High Court Upholds Curb on Political Use of Union Fees

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

The Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld a Washington state law that requires public employee unions to get permission before making political contributions using fees they collect from nonmembers.

The law, unique in the nation, was adopted in a 1992 referendum to limit unions' spending of the "agency fees" they deduct from the paychecks of employees who do not belong to the unions but are represented by them in collective bargaining.

Washington state's Supreme Court struck the law down, saying that forcing the Washington Education Association (WEA), a teacher union, to get written waivers from employees before using their agency fees burdened the union's free-speech rights.

Yesterday, however, the U.S. Supreme Court threw that ruling out. Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion for the court noted, "The notion that this modest limitation upon an extraordinary benefit violates the First Amendment is, to say the least, counterintuitive."

The state law applied to all unions, public and private sector alike, but Scalia noted that yesterday's ruling affects only public-sector unions.

The cases against the WEA were originally filed by both the state of Washington and individual teachers supported by conservative legal foundations, which have called the issue a major test of workers' rights to dissent from union political activities.

Though no other states have adopted laws similar to Washington's, yesterday's ruling confirms that they have a right to do so.

But its immediate practical impact in Washington state was limited by the legislature's adoption of a new law on May 10 that stipulates union political spending is not considered to come from agency fees. The WEA supported the law. But the new law did not make the case moot, Scalia noted, because the teachers who sued are still hoping to collect money damages from the union based on the alleged past violation of their rights.

The consolidated cases are Davenport v. Washington Educational Association, No. 05-1589, and Washington v. Washington Educational Association, No. 05-1657.

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