In a 7-2 decision yesterday, the United States Supreme Court sharply criticized a public-sector union for a special dues assessment. The Court held in Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the union  violated its’ members First Amendment rights when it assessed extra fees to fund a political campaign in California. 

One month after SEIU issued an annual dues notice to its membership in 2005, they announced an extra fee to fund a political fight against several anti-union initiatives proposed by then Governor Schwarzenegger. SEIU did not issue a new notice to its “fair share” members, about opting out of the special assessment.

The whole problem revolves around the tension between a public employee’s right to form and join a labor union, and the requirement in some states (Minnesota included) that employees pay partial union dues to support collective bargaining efforts on their behalf. The Court has previously made it clear employees who “opt-out” of paying full union dues, can be expected to pay their “fair share” of the cost of collective bargaining, however they can’t be required to pay for political efforts or candidate campaigns they oppose. To protect their First Amendment rights, they must be given an opportunity to opt-out of paying the share of dues attributed to political causes.

The decision appears to be a rather contentious battle amongst the nine justices. Justice Sotomayor and Justice Ginsberg agreed with the majority, but wrote a scathing opinion telling the other Justices they overstepped their bounds. Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan wrote a fourteen page dissenting opinion.

The ruling of the Court makes it clear unions must issue a new dues notice to members when they impose a special assessment, and may not exact funds for political purposes without an affirmative consent.