Tuesday, August 28, 2007

When can a public labor union spend a non-union member's money?

What are the rights of non-union employees working in a union shop? While they have to pay certain union dues, they can opt-out of the union spending their money on matters unrelated to collective bargaining. As a practical mater, this means the non-union member can object when the union wants to spend union dues on political activity. The constitutional basis for this rule is the right against coerced speech, i.e., the protection against forcing a public employee to subsidize political activity they don't like as a condition of their public employment.

These rules get more complicated when the courts are asked to examine the nuts and bolts of the procedures guiding the non-union employee's objections to spending union dues on political activity. In Seidemann v. Bowen, originally decided August 1 but amended on August 28, the Court of Appeals (Pooler, Sack and Hall) struck down the procedures for the employee to object to the union's political activities.

Against the backdrop of the general rule that the union's opt-out rules must be carefully tailored to minimize the risk of burdening the employee's First Amendment rights, the Second Circuit noted that the various Courts of Appeals are divided on whether the union can make the employee opt-out each year instead of simply making a rolling objection that applies year after year. The Second Circuit ruled that the yearly opt-out requirement is too burdensome for public employees, particularly since the union was unable to put forth any good objection to the annual objection. Since the courts around the country disagree on this issue, by the way, the Supreme Court take this (or a similar case) to iron out the rule once and for all.

But that's not all. The union also required that non-union employees specifically identify which of the union expenditures they object to. This means the employee had to tell the union what percentage of the union fees could not be spent in his name. This kind of particularized objection also violates the First Amendment, the Second Circuit held. That requirement is simply too burdensome, and it is enough for the employee to object to the union's general spending on political activity.

Finally, the plaintiff argued that the union was not providing fair notice of how union dues were being spent politically. The Court of Appeals sent this portion of the case back to the trial court to untangle factual disputes about what kind of notice the union was actually providing. The guiding principle governing this kind of disagreement is that while non-union employees are not entitled to receive all of the financial information union delegates may receive, they deserve adequate information about the basis for the proportionare share of union dues to make a proper objection to the political and ideological spending. This kind of dispute probably is made on a case-by-case basis.

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