Lareau on Knox v. SEIU: A Mortal Wound?

Lareau on Knox v. SEIU: A Mortal Wound?

SUMMARY: This Emerging Issues Analysis suggests that the importance of this case lies not in the conclusion the Court reached about special assessments for public sector unions, but in what the decision portends for the heretofore routine procedures used by public sector unions to collect fees from nonmembers as part of their annual dues structure.

EXCERPT: In Knox v. SEIU, Local 1000, a 5-justice majority of the Supreme Court held that a public sector union could not rely on its annual notice to employees of the State of California (informing them of the amount of union dues/agency fee they would be required to pay during the forthcoming year) when it subsequently levied a special assessment the proceeds of which were to be used solely for political purposes. Such an assessment, said the majority, required its own notice and the failure to give that notice impinged on the employees' First Amendment rights. More importantly, the majority held that the special assessment could not be collected from an employee, even with notice, unless the employee agreed to pay the assessment.

This Emerging Issue Analysis suggests that the importance of this case lies not in the conclusion the Court reached about special assessments for public sector unions, but in what the decision portends for the heretofore routine procedures used by public sector unions to collect fees from nonmembers as part of their annual dues structure.

OPINION: After rejecting the SEIU's contention that the case should be dismissed as moot, the Court turned to the merits of the dispute. At the outset of its analysis, the Court recognized that the compulsory fee requirement of an agency shop provision constitute[s] a form of compelled speech and association that imposes a "significant impingement on First Amendment rights."

The majority also recognized that its earlier cases dealing with agency fees "tolerated" this impingement to prevent non-members from "free-riding" on the efforts expended by a union on behalf of the entire bargaining unit. But it expressed concern about its free-rider justification, noting that it was an anomaly and, generally, "insufficient to overcome First Amendment objections. [Foototes omitted.]

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