For some three decades, a series of court rulings have established a basic principle: Unions, whether in the private or the public sector, may not route dues collections toward political purposes against their members’ will. The U.S. Supreme Court last June defended that principle for public-sector employees. By a unanimous vote, the court restored Washington State’s “paycheck protection” law, concluding that the state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA) had to obtain advance written consent from fee-paying nonunion teachers before spending their payments on political causes. The High Court is due to have its hands full in a similar case next door in Idaho. On March 31, the Court agreed to hear Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association, an appeal of a federal circuit court ruling.
In 2003, the State of Idaho passed a law called the Voluntary Contributions Act (VCA), prohibiting local government entities, including school districts, from making payroll deductions for union-sponsored political purposes. Political action committees, or PACs, were among them. Five labor unions and the AFL-CIO challenged the law in U.S. District Court, arguing the new law violated free-speech and equal-protection rights. The court agreed, holding that the ban on payroll deductions, though constitutional as applied to the State of Idaho itself, was unconstitutional as applied to private and local government employers. State officials appealed. In Pocatello Education Association et al. v. Heideman et al. (the defendants-appellants being Bannock County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Heideman, Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, and Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last October upheld the lower-court ban. The VCA, the panel of judges ruled, is a “content-based” law for which State officials asserted no compelling justification. Moreover, state government, while having the authority to regulate local activity, cannot assert proprietary authority over county and municipal payroll systems.
Without protection by the VCA, teachers have no ability to prevent their dues payments from being routed toward union PACs – unless, of course, they want to lose their NEA collective bargaining rights. The Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, for one, finds this objectionable. The foundation was among several groups filing an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, urging a review of the case. “We applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to revisit the activist ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals,” said Stefan Gleason, foundation vice president. “Just like state governments, local governments should not act as bagmen for union political funds.” A regional nonunion teachers’ group, the Spokane, Wash.-based Northwest Professional Educators, expresses a similar view. Its executive director, Cindy Omlin, put it this way: “We are grateful that the United States Supreme Court has taken this case. Without the protection of the VCA, hundreds of dollars are taken from union teachers’ paychecks that are directed to state and national political activity that runs afoul of teachers’ beliefs and interests.”
That the VCA is a sound law should not obscure the larger issue, which is the coercive nature of dues collections under such conditions. While preventing involuntary subsidization of union political spending is laudable, it is less important over the long run than barring forced-dues collections of all kinds, regardless of destination. In the public as well as the private sector, the Right to Work principle ought to prevail. In the case of Idaho, the Voluntary Contributions Act should have gone further, banning the use of public facilities to collect any union dues. In the face of ferocious union opposition, perhaps that might have been too much to expect. (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, No. 06-35004; PR Newswire, 3/31/08; National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, 3/31/08).