Supreme Court Admits Its Long-Standing Assent For Forced Union Dues Is an ‘Anomaly’

Supreme Court Says Unions Can’t Bill Non-Members For Political Spending

The High Court’s willingness for decades, which continues even toIn an opinion issued June 21, Chief Justice Samuel Alito admitted that the U.S. Supreme Court's ongoing willingness to assent to federal and state statutes forcing union nonmembers to pay fees for union activities purportedly “benefiting” them is an “an anomaly."


In a case argued and won by National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation attorney James Young, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the First Amendment rights of California public employees who choose not to belong to the Service Employees International Union were violated in 2005 when the SEIU brass effectively forced them to lend money to Golden State subsidiaries of the SEIU, while telling the employees they could apply later to get their money back.  (For more information about the case, see the news link above.)

Mr. Young, who prepared his written and oral arguments for his California clients in the case of Knox v. SEIU Local 1000 with the assistance of other Foundation attorneys, convinced a 7-2 Supreme Court majority that SEIU kingpins had failed to abide by the necessary conditions for seizing forced fees from union nonmembers in the public sector that were laid out by the High Court in previous rulings such as the landmark 1986 Hudson case. Hudson gave assent to state laws that force public servants who don’t belong to a union to pay union fees, or be fired, but specified that employees may not be forced to fork over money for any political activities or for an array of other activities unrelated to collective bargaining.

Yesterday’s majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito is notable not just for how it deals with the specific facts of the Knox case, but also for its frank admissions that, in several regards, the constitutional protections for union nonmembers provided by Hudson and subsequent related cases may well be insufficient and in need of strengthening.

Notably, Alito observes that, in virtually all cases concerning private organizations other than labor unions, federal jurisprudence has found that the right to join and the right not to join must be equally protected under statutory law. In 1984’s Roberts v. United States Jaycees, for example, the Supreme Court stated forthrightly: “Freedom of association . . . plainly presupposes a freedom not to associate.”

The High Court’s willingness for decades, and even today, to sidestep this principle by giving its assent to federal and state statutes forcing union nonmembers to pay fees for union activities purportedly “benefiting” them is an “an anomaly,” Alito admits. Such dubious legal logic has been rejected again and again when the organization seeking to benefit from state-authorized coercion wasn’t a union, he notes. To drive home the point, he quotes approvingly this passage from a 1995 book review by the late labor law scholar Clyde Summers:

“If a community association engages in a clean-up campaign or opposes encroachments by industrial development, no one suggests that all residents or property owners who benefit be required to contribute. If a parent-teacher association raises money for the school library, assessments are not levied on all parents. If an association of university professors has as a major function bringing pressure on universities to observe standards of tenure and academic freedom, most professors would consider it an outrage to be required to join. If a medical association lobbies against regulation of fees, not all doctors who share in the benefits share in the costs.”

Alito’s refreshing candor about the federal judiciary’s “anomalous” tolerance of coercion by union bosses doesn’t signal, unfortunately, that he personally is ready to declare forced union dues and fees unconstitutional. Even if it did, it is highly unlikely another four of the justices would be ready to go along at this time. But the Knox opinion is at least clear about how extraordinary the courts’ assent for forced unionism has been and remains. That’s a significant step in the right direction.