This morning, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that strikes at the very heart of the blue model. In the case Knox v. SEIU the Supreme Court ruled that the Service Employees International Union was at fault for neglecting to notify nonmembers about an increase in fees, making it difficult for them to object. In the majority opinion Justice Alito stated (from the Washington Post):
“When a public-sector union imposes a special assessment or dues increase, the union must provide a fresh … notice and may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent,” Alito said.
More surprising than the result, however, was the breakdown of the 7-2 decision. As expected, the five conservative members of the court supported the ruling, but they were joined by liberal Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg. Although they wrote a separate opinion that disagreed with portions of the majority, Ginsburg and Sotomayor nonetheless agreed that the union’s fees violated current law. Only Breyer and Kagan dissented from the majority.
The significance of this ruling is a bit difficult to determine, as it deals mainly with the arcana of union funding rules. Ordinarily, when dues are increased in a closed-shop environment, nonmembers are given official notice and a chance to object to the new fees if they do not wish to pay them, typically via annual updates. The case hinged on whether the SEIU was obligated to let nonunion workers know about a $12 million “special assessment” raised for political campaigning, or whether the annual updates were sufficient. With this ruling, the SEIU and similar unions will now be forced to give nonmembers a chance to object to fee increases and special assessments in closed-shop situations. This will not gut union funding as we know it, but it makes it considerably more difficult for unions to raise additional money, especially for political spending in an election year.
With governors and state legislators across the country on the hunt for cost-cuts, the court system may be one of the last lines of defense for public sector unions. If unions no longer have a majority, or even a fighting minority, on the Supreme Court, they will have lost one of their most important defenders in Washington.