In a case regarded as a major victory for anti-union forces, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that an emergency fee imposed by the Service Employee International Union in 2005 on all California state employees was illegal.
The special assessment was required off all state employees represented by SEIU, including both union members and 28,000 non-union members who normally pay a smaller annual fee. The Court found the assessment to have been an "indefensible" violation of the First Amendment rights of the non-members because it forced them into “compelled speech and compelled association.”
According to Alternet, this decision has handed conservatives an anti-union measure they have long sought but have been unable to achieve by political means. In California, for example, a special election involving the issue in 2005 resulted in the defeat of Prop. 75 by 500,000 votes.
During a conference call on Friday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka expressed his disappointment, adding, "It's a very narrow decision, which is the only good thing I can say about it."
Trumka noted that "we weren't surprised by it at all because it's the Supreme Court." He called it "ironic that when it comes to businesses the Supreme Court says you cannot do anything to hamper the First Amendment rights of corporations" but that the Court never seems to have the same sensitivity to the First Amendment rights of workers.
Trumka's complaint about the Court's concern for "the first Amendment rights of corporations" was apparently intended as a reference to the Citizens United decision, which removed restrictions on corporate political spending.
He may have been mistaken, however, in referring to the decision as a narrow one. In writing the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito went on to state ominously, “Closely related to compelled speech and compelled association is compelled funding of the speech of other private speakers or groups.”
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg sided with the decision of the conservative majority but also accused them of judicial activism for using the case to raise these additional First Amendment issues that were not in the original lawsuit.
Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan were the only justices who dissented from the decision, on the grounds that the newly-required opt-out process would impose a burden on unions engaged in pollitical battles and would cost them both time and money.
Drawing by DonkeyHotey via Flickr