The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 6-2 [opinion, PDF] Thursday that unions cannot increase mandatory fees of nonmembers for political expenditures without providing adequate notice and opportunity to object. In Knox v. Service Employees Int'l Union [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] a group of nonunion, public employees in California sued their union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for imposing a fee increase for political expenditures halfway through the year without providing an opportunity to object. Under California Law, public employees are required to pay union fees for the administrative operations of the union even if they choose not to join. However, under the Supreme Court decision in Teachers v. Hudson [opinion], unions must inform nonmembers of the percentage of funds to be spent on political ventures and give those individuals the opportunity to opt-out. The SEIU sent out a notification in August 2005 informing union members and nonmembers that their monthly fee would increase in September in order to support efforts to defeat two referendums that the union saw as detrimental to their employees and collective bargaining abilities. Several non-members objected to having their fees increased without having an opportunity to object to the political cause and filed suit when the union refused to exempt them from the payments. In his decision, Justice Samuel Alito found that the union violated the First Amendment [text] free speech rights of nonmembers:
If unconsenting nonmembers pay too much, their First Amendment rights are infringed. On the other hand, if unconsenting nonmembers pay less than their proportionate share, no constitutional right of the union is violated because the union has no constitutional right to receive any payment from these employees. The union has simply lost for a few months the "extraordinary" benefit of being empowered to compel nonmembers to pay for services that they may not want and in any event have not agreed to fund.Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, dissented in the opinion, concluding that the SEIU's activity did not violate the rights of nonmembers.
The decision of the court overturns a decision [text] by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which held that the union was not required to issue notice to nonmembers halfway through the year. The Ninth Circuit overturned a District Court decision ordering SEIU to return the money to the nonmembers. The SEIU voluntarily agreed to return the money to the nonmembers shortly after the Supreme Court granted certiorari in June 2011. They asked the court [motion, PDF] to dismiss the case for mootness in October 2011, arguing that the plaintiffs had already received everything they had asked for. In its decision on Thursday, the court determined as a preliminary issue that the case was not moot because the union did not provide an adequate method of refund for the nonmembers. The court also suggested the union attempted to make the case moot "to insulate a decision from review by this Court."