By David Rivkin and Andrew Grossman, 27 August 2015 in SCOTUSblog
Whatever the fate of mandatory “fair share” payments that nonmembers are often required to make to fund public-sector unions’ collective bargaining activities, Friedrichs will likely mark the end of requirements that dissenting workers take action to “opt out” of funding public-sector unions’ political and ideological activities, the subject of the second question that the Court agreed to consider. Although less prominent than the forced-payments issue, ending opt-out requirements would correct a serious anomaly in the Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence, one that facilitates tens of millions of dollars annually in union political spending of funds obtained through inertia, trickery, and coercion.
If everyone agrees that forcing public employees to subsidize a labor union’s political or ideological speech impinges their First Amendment rights – and the Court has been unanimous on that point for decades – then what possible justification is there for requiring workers who’ve declined to join the union to go through the arduous process of opting out from making such payments year after year? Put differently, why not allow workers who support a union’s political activities to opt in to funding them, rather than require dissenting workers to play a game of cat and mouse to stop the union from taking their money to fund ideological causes they likely oppose? We’ve never heard a compelling justification for the current “opt out” regime and, like the majority in Knox v. SEIU, suspect that there isn’t one.
Instead, as the Court recounted in Knox, “acceptance of the opt-out approach appears to have come about more as a historical accident than through the careful application of First Amendment principles.” In early cases, workers subject to the Railway Labor Act sought relief from being forced to fund unions’ political activities, and the Court assumed (the statute saying nothing one way or the other) that allowing them to affirmatively object to funding such expenditures would be sufficient to protect their rights. Without any reasoning or analysis, the Court in Abood further assumed that the opt-out approach discussed in those prior statutory cases was sufficient to remedy the First Amendment violation when a public employee is coerced into subsidizing political or ideological speech by the threat of loss of governmental employment. Read more »