State employees in California have two options: join the Service Employees International Union or refuse membership and still be required to pay non-member dues. Either way, union officials must provide very specific notice and accounting information if they intend to use non-members' dues money for political purposes.
One group of non-members says the SEIU failed to do that when it levied a mid-year special assessment in 2005 -- specifically used to fund political initiatives. Those state employees have been waging a legal battle that landed at the Supreme Court on Tuesday. They argue that the SEIU failed to give proper notice and that their First Amendment rights were violated when their money was used to support political speech with which they disagree.
Dianne Knox, one of the plaintiffs, says she regularly lodges complaints about how SEIU uses her dues money. "I file a letter every year with SEIU, and I object to any fees which are not germane to collective bargaining, and specifically their political action fund." Knox says she decided to sue because, "I felt they were taking money that they didn't deserve."
Her attorney, William J. Young, says employees were essentially "left in the dark" about how their money was being used. "These workers deserve the right to say no - all workers do," he said on the steps of the Supreme Court.
The SEIU argues that the plaintiffs were given proper notice and, ultimately, the chance to object - even noting that refunds had been paid out. Non-members are free to lodge objections on an annual basis when the SEIU's yearly report is issued.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor posited whether that existing framework is good enough to resolve the problem. "They do get a chance to object; the question is the timing," she noted during Tuesday's arguments.
But other justices were still bothered by the prospect that non-members' dues money would be used -- for any length of time -- to fund something they didn't want to support.
Justice Antonin Scalia suggested it amounted to an "interest-free loan to the union." That prompted Justice Samuel Alito to ask the lawyer representing the SEIU, Jeremiah Collins, whether the union would front a loan to non-members who wished to use it for political purposes opposed by the union, as long as they promised to pay it back. After a lengthy pause, Collins replied, "I don't know."
The parties also spent a great deal of time debating whether the case has become moot, now that SEIU has refunded the money in question.
A decision is expected by June.