A recent Supreme Court ruling in Knox v. SEIU Local 1000 has some labor advocates howling that the Court is beginning to come after workers. The 7-2 ruling last week states that public sector employees must opt in to have their money spent on political action, instead of opting out as had been previously mandated in the case Beck v. CWA. The ruling could dramatically decrease the amount of money that public-sector unions, whose members currently compose 37 percent of all union members, have to spend on political action. Many public-sector union members are already financially strapped and may choose not to give their money to political campaigns.
The drop in the number of public employees giving money could increase dramatically if employers put pressure on public employees to not opt in to giving money to their unions’ political action funds. The recent Supreme Court ruling Citizens United eliminated protections that previously barred employers from pressuring workers on political matters. Now, combined with the Citizens United ruling, employers in the public sector could possibly pressure their employees to decline to give money to their unions’ political action funds.
“Unfortunately this decision continues the attack on the right of public-sector workers to act collectively to impact their workplace on important issues” says SEIU Local 1000 spokesperson Jim Herron Zamora, whose union was sued for imposing an assessment fee for political action on workers without first getting their consent.
“I think it’s more symbolic than anything. It’s going to be a pain for unions. Unions are going to have send in affirmative opt-in notices. The court is right in the basic principle that public employees have a right not to pay for that political work of unions and I agree with that even if it goes against the union,” says Elon University labor law professor Eric Fink. “It bothers me more for what it symbolizes, in that the court is going out of [its] way to fuck unions, and what that symbolizes in future cases”.
A few days after the decision, the Court also struck down a 1912 Montana law that limited the amount of money corporations could spend on local and state elections in Montana. Fink sees the Supreme Court setting a double standard in its increasing regulation of how unions spend political money while deregulating how corporations can spend money.
“Corporations have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders. However, unlike unions, corporations don’t have to ask their shareholders to make any political expenditure,” says Fink. “The Supreme Court doesn’t say a word about that when it comes to shareholders, but they say something about unions. It’s unions that are more democratic than any other institution [and] they want to sit down and micromanage how they spend their money.”
Unions are some of the most heavily regulated institutions in America. Under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, every union is required to file quarterly LM forms with the Department of Labor that lay out all of their expenses in detail, including salaries of officials, political action expenditures and reimbursement of expenses. These databases are searchable online at the Department of Labor’s website. Corporations, by contrast, are not required to file forms outlining all of their expenditures.
UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend says that unions must stand and be defiant of this Supreme Court decision and protest it with vigor.
“We can’t let them get away with this decision. If we let them get away with this decision, we are only another two or three court decisions away from the Court saying right-to-work is a constitutional right,” says Townsend. “It’s time for labor to fight back on this issue, and tell the Supreme Court to go to hell if needed. Has the labor movement pressed the current regime to end the intrusive and unfair regulation of unions? Of course not. Until we do, we can expect more of these attacks. Do Democrats stand up for us on this issue, even though they benefit for the most part from labor’s efforts? Of course not.”
This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on June 28, 2012.
About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.