WASHINGTON – Another right-wing effort to throw public worker unions out of politics, by forcing them to ask non-members for permission to use money for politics – and to do so every time they raise dues or add a special assessment – hit the U.S. Supreme Court agenda on Jan. 10.

That’s when the justices heard a case brought by eight California state workers, but funded and pushed by the anti-worker so-called National Right to Work legal Defense Foundation, against Service Employees Local 1000 and its political spending.

The case is important because the court’s ruling, SEIU says, could determine whether public worker unions have to go to extra time, expense, and aggravation to notify so-called “free riders” every time they change their dues structure or add an extra fee, and give the free riders the right to object to paying the politics-related share.

And with public workers now comprising the majority of all union members, the court’s ruling could have a significant impact, especially in those unions, such as SEIU Local 1000, where there are thousands of such “free riders.” In that local’s case, it’s at least ten percent of represented employees.

In briefs filed with the High Court, SEIU Local 1000 argued the non-members’ rights are already adequately protected by a once-a-year notice, called a Hudson notice, about how much of the union’s spending the prior year went for contract negotiations and enforcement, and how much went for other purposes. Objectors can use that to demand their payments for the next year be cut by an equal percentage.

“Because Abood” – another unions-and-politics ruling – “and Hudson protect the right of employees who object to any use of their fees for non-germane” to collective bargaining “purposes, a mere increase in the dollar amount of the fair share fee cannot require a supplemental notice and opportunity to object,” Local 1000’s brief says.

“Abood and Hudson protect the conscience, not the pocketbook,” it adds.

The Hudson notice is similar, if not identical, to the Beck notice unions annually publish, telling represented workers that a portion of their money could go for such things as lobbying. The Hudson notice, like the Beck notice, lets objectors discover the share of money for non-bargaining purposes, such as lobbying and political education, and have their dues prorated to exclude those sums.

The right-wingers replied that every time the union increases dues or adds a special assessment, even the union already published its Hudson notice, the union must go through the whole drill all over again – complete with giving free riders the right to object and to have their payments proportionally cut.

The AFL-CIO and the National Education Association filed friend-of-the-court briefs backing SEIU. The AFL-CIO pointed out the Right Wing’s challenge to SEIU was factually wrong. The increase the Right challenged was an actual dues hike in late 2005, from one percent of monthly pay to 1.25 percent, the AFL-CIO noted. The percentages on non-collective bargaining uses were unchanged.

The case also has a political angle: The right wing charged leaving the present procedure alone would let SEIU impose a special assessment next August, after the notice, to raise funds for its campaign for President Obama’s re-election. SEIU, which has already endorsed Obama, called that notion absurd.

“Because non-members are fully informed,” the union “may spend their fees on non-germane political and ideological activities unless they object, there is no merit to” the right-wingers’ “assertion that” prior court rulings for SEIU would let the local “levy a massive assessment on the non-members in August 2012” to support a presidential candidate “without giving them an opportunity to object,” the union replied.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.