How the Supreme Court's 'Knox v. SEIU' Decision Could Dismantle Union Security Around the Country
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The Supreme Court struck at the rights of workers with the blade of the First Amendment on June 21, when it made a decision that will restrict unions’ ability to spend on elections, and could open the way for passage and court approval of a national, union-weakening, so-called "right to work" law.
The curious case of Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000—in which the high court decided to throw "judicial restraint" to the wind and go beyond the questions posed in the appeals court to rule against the union—portends nothing good for workers. Knox restricts how unions can get money for political uses from public sector workers in a unionized shop who refuse to join the union (Garrett Epps over at the American Prospect has a great description of the particulars in the case.)
Even as unions in the private sector have seen their memberships dwindle to around 6 percent of the workforce, public sector unions (in places where they are still recognized) have remained relatively strong because they have been allowed to collect some money—albeit less than the full union-dues amount—from workers who do not want to belong to the union. The public sector union contract has to cover all the workers in the agency, not just card-carrying members-- and all the workers benefit from the resultant pay raises, health benefits, pensions and other goodies. So non-members are expected to contribute something to the direct cost of negotiations. (Workers who don’t support the union shouldn’t get to enjoy the better pay and working conditions that their union colleagues fought for, but employers haven’t historically been willing to pay people less for NOT being union members. They much prefer to bribe, cajole and threaten workers to reject the union.).
Public sector unions have been major political players, too (see: Scott Walker’s targeting of Wisconsin’s public employee unions).This is partly because fundraising for politics has been relatively simple: with everyone’s full knowledge and ample notice given (called “Hudson notices”), a percentage of both members’ and non-members’ funds could go toward political work. Anyone could opt out of this political fund, and their money would be reimbursed.
The Knox decision brings this practice to a screeching halt.
Essentially, the court held two things: one, that SEIU violated those existing rules in 2005 when it forced state workers who aren't union members to pay, without the usual opt-out chance, for a one-time special political fund; and two, that even giving the money back and letting workers opt out of the political fund was still a violation of the workers' First Amendment rights. The five conservative justices, led by Justice Samuel Alito, and two concurring liberals, further held that, from now on, non-members have to specifically tell the union to take money out of their paychecks for political purposes; that is, they have to opt in.
In a statement released the day of the decision, Sacramento, CA-based SEIU Local 1000 spokesperson Jim Herron Zamora said, “Unfortunately this decision continues the attack on the right of public sector workers to act collectively to impact their workplace on important issues.” Placed alongside the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that granted corporations unlimited election fundraising superpowers as part of "free speech," the Knox ruling makes plain whose First Amendment rights the conservative justices favor in electoral politics. The AFL-CIO Thursday released a statement to this effect: “We are disturbed but not surprised,” it said, “that the conservative majority places special burdens on public sector unions in their efforts to represent working people’s economic interests through the legislative process that the Court does not apply to corporations when they spend shareholder money on politics.”