WASHINGTON -- States may force public sector labor unions to get consent from workers before using their fees for political activities, the Supreme Court said Thursday.
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 Thursday, blunting the impact of the 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 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 percent of the total goes to the costs of collective bargaining. Of the remaining 25 percent, 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 reform 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 percent of employees the union represents choose not to be members, the union said.
The cases are Davenport v. Washington Education Association, 05-1589, and Washington v. Washington Education Association, 05-1657.
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