The Supreme Court dealt a chastening blow to the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and organized labor Thursday, ruling 7-2 to reverse a decision that would force nonmembers of public-sector unions in California to pay a fee that would help to finance the unions’ activities.
Associate Justice Samuel Alito, a George W. Bush nominee, delivered the opinion of the court, with a concurring opinion by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and dissent were given by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
The case centered on a California regulation that allowed unions to charge employees in a particular “agency shop” annual fees to pay for union activities, even if the employees opted not to join the union.
In June 2005, a local branch of the Service Employees International Union sent out a notice telling employees in its shop what the monthly dues for the year would be, but also gave notice that the fee could be increased at any time without additional notice. Shortly after, SEIU would propose a temporary increase of 25 percent in employee fees in order to fund a pro-union political campaign.
When an employee called SEIU offices to complain about fee increases for political purposes, an area manager told the employee that nothing could be done and adding that “we (the union) are in the fight of our lives,’” according to court accounts. The employee would later become a plaintiff in the case.
While SEIU would later refund the fees, Alito said that nothing would stop the union from attempting to collect similar fees in the future, and maintained that a “live controversy” based on the strictures of the First Amendment, remained to be resolved.