Knox v. SEIU Limits Unions’ Ability to Collect Dues to Oppose Anti-Union Legislation

In a 7-2 decision yesterday, the Supreme Court found in Knox v. SEIU that the First Amendment prohibited public sector unions from collecting special fees for political activities from non-member bargaining unit employees. The Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in favor of Service Employees International Union, Local 100 and remanded the case for further proceedings.

In June 2005, SEIU Local 100 sent legally required notification to bargaining unit employees informing them of their dues and estimating that 56.35% of dues would go to administrative expenses. The notice informed non-members that they could opt out of the non-administrative expenses portion of the dues within 30 days. After the 30 day period had expired, the Union decided that it needed to temporarily increase the amount of dues in an effort to defeat two new anti-union propositions placed on the ballot in California. Thus, the SEIU sent notice informing bargaining unit employees of the temporary increase and the reasons underlying its decision. Those who opted out within 30 days of the original notice were only required to pay 56.35% of the increase.

Supreme Court’s Decision Requires “Opt-In” Notification for Dues Assessments to Support Political Activities

On First Amendment grounds, the majority found that SEIU was required to send non-members a separate notice allowing them to opt in to the special temporary increase in dues. The majority further held that objecting non-members should not have been required to pay any percentage of the temporary increase because it was specifically imposed for funding the Union’s political activities. Justice Alito authored the majority opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy.

Although Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg concurred in judgment, they argued that the majority’s discussion of opt-in and opt-out procedures, and notably its imposition of an opt-in procedure in certain circumstances, was beyond the scope of the issue presented to the Court. Justice Sotomayor found the majority’s opinion “ignores a fundamental premise of our adversarial system: ‘that appellate courts do not sit as self-directed boards of legal inquiry and research, but essentially as arbiters of legal questions presented and argued by the parties before them.’”

Justices Breyer’s dissenting opinion found that the Union followed the proper administrative procedures for dues collection, as mandated by the Supreme Court in Teachers v. Hudson. In Hudson, the Court explicitly permitted unions to estimate the allotment of annual dues on the basis of the preceding year’s expenses. Justice Breyer found that this constitutional administrative system was ultimately self-correcting with regard to under- and overpayments. He reasoned, “If Year One’s chargeable share (as applied to Year Two) turns out to be too high, Year Two’s audited accounts will reflect that fact, and the payable share for Year Three will be reduced accordingly.” Justice Kagan joined Justice Breyer’s dissent.

Decision Imposes Major Roadblock to Dues Collection

The Court’s decision is disconcerting. The Court demonstrated a willingness to discuss and impose additional burdens on public sector unions in the collection of dues, even though the issue was not properly before the Court. Although this Court has allowed organizations to pump an unlimited amount of money into politics under the guise of the First Amendment, it now uses the First Amendment to make it more difficult for public-sector labor unions to raise funds to participate in the political process.