Public Sector Union Loses Big at the Supreme Court


The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision today in the case of Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU). At issue was the use of union dues to pay for political advocacy by the SEIU. Because non-union government employees in California (and other states without right to work laws) are required to pay some union dues in order to cover collective bargaining and other activities that supposedly benefit even non-union workers, those dues will also sometimes end up funding the union's political activities. In this case, the SEIU had levied a special fee in order to fund several political campaigns in California without providing sufficient advance notice, essentially giving non-union workers no chance to object until after the fact. So the best those non-union workers could do was ask for a refund. In his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito held that this practice by the SEIU ran afoul of the First Amendment:

Here, for nonmembers who disagreed with the electoral objectives, a refund provided after the union's objectives had already been achieved would be cold comfort.

To respect the limits of the First Amendment, the union should have sent out a new notice allowing nonmembers 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.  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….

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.  The First Amendment creates a forum in which all may seek, without hindrance or aid from the State, to move public opinion and achieve their political goals…. Therefore, when a public-sector union imposes a special assessment or dues increase, the union must provide a fresh Hudson notice and may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent.

Notably, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, filed a concurring opinion in this case, ruling against the union on narrower grounds. That news won't go down well in certain quarters of the American left.

Download the full decision here.