By Alan B. Morrison, Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service at George Washington University Law School.*
The issue before the Supreme Court in Knox v. SEIU, decided June 21, 2012, was what procedures the union had to follow in order to allow non-members, who are required by law to support the union’s collective bargaining activities, to object to a special assessment that was going to be used in large part for political and other advocacy work that non-members claim they had a right not to support with their money.
To know what side Justice Samuel Alito and his four colleagues were going to take, a reader only had to go to page 3 where he discusses the budget battle in California that prompted the special assessment that was challenged in Knox. He describes the debate “and in particular the consequences of growing compensation for public employees backed by powerful public sector unions” like SEIU (emphasis added). If the issue is whether a “powerful” public-sector union or dissenting individuals will prevail, the smart money would not be on the union.
The conclusion that the union had to do more than it did was supported by seven Justices, and thus a ruling against it would not have been particularly noteworthy on its own. But the holding of the majority and how it got there are quite remarkable. First a little background. It is now an accepted part of labor law that, except in so-called right-to-work states, individuals who are not union members must pay their share of the costs of collective bargaining that results in contracts that benefit them as well as union members. But the Supreme Court has ruled that not every dollar that a union collects from its members as dues is properly attributable to collective bargaining, and over the years a system has developed under which non-members can object to paying those additional amounts. Thus, each year non-members have a right to opt-out and pay less than members pay, without having to give any reason for doing so, with the amount based on a formula derived from last year’s audited union expenses. Knox involved a special assessment, rather than a regular payment, and the issue was what were the rights of the would-be dissenters in that situation, where there was at least the possibility that some of those who did not dissent from the annual payment, might want to opt-out of the special assessment.