Dues case targets unions’ easy reach for cash

SACRAMENTO — If private employers deducted money from their workers’ paychecks and used it to support causes many of them opposed, most of us would be upset at such an apparent infringement on our political rights.

Employers do not do this, but unions take dues from their members’ paychecks to fund political activism. As a result, the courts have required unions to return the political portion of the dues upon request, even though they allow them to keep dues that pay for collective-bargaining and other “services.”

While the principle is clear, reality can be murky. For instance, some members of a Service Employees International Union local that represents state workers have this month been receiving refunds from the union as the result of a June 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the way SEIU Local 1000 collected some dues. The case is Knox v. SEIU Local 1000.

In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed a series of statewide initiatives, including Prop. 75, which would have required members to grant their approval before their dues were deducted for political uses. The SEIU approved a temporary dues hike to help fight the proposition – ironic given that this was the type of behavior Prop. 75 wanted to halt.

A challenge went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which voted 7-2 that this deduction was an infringement on the First Amendment, even though the union intended to refund the money to those who sought a refund.

SEIU Local 1000 argues that its assessment was approved by its members in a vote and that its approach was consistent with legal precedent. The political campaign fell “in the middle of the reporting year,” which is why the union didn’t think it needed to provide an opt-out opportunity. The court retorted: “The First Amendment does not permit a union to extract a loan from unwilling nonmembers even if the money is later paid back in full.”

Union members can have their political money back after they jump through some hoops, but the court wondered why members have to “opt out” rather than “opt in.” The justices called this “a remarkable boon for unions,” and seemed to invite a legal challenge to the entire “agency shop” process by which the government collects dues on behalf of a private union.

So in April, some Southern California members of the California Teachers Association filed such a lawsuit. Plaintiffs say that no union dues – for politics or otherwise – should be withheld from a member’s paycheck.

“Under the current arrangement, the unions hold all the cards and they make it difficult to opt out,” said Terry Pell, president of the conservative Center for Individual Rights, which represents plaintiffs. He said unions ought to compete with each other for members by offering services rather than compel people to join or pay dues.

Right now, a teacher who doesn’t like the political positions that, say, the CTA takes must resign from the union and lose benefits such as liability insurance. Then, the teacher must fill out paperwork every year during a window of time to opt out. Some teachers fear retribution for their stance.

Even many of the legitimate non-political funds (called “chargeable” expenses) cross the line into political advocacy, according to CIR. It points to the “highly political” magazine that the teachers’ union publishes and to some politically oriented conferences it sponsors.

The unions dispute those allegations, of course, so the only way to resolve the matter is for a union member to challenge the expenditures in court. The Knox assessment is only now resolved – eight years after the unions helped quash the 2005 ballot measures.

As Jon Ortiz reported at the State Worker blog, one refund recipient believes the check was packaged to look like junk mail, which reinforces how uncooperative unions can be when it comes to returning money to members.

A Local 1000 statement called Knox the result of a “right-wing campaign to eliminate worker power,” but one need not be conservative to believe that workers – for private companies or public agencies – should not be forced to fund causes they don’t support.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at