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Free-speech dispute over union fees

US Supreme Court to look at how much permission unions need to put nonmembers' dues toward political causes.

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The US Constitution forbids unions from using fees collected from nonunion workers to finance political activities unless the nonmembers grant permission.

Without consent, such action would raise the specter of nonmembers being dragooned into subsidizing political efforts they may not support. And that would violate the free speech and association clauses of the First Amendment.

But how much permission is necessary?

That's the question at the center of two consolidated cases set for oral argument Wednesday at the US Supreme Court.

The cases examine a Washington State campaign-finance law that pits a union's constitutional right to engage in politics on behalf of its like-minded members against a nonmember's right to disassociate from those activities.

The case arises amid a nationwide effort by a number of conservative groups to undercut the ability of union leaders to use compulsory union dues and fees to influence political campaigns without first obtaining the clear permission of those who contributed the money.

Union fees

The Supreme Court case revolves around fees collected by Washington State's teachers union. If you want to be a teacher in the state, you have to pay a fee to the union, even if you aren't a member. That's because the state Legislature assigned exclusive authority to the union to negotiate pay and other employment issues for all teachers. Nonunion teachers must agree to a payroll deduction equal to the union dues.

The provision requires nonunion members to help pay for benefits that accrue to all the state's teachers through the collective bargaining efforts of the Washington Education Association (WEA).

But this also provides a ready pool of cash to the union for political activities. And that has triggered allegations that the union's use of a portion of the fees for politics is forcing nonmembers to subsidize political speech that they do not support.

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