ruling is a significant victory for workers’ First Amendment rights of free speech.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg joined.
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