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States may limit how unions use public employees' money

By The Associated Press

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    WASHINGTON — States may force public-sector labor unions to get consent from workers before using their fees for political activities, the Supreme Court said today.

    The Court unanimously upheld a Washington state law that applied to public employees who choose not to join the union that represents them in contract talks with state and local governments. The workers are compelled to pay the equivalent of union dues, a portion of which the union uses for political activities.

    Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Court, said the law does not violate the union's First Amendment rights.

    But the state's Democratic governor and Democratic-controlled Legislature recently changed the law to eliminate the provision that was upheld today, blunting the impact of the high court ruling.

    The narrow issue before the justices was whether, as the law formerly prescribed, employees must opt in, or affirmatively consent, to having some of their money used in election campaigns.

    The justices said that a state could indeed require such consent. But there also is nothing to bar the state from putting the onus on nonmember workers to opt out, or seek a refund of a portion of their fees.

    That, in effect, is what Washington law now requires after the recent change.

    The case, including a companion case, involved a few thousand teachers and other education employees who are in the bargaining unit and thus represented by the more than 70,000-member Washington Education Association — but who have chosen not to join the union.

    Scalia said the state has given the union an extraordinary benefit, allowing it to collect money from workers who are not union members. "The notion that this modest limitation upon an extraordinary benefit violates the First Amendment is, to say the least, counterintuitive," he said.

    The fees average $700 a year, union president Charles Hasse said. About 75% of the total goes to the costs of collective bargaining. Of the remaining 25%, just $10 to $25 a year is covered by the state law that the union has challenged.

    The provision was a small part of a comprehensive campaign-finance law that Washington voters approved in 1992.

    The Washington Supreme Court struck down the provision, saying the union's offer to reduce fees for any nonmember who registers an objection to the political spending was sufficient. The state court said the restriction was an impermissible burden on the union's constitutional rights.

    The Bush administration backed the nonmember workers, saying the state could enact more restrictions on the union.

    The union is the state's largest teachers union, representing teachers and other employees of public schools and colleges. Less than 5% of employees the union represents choose not to be members, the union said.

    The cases are Davenport v. Washington Education Association and Washington v. Washington Education Association.

  • Previous
    High court set to hear dispute over union's use of money
    At issue in case to be heard this week is whether Washington Education Association needs nonmember teachers to say 'yes' before their fees can be used for political causes. 01.08.07


    Wash. governor OKs union-dues bill

    Chris Gregoire signs measure into law despite criticism that it is clear labor-backed attempt to circumvent pending ruling by U.S. Supreme Court. 05.14.07

    Quick look at Davenport v. Washington Education Association

    High court to consider Calif. law on union organizing
    U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bush administration oppose statute, arguing federal labor law guarantees free-speech rights of employers. 11.20.07

    High court questions Calif. law on union organizing
    State contends statute simply seeks to ensure that state doesn't subsidize employer's pro- or anti-union activities; Justice Scalia ridicules notion that California law is neutral. 03.20.08

    Justices appear unsympathetic to union's free-speech arguments
    By Tony Mauro It seems likely that Roberts Court is poised to make dramatic shift concerning use of nonmembers' union dues. 01.11.07

    First Amendment rulings awaited
    By Ronald K.L. Collins Ten free-expression cases, including 'Bong Hits,' and one religion case are still to be decided this term and next. 05.16.07

    Public unions suffer setback over fees
    By Tony Mauro Davenport shows shift away from labor unions in balancing First Amendment rights of unions, nonmembers.
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