U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules Against Union in Case Expanding First Amendment Rights of Nonmembers

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an opt-out system doesn’t give sufficient protection to public sector employees who don’t want to pay special assessments for political activities of unions they choose not to join.

The court ruled for nonmembers of the Service Employees International Union who objected to a temporary assessment imposed to fight two ballot initiatives. Seven justices agreed that the union violated the First Amendment by failing to give notice of the intended special assessment, but only five joined the majority opinion (PDF) endorsing an opt-in system in such circumstances.

The nonmembers already paid a required annual fee to cover the cost of collective bargaining, but they did not want to pay the special assessment. The union provided no notice before charging the nonmembers for its “political fight-back fund” to oppose the ballot measures, though it reduced the amounts by nearly half for those who later objected. “This aggressive use of power by the SEIU to collect fees from nonmembers is indefensible,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote in the majority opinion.

One of the ballot measures opposed by the union would have benefited the nonmembers, since it required unions to obtain employees’ affirmative consent before charging fees to be used for political purposes.

Alito said prior cases have given “surprisingly little attention” to the distinction between opt-out and opt-in systems for nonmembers of public sector unions who don’t want to pay for political activities.

“Our cases have tolerated a substantial impingement on First Amendment rights by allowing unions to impose an opt-out requirement at all,” Alito wrote. “In the new situation presented here, we see no justification for any further impingement. … Therefore, when a public-sector union imposes a special assessment or dues increase, the union must provide a fresh … notice and may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent.”

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