The Supreme Court dealt a defeat Thursday to public employee unions in a case from California, ruling that unions must win approval in advance from dissenting members before they collect extra dues in mid-year to pay for a political campaign.
The dispute turned on a relatively small amount of money, but it is one that involved an important principle of the First Amendment. The case also carried echoes of the recent fights in Wisconsin and other states over limiting the power of public employee unions.
By a 7-2 vote, the justices said the Service Employees International Union violated the First Amendment when it collected an extra $6.45 per month from state employees in fall 2005.
The union's leaders had vowed to create a special $12 million fund to oppose two ballot measures sponsored by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that was seen as targeting public unions. They decided on a midyear dues increase to pay for the campaign and said they would refund money later to those non-union employees who objected.
But a group of dissenting union members sued, alleging the forced special assessment violated their rights.
For decades, the Supreme Court has upheld an uneasy compromise between two rights. On the one hand, federal labor law protects the right of workers to form unions and the right of unions in some states to collect dues money from all employees to pay for collective bargaining.
On the other hand, the First Amendment bars the government from forcing people, including public employees, to pay for political causes and candidates that they oppose. For that reason, public employee unions must give dissenting members the right to opt out of paying the share of dues that goes to politics.
In the California case, the SEIU said it gave employees an annual notice of the dues and what share would go to supporting the union and what share would go to politics. Its leaders maintained they were not required to send a midyear notice at the time of the special assessment in 2005.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had agreed with the union in a 2-1 decision, but the Supreme Court disagreed in Knox v. SEIU.
In a strongly worded opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the union had a duty to seek approval from the dissenting members before using their dues money for the special political fund.
"This aggressive use of power by the SEIU to collect fees from nonmembers is indefensible," he wrote. "Even a full refund would not undo the violation of First Amendment rights "
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas agreed. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed but did not join Alito's opinion.
Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan dissented. They said dissenting members deserved the right to "opt out" of such a special assessment, but they disagreed with requiring the union to get their advance approval to "opt in" to such a fund.
Breyer said he worried the court's opinion could be read to mean that public unions must seek affirmative approval from all members before spending dues money on politics.
"The debate about public unions' collective-bargaining rights is currently intense," Breyer said. "The question of how a nonmember indicates a desire not to pay constitutes an important part of this debate. There is no good reason for this court suddenly to enter the debate, much less now to decide that the Constitution resolves it."