- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A teachers union told the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday it should have the right to spend workers’ money for political purposes without their permission — even if they aren’t union members.

The case involves about 3,000 Washington state teachers and other education employees who have chosen not to join the 80,000-member Washington Education Association. Because the nonunion workers are in the bargaining unit and thus represented by the union, they are charged a fee for labor negotiations that affect them.

Washington state in 1992 adopted a campaign-finance law that requires labor unions to annually ask members whether part of their union dues could be used for political purposes. Workers then could request a refund if they said no.

But last year the state’s high court struck down the law, saying that requiring the union to get specific consent from each worker was burdensome and infringed on the union’s First Amendment rights.

Four nonunion employees challenged the ruling and received support from several anti-union organizations, including the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

The AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor organizations filed a joint brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Washington Supreme Court.

State of Washington Attorney General Robert McKenna, arguing for the nonunion workers, told the justices yesterday that it’s not fair to force employees who opt out of the union to go through the annual process of requesting refunds for the portion of their dues used for political purposes.

“Nonmembers should not be forced to say no twice,” Mr. McKenna said.

But states have considerable discretion in determining how to protect First Amendment rights, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said.

“It seems to me [the] Washington [courts] acted quite properly,” he said.

The union says it spends money it receives from workers only on ballot initiatives — not individual candidates. Campaign contributions to union-backed candidates come from a separate political action committee.

Anti-labor groups have portrayed the legal battle as a watershed case for organized labor and that the outcome will test the limits on labor activism nationwide.

“We lose in the U.S. Supreme Court, then all 22 right-to-work states throughout the country are in jeopardy,” Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, told The Washington Times last week. “Because what the courts will then say is, the unions will have the constitutional right to nonmembers’ money.”

But labor leaders say they doubt the outcome of the case will have much national impact because Washington state law is unique.

“Only Washington state has this kind of advance authorization rule for nonmembers for using agency fees for political purposes,” said Laurence E. Gold, associate general council for the AFL-CIO. “The impact of [the Supreme Court’s decision] could be pretty narrow.”

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