Justices curb unions’ use of fees for politics

Times Staff Writer

In a setback for organized labor, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that states may bar public employee unions from using compulsory dues for political purposes unless individuals give their explicit approval. The 9-0 ruling opens the door for states to pass laws restricting use of union dues.

Nationwide, 12 million workers in public- and private-sector jobs are required to pay dues or fees to a union even if they elect not to join, and the National Right to Work Committee and other opponents of unions have fought these forced dues as unconstitutional.

President Bush and other conservatives have campaigned in favor of “paycheck protection” laws to limit the political use of union dues, long a major source of funding for Democratic candidates. Thursday’s ruling in favor of such a law in Washington state implicitly endorsed those efforts.

But these laws have gained little traction in Congress or around the nation. Twice in the last decade, California voters have rejected ballot initiatives that would have required unions to ask the permission of employees before using their dues for politics. The most recent defeat came in 2005, when Proposition 75, strongly backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, lost by 7 percentage points.


While some union foes called the court’s ruling an important victory and predicted it would lead to other such laws, the National Right to Work Committee acknowledged that the court decided a narrow issue and that its direct effect figures to be limited.

The justices did not say it was unconstitutional to require schoolteachers and other public employees to pay dues to a union, as anti-union groups had hoped. Rather, it said only that states that allow public sector unions may also protect the rights of dissidents.

At issue before the court was a unique Washington state law that said unions may not collect fees from a nonmember and spend this money on politics unless “affirmatively authorized by the individual.” The state’s largest teachers union challenged this rule in court, and the Washington Supreme Court struck down the restriction as a violation of the union’s rights.

The Supreme Court had no difficulty overturning that decision in Davenport vs. Washington Education Assn.


“Unions have no constitutional entitlement to the fees of nonmember employees,” Justice Antonin Scalia said.

“It is undeniably unusual for a government agency to give a private entity the power, in essence, to tax government employees,” he said, referring to the “agency shop” laws in many states that permit such arrangements in the public sector.

Nationwide, 28 states authorize public unions to collect mandatory fees from all employees, while 22 states forbid it.

Requiring unions to obtain an explicit approval from dissident teachers before spending their dues money is a “modest limitation ... on the union’s exercise of this extraordinary power” to collect forced dues from all teachers, Scalia continued.


The decision maintains the uneasy compromise that the court set in the 1970s when unions took hold in the public sector, organizing schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees.

On the one hand, unions can require all employees to pay fees or dues to cover the cost of collective bargaining, at least in states that authorize “agency shop” rules. But in 1977 the court said dissident employees have a free-speech right not to be forced to pay for political causes they oppose.

But reconciling those two principles continues to pose problems. Union leaders prefer a rule that allows them to use dues money except when dissidents object and seek a refund in writing. Anti-union activists have fought this approach, saying it gives unions too much leeway to spend the money of dissidents.

Anti-union activists and union officials were divided on whether Thursday’s decision would prove significant.


“We are thrilled. This is a clear victory for the 1st Amendment rights of teachers not to fund political activity against their will,” said Michael Reitz, a lawyer for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Wash., which supported the dissident teachers. The ruling “paves the way for state legislatures to adopt paycheck protection across the country.”

However, Stefan Gleason, a vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, called the decision a disappointment. “America’s workers laboring under compulsory unionism are little better off after today’s ruling,” he said.

He said he hoped the high court would go further and say it was unconstitutional to force nonmembers to pay hundreds of dollars a year to a union. “The solution is to stop forced union dues in the first place,” he said in an interview. “The paycheck protection laws are misguided and ineffective. It’s not a good strategy to pursue.”

The nation’s largest teachers union said the decision “will have little or no practical impact.” Indeed, Washington’s law was the only one of its kind, and it no longer applies, as the Legislature later amended it in favor of the unions.


Bob Chanin, general counsel for the National Education Assn., said, “It is rare that I can honestly say we are pleased with a unanimous Supreme Court decision reversing our win in the court below, but this is one of those occasions.”

Times staff writer Joe Mathews in Los Angeles contributed to this report.