In a move that could undercut the traditional funding base of the labor movement, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that unions must give nonmembers an immediate chance to object to unexpected fee increases or special assessments that all workers are required to pay in closed-shop situations.
The court ruled for Dianne Knox and other nonmembers of the Service Employees International Union's Local 1000, who wanted to object and opt out of a $12 million special assessment the union required from its California public-sector members for political campaigning. Ms. Knox and others said the union did not give them a legally required notice that the increase was coming.
The union, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said the annual notice that the union gives was sufficient. The high court disagreed in a 7-2 judgment written by Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr.
"When a public-sector union imposes a special assessment or dues increase, the union must provide a fresh ... notice and may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent," Justice Alito said.
The ruling was the latest in a series by the court in recent years that have gone against the unions on the fees used to finance political or other activities that some workers oppose. The court previously held workers must be given the chance to opt out of the fees.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with the judgment but wrote their own opinion that sought to narrow the impact of Thursday's decision.
"When a public-sector union imposes a special assessment intended to fund solely political lobbying efforts, the First Amendment requires that the union provide non-members an opportunity to opt out of the contribution of funds," Justice Sotomayor wrote.
But Justice Sotomayor and Justice Ginsburg said they did not join in the majority opinion that the First Amendment requires an "opt-in" system for other circumstances like "the levying of a special assessment or dues increase."
Justice Stephen G. Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan dissented from the opinion.
"If the union's basic administrative system does not violate the Constitution, then how could its special assessment have done so?" Justice Breyer said. But the liberal justice said he agreed with Justice Sotomayor on the court's decision to expand the decision beyond special political assessments. "No party has asked that we do so," he said. "The matter has not been fully argued in this court or in the courts below," said Justice Breyer, who read his dissent aloud.
Justice Alito said there is "no merit" to the dissenters' complaints.