Supreme Court Case Could Threaten Big Labor's Ability to Deduct from Public Employee Paychecks

WASHINGTON, D.C. – It’s no secret that Big Labor is dependent on dues and fees automatically withdrawn from the payroll checks of union members and non-members alike.

The automatic deductions funnel millions of dollars into public sector union coffers each year, with a portion frequently going toward partisan political causes and liberal candidates who promise to preserve or expand the unions’ forced dues racket.

But this vicious cycle is finally being challenged in states and municipalities around the nation. Perhaps the most important challenge, Knox vs. Service Employees International Union, was heard earlier this month by the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case is one of a growing number of examples of how public employees, including public school teachers, are pushing back against forced union dues – something many consider a violation of their First Amendment rights. American citizens should not be forced to financially support an organization or political causes they don’t agree with, union objectors rightly contend.

By forcing members and non-members to subsidize its radical political agenda, Big Labor may have finally cooked its Golden Goose.

SEIU wants to run from the case

The Supreme Court case stems from a “special assessment” that was automatically withdrawn from union and non-union state employees’ checks in 2005 to help defeat a ballot proposal in California that would have made it illegal to force employees to pay dues that would be used for political purposes.

The plaintiffs, who are non-union members who pay a reduced fee in lieu of union dues, claim their rights were violated when they were charged more than their regular fees to support a union political effort.

They filed a lawsuit with the help of the National Right to Work Foundation, and a federal district court ordered SEIU to pay some of their money back, records show.

SEIU appealed the decision, the appeals court sided with the union, and the objecting non-union state employees took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Then a funny thing happened. The union decided that it didn’t want to pursue the case anymore, refunded the employees the full amount of the “special assessment,” and is now arguing that the case is moot because there is no longer a claim, records show.

The NRTWF attorneys representing the employees say the case is still important because it would settle the question of whether union officials must give employees a chance to object to a special assessment before the union sticks its grubby hand in the cookie jar. Plus, the union never really acknowledged wrongdoing or promised not to do it again, NRTWF attorney James Young argued.

During the hearing, several justices keyed in on an important question: Why does the union want to drop its case now that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear it?

SEIU attorneys contend it’s because the employees’ money has been repaid in full, the union has complied with the district court’s original order, and everything is now resolved.

We doubt very much that’s the case.

Union leaders fear legal precedent

We believe that the real reason the union wants to run away from the case is to avoid the chance of a precedent-setting ruling that would inhibit its legal ability to take money from members and non-members to support political causes.

The union probably also fears a more expansive ruling, which could deny the right of public sector unions to automatically deduct dues from paychecks under any circumstances.

It’s not clear when the court will issue a ruling in the case.

“In essence, the union has to acknowledge wrongdoing before a case is moot, and they’ve never done that,” said Young, the attorney representing the plaintiffs.

“They fear what this court will do, and I think they have reason to,” Young said, adding that a ruling could potentially have broad implications for how unions charge members and non-members.

A veteran labor attorney in Wisconsin, who has been representing school boards for decades, recently told EAG that public sector union leaders are mostly concerned with preserving the flow of dues money, and preserving the right to use that money for political causes they believe in.

He noted that many teachers unions across Wisconsin scrambled last year to extend their collective bargaining agreements with school boards. They wanted to get that done before the implementation of Act 10, which made it illegal for schools to deduct union dues from employee paychecks once the union contracts expire.

Union leaders in many districts were willing to sacrifice many employee perks to get their contracts extended. The one perk they desperately wanted to preserve was automatic dues deduction from paychecks, according to the attorney.

“All of a sudden they would call me and say, ‘Let’s settle this contract,'” the attorney said. “It’s all about the kids, right? The kids? Ha! They sold their members out for dues.”

Employees don’t pay when it’s not required

There is a reason union officials are vigorously fighting to preserve the automatic dues deduction system.

Washington Post columnist George Will laid it out in an editorial during Big Labor’s battle over Act 10 in Wisconsin last year.

“After Colorado in 2001 required public employees unions to have annual votes reauthorizing collection of dues, membership in the Colorado Association of Public Employees declined 70 percent. In 2005, Indiana stopped collecting dues from unionized public employees; in 2011, there are 90 percent fewer dues-paying members,” Wills wrote.

“In Utah, the end of automatic dues deductions for political activities in 2001 caused teachers’ payments to fall 90 percent. After a similar law passed in 1992 in Washington State, the percentage of teachers making such contributions declined from 82 to 11.”

Perhaps union members are hesitant to voluntarily pay because they don’t believe the benefits they receive from their unions are worth the dues. Perhaps it’s because they don’t like their union’s aggressive political activities and negotiating tactics.

Regardless, the SEIU case and Right-to-Work legislation pending in numerous states is turning up the heat on Big Labor’s forced dues racket.

And that’s encouraging progress for public employees who have been forced to fund Big Labor’s antics for far too long.