For unions, a Supreme test of fairness
OLYMPIA, WASH. — It's the homestretch of election season, and Americans take it for granted that the airwaves buzz with political ads, campaign consultants dash around districts, and union dollars flow generously into the pockets of liberal politicians. This year, however, unions don't take it for granted. They have their eye on two Supreme Court cases that could affect how they spend mandatory dues.
Unions wield enormous, though often unseen, political clout. In the 2004 presidential election cycle, organized labor raised a reported $199.5 million for their own political organizations. The AFL-CIO said it spent $44 million on voter mobilization; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) spent $65 million. The National Education Association spent nearly $25 million on political activities and lobbying in 2005.
This year is no different. An analysis of federal campaign-finance reports by USA Today shows that major unions have raised more money than they did for the last midterm elections in 2002. The SEIU's primary political action committee (PAC) and three local PACs raised $15 million, a 62 percent increase from 2002. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' PAC raised $9.1 million, a 39 percent increase from 2002. Additionally, the AFL-CIO is spending $40 million for what its president, John Sweeney, calls the most important congressional elections in history.
Unfortunately, a lot of union spending does not line up with the political preferences of members, even though union dues are mandatory as a condition of employment in many states.
As a result, millions of union workers nationwide are involuntarily – and unfairly – funding political activity they don't support.
That's why two cases now before the high court are so important. Both cases, brought against the Washington Education Association (WEA), a state affiliate of the National Education Association, would represent a huge step forward for teachers' rights against unions. At the heart of Washington v. WEA and Davenport v. WEA is a simple question: Is a Washington state law that requires public employee unions to get permission before spending workers' mandatory dues on political causes too much of an "administrative burden" on the union's free speech rights?
But there's a twist, too: What if employees are not members of a union?
They, too, can be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment. In such a situation, US Supreme Court case law lays out First Amendment protections to ensure that employees are not forced to support political activity against their will. Washington's law established the additional requirement that nonmembers must "affirmatively authorize" any use of their dues for union political activity.
However, on March 16, the Washington State Supreme Court turned the Constitution on its head and ruled that the WEA can use nonmember teachers' dues for political activity without getting permission from the individual teachers.
Incredibly, the unions have argued they have no "fiduciary duty" to the teachers they represent. In other words, once the union bosses take dues from their teachers, they think that their hard-earned money can be used for whatever the union pleases.
The US Supreme Court should reinstate the "fiduciary duty" that unions have blatantly neglected.
The justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments Jan. 10, and their decision is expected by June. If they uphold the Washington decision, unions will be free to spend workers' dues without accountability. But if they overturn the decision and side with the teachers, educators – and other union workers – will have their free speech rights restored.
Unions will then know, once and for all, that their ability to raise money does not trump the constitutional rights of individual citizens.
• Bob Williams is president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, which filed the initial complaint in the case of Washington vs. WEA.