WASHINGTON -- In a setback for organized labor, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that states may bar public employee unions from using compulsory dues for political purposes unless individuals give their explicit approval. The 9-0 ruling opens the door for states to pass laws restricting use of union dues.
Nationwide, 12 million workers in public and private-sector jobs are required to pay dues or fees to a union even if they elect not to join. The National Right to Work Committee and other opponents of unions have fought these compulsory dues as unfair and unconstitutional.
President Bush and other conservatives have campaigned in favor of "paycheck protection" laws to limit the political use of union dues, long a major source of financing for Democratic candidates. Yesterday's ruling in favor of such a law in Washington state implicitly endorsed those efforts.
While some union foes called the court's ruling an important victory and predicted that it would lead to other such laws, the National Right to Work Committee acknowledged that it decided a narrow issue.
The justices did not say it was unconstitutional to require teachers and other public employees to pay dues to a union. Rather, they said only that states that allow public sector unions may also protect the rights of dissidents.
At issue before the court was a unique Washington state law that said unions may not collect fees from a nonmember and spend this money on politics unless "affirmatively authorized by the individual."
The state's largest teachers union challenged this rule in court. The Washington Supreme Court struck down the restriction as a violation of the union's rights, but the ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court.
"Unions have no constitutional entitlement to the fees of nonmember employees," said Justice Antonin Scalia. "It is undeniably unusual for a government agency to give a private entity the power, in essence, to tax government employees," he wrote, referring to the "agency shop" laws in many states that permit such arrangements in the public sector.
Requiring unions to obtain an explicit approval from dissident teachers before spending their dues money is a "modest limitation ... on the union's exercise of this extraordinary power," Scalia wrote.
David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.