Supreme Court Limits Unions’ Spending of Dues on Politics

Published August 1, 2007

Labor unions must get permission from non-members before using mandatory dues for political purposes, according to a United States Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling in Washington v. Washington Education Association and Davenport v. Washington Education Association (WEA).

The June 14 ruling culminates a decade of work by concerned teachers and the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF), a Washington state think tank. The Court’s ruling could affect millions of union-represented workers nationwide.

Bars Unauthorized Use

The unanimous ruling, issued by Justice Antonin Scalia, says states may bar a labor union representing government employees from using non-union workers’ dues for political causes if those workers have not explicitly consented to the expenditures.

“We are elated that the U.S. Supreme Court has honored the First Amendment rights of teachers by overturning the state Supreme Court’s decision,” said Bob Williams, president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. “The Court understood that the constitutional rights of teachers should be protected and are not superseded by the union’s statutory rights. This ruling will help protect non-member teachers from having their agency fees used on union politics against their will.”

At issue was a state law that required labor organizations to get permission from non-member workers before using mandatory dues for political purposes. “Non-members” are workers who are not members of the union but are forced to pay collective bargaining fees as a condition of employment.

Maneuvering to the End

Even while the U.S. Supreme Court was considering the case, the WEA and state government were trying to maneuver around the law. On May 11 Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) signed the union-backed House Bill 2079, which permits unions to spend non-member fees on politics as long as they have enough member dues to cover the expenditure.

That arrangement would virtually guarantee that, as one union official put it, “only in very extraordinary circumstances would the statute be violated” and unions have to ask non-members before spending their fees on politics.

That charade was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago. In International Association of Machinists v. Street (1961) and Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), the High Court said designating member dues for politics and non-member fees for administrative costs unconstitutionally shifts a disproportionate share of collective bargaining costs to non-members.

Having been signed into law, however, H.B. 2079 is now in effect, but it will probably be challenged when the WEA cases are remanded back to state court.The Supreme Court ruled the new law does not moot the Davenport case and that its decision stands.

“It still matters whether the Supreme Court of Washington was correct to hold that [the earlier law] was inconsistent with the First Amendment. Our analysis of whether §760’s affirmative-authorization requirement violates the constitutional rights of respondent is not affected by the amendment.”

Desperate Ploy

Why change a law the U.S. Supreme Court was considering at the time? Union officials claimed the existing law, which was just 42 words long, was murky and they couldn’t understand how to comply with it.

But the WEA had admitted to the Public Disclosure Commission that it had intentionally spent non-member dues on politics in violation of the law. The Public Disclosure Commissioners said the violations were “the largest campaign finance violation” in state history, and in 2001 a court fined the union $590,000.

Also, a trial court had given the union detailed instructions on how to comply with the law.

Experts almost unanimously agreed the U.S. Supreme Court would rule against the union. The June 14 ruling proved them correct.

Ryan Bedford ([email protected]) is a labor analyst with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington.

For more information …

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the combined cases Washington v. Washington Education Association and Davenport v. Washington Education Association is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #21565.