Supreme Court takes case that would cripple labor’s political activity

WASHINGTON (PAI)-Yet another right-wing attempt to curb unions’ political activism, by cutting off money, landed before the Supreme Court today. 

At issue was a challenge brought by eight California public workers. Backed by the anti-worker so-called National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which funded their case and provided their lawyer, the eight claimed they spoke for a similar class of workers: Those who don’t want any union money going to politics. 

The justices heard a case involving Service Employees Local 1000. After setting its budget for 2005-06, in July 2005 – and after giving dissenters the required notice, called a Hudson notice, and justifications, so they could object – the union found several months later that it had to raise its dues from 1 percent of pay to 1.25 percent. It did, with no notice, and the objectors screamed.

The case is important for two reasons, summed up by two of the justices. “The point is that you’re taking someone’s money contrary to that person’s conscience. That’s a first amendment (freedom of speech) question,”  Chief Justice John Roberts told Local 1000 attorney Jeffrey Demain.

“If you’re springing something on them, you’re right,” Demain replied. 

But he then reiterated that the union’s 2005 Hudson notice explicitly said there could be other, unscheduled, changes in dues and that those could go for politics, bargaining or both. That gave objectors the required notice to dissent. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor summarized the right wing’s argument by asking right-to-work attorney William Young, representing the eight: “You’re proposing a rule that every time a special assessment is proposed, there be a new (Hudson) notice?” Young answered “yes.” That would let objectors cut off money at any time. 

One union document said half the money from the dues hike, some $3.7 million, would go for politics, including defeating anti-worker ballot initiatives, and the other half would go to pay for a huge rise in collective bargaining costs. 

The eight, backed by the right to work group, sued. They claimed the entire hike required a second Hudson notice – and a second opportunity to object. No opportunity, the dissenters claimed, violates their free speech rights. The Hudson notice is similar, if not identical to, the Beck notice private-sector unions must publish for their dissenters every year.

Local 1000 responded the dissenters knew, from the original Hudson notice, that it might have to enact budget changes to meet unforeseen circumstances, including political changes – in this case a California referendum that, if passed, could have given the governor the right to abrogate union contracts in the name of budget-cutting. 

And Local 1000 pointed out the dissenters could object when the following year’s Hudson notice, which reflected the new percentages in spending on collective bargaining vs. politics and lobbying, came out. Forcing another Hudson notice in between the two would be administratively unworkable, SEIU Local 1000 said. 

“The only reason there’s a case is that the union” at one point “said they’ll spend the money on politics, but they wound up spending it on bargaining,” Demain said. 

Demain pointed out that the whole brouhaha, in practical terms, is over and done with. Not only was the dues hike permanent – not a “special assessment” as the right to work group alleged – but that as it turns out, new leadership at Local 1000 wanted to drop the case as moot. It had even obeyed a lower court ruling to refund a token sum to all objectors. 

Young, the right to work lawyer, disagreed. Calling the case out of date and moot, and letting the lower court’s rulings stand, would “leave the union free to return to its old practice” of using money for politics and circumventing the Hudson notice by voting to do so after its initial budget was approved, he told Justice Anthony Kennedy. 

“This is about the effect of how the union could act in future activities” the next time politics came up, Young added, answering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

The justices will rule on the case before June 30.

Photo: At a labor rally for Obama in September of 2010. Marguerite Herbst/PW 




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.