In the immediate aftermath of its unfortunate Thursday ruling on the constitutionality of the Obama health care law, it’s easy to forget that the Supreme Court gets things right from time to time. A decision one week earlier, on June 21, was such an occasion. And at least part of the nation’s work force is a little freer for it.
The case was Knox et al. v. SEIU Local 1000. The High Court, true to precedent, put the nation’s public-sector unions on notice: Fee-paying nonmember workers under contract can’t be forced to subsidize political causes they don’t like. Ruling 7-2 on the merits of the case and 5-4 on the issue of First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court concluded that the Sacramento-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000, California’s largest public employees’ union, had deprived “agency shop” workers of the right to opt out of making monetary contributions toward union advocacy. The ruling has long-term implications for fiscal reform, especially in jurisdictions where public-sector commitments are forcing states and localities to pare down basic services.
It ought to be intuitive that being represented by a labor union shouldn’t render someone captive of that union’s political activity. Moreover, there is no reason why this principle can’t apply to the public sector as much as the private sector. Indeed, the Supreme Court for decades has said as much. In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977), the Court held that nonunion public employees have a First Amendment right to veto the portion of compulsory fees dedicated to contributions to political candidates or on “express[ions of] political views unrelated to [the union’s] duties as exclusive bargaining representatives.” Nine years later, in Chicago Teachers Union v. Hudson, 475 U.S. 292 (1986), the Court unanimously affirmed this view, holding that due process requires that a public-sector union can’t collect agency fees from nonmembers unless it observes certain procedural safeguards. The Court ruled that unions must provide nonmembers with a “fair opportunity” to assess the impact of paying for non-chargeable union activities. And in a Michigan case, Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, 500 U.S. 507 (1991), the Court concluded that union activities, in order to be chargeable to nonmembers, must be both “germaine” to the collective process and do not “significantly add to the burdening of free speech that is inherent in allowance of an agency or union shop.”
Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Townhall.com Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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