Thursday, January 11, 2007

Justices express support for limiting use of union fees

Justices express support for limiting use of union fees
By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared ready Wednesday to uphold a Washington state law that restricts when unions can use fees collected from non-members for political purposes.

The dispute is being watched closely by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and other anti-union groups, as well as the AFL-CIO.

The case revolves around the Washington Education Association, which bargains for the state's 70,000 teachers. About 3,500 of the teachers have refused to join the union. They are required by state law to pay "agency shop" fees to cover their share of the union's bargaining on behalf of all workers.

Under state law, the fees unions get from a non-member cannot be used for political advocacy — such as the union's lobbying the state Legislature for more school funds — unless that person consents to having his fees used for such purposes.

The teachers union opposes the policy on non-members' fees, saying it is an administrative burden that restricts the union's right to engage in political advocacy. The state's highest court agreed last year. It struck down the law as a violation of the union's speech rights.

Wednesday, many of the justices' queries focused on the rights of teachers who are not in the union.

Most of the high court, including Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter and Samuel Alito, expressed some support for the law limiting how non-member fees are used. "It seems to me that Washington acted quite properly in saying we will use this to protect our workers' First Amendment … rights," Kennedy said.

Washington state Attorney General Robert McKenna said the law "serves the state's interest in election integrity" by ensuring that union political activity is funded voluntarily.

John West, representing the teachers union, countered that the law wrongly assumed that non-members would not back the union's lobbying.

Alito responded, "These are teachers who have chosen not to join the (union). Isn't it overwhelmingly likely that they, if you spoke to them and said, 'Would you like to give money to the union to spend on elections,' would say no?"

West said the union believes teachers support its political efforts, including those aimed at increasing teachers' cost-of-living raises and reducing class sizes.