From Ohio to Wisconsin to California, state budget battles over extravagant union privileges grabbed headlines and flooded airwaves throughout 2011. This year, however, the fight to restrain public-sector union bosses has shifted to a new venue. Tuesday, the Supreme Court weighs arguments about the limits of union officials’ power to spend compulsory union dues on politics.
In Ohio and Wisconsin, legislation limiting government union officials’ ability to collect forced dues triggered an immediate, Big Labor-instigated backlash. Union bosses know that their political influence - and, by extension, their massive, government-granted special privileges - rest on the power to use workers’ hard-earned dues to elect sympathetic politicians.
In the public sector, this cycle of influence peddling has led to a truly perverse state of affairs: Union politicos funnel workers’ dues to pro-Big Labor politicians, who then use their clout to further entrench unions’ forced-dues privileges. Until government-union bosses are stripped of their ability to extract forced dues from unwilling workers, this corrupt arrangement will continue to saddle taxpayers and local governments with a ruinous financial burden.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker took the first step toward ending this vicious cycle by limiting government-union bosses’ forced-dues privileges. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich’s reform efforts were reversed by a vicious union-backed campaign. But the fight has shifted to the highest court in the land, where the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) faces a class-action challenge to its forced-dues collection racket.
In 2005, SEIU officials in California imposed a “special assessment” on all state civil servants in their bargaining unit - including those who were not union members - to defeat a ballot proposal that would have prevented public-sector unions from using forced dues for political contributions without employee consent. As in Wisconsin and Ohio, union operatives fought tooth and nail to protect their special privileges, but several courageous state employees didn’t take this scheme lying down.
With the help of attorneys from the National Right to Work Foundation, eight civil servants took SEIU bosses to court on the grounds that nonunion workers shouldn’t be billed for union political activism. In 2007, a federal district court ruled that union officials were required to allow employees to opt out of the “special assessment” and refund any dues collected to those who did, but that ruling was reversed later by the often-overruled 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
State-level reforms in places like Ohio and Wisconsin are an important part of any effort to rein in out-of-control Big Labor bosses, but reaffirming nonunion employees’ First Amendment right not to fund union political activism is equally critical. If the Supreme Court fails to protect civil servants’ paychecks, government union operatives will have access to even more forced-dues cash to fight reforms and expand their special privileges. Meanwhile, taxpayers get stuck footing the bill.
Forcing civil servants to subsidize the political agenda of an organization to which they don’t belong should offend every American, regardless of political sympathies. Voluntary SEIU members may wish to financially support their organization’s political goals, but nonunion employees - many of whom disagree with the union’s agenda - are under no similar obligation. Freedom of association is a bedrock principle of American democracy, and no one should be compelled to support a group to which they don’t belong.
It’s vital that the Supreme Court take a strong stand to protect nonunion civil servants’ paychecks from being docked to fund union political activism. Not only will this help curb the onerous financial obligations Big Labor has exacted from state and local governments, it is critical to protect the freedom of association of public servants everywhere.
Mark Mix is president of the National Right to Work Foundation.