(Sept. 27) The Service Employees International Union Local 1000 has begun reimbursing $5.1 million in political contributions the union improperly extracted from state workers more than six years ago, as my colleague State Worker columnist Jon Ortiz recently reported.
The payback stems from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down last year. The case before the court, Knox v. SEIU 1000, involves the right of public-sector union members to opt out of paying for their union's political speech. When SEIU assessed a special fee in 2005 on its members to fight two anti-union ballot measures, it failed to give sufficient notice to workers who might have wanted to opt out, the court said.
Under long-established law, public employees are required to pay their "fair share," the portion of their dues that fund a union's collective bargaining activities. However, workers are not required to pay for the union's political activities. Each year, public employee unions are required to send their members notices that give workers a 30-day window to opt out of paying for their union's political activity.
The notice is not easy to decipher as one former state worker who emailed me made clear, writing: "Buried several pages deep in unrelated legal jargon I had never bothered to read before and with no heading or subtitle to draw attention to it, was a brief description describing the very specific requirements for opting out."
Despite the lack of transparency, thousands of state workers do opt out. The numbers vary widely by bargaining unit. In more cohesive paramilitary units, California Highway Patrol and California Correctional Peace Officers Association, virtually no employees opt out, which is hardly surprising. They are among the most powerful unions in the state, and union leaders deliver huge benefits to members in terms of wages and benefits.
By contrast, some SEIU units represent a more disparate collection of unrelated workers, including janitors and computer programmers, the opt-out rate runs as high as 45 percent.
Beyond workers who don't want to pay for union political activities, there also are a smaller number who hold "conscientious objector" status. They assert moral objections to affiliation with a labor organization.
David Joyce is one. A telecommunications analyst with the Department of Health Care Services and devout Christian, Joyce strongly objects to abortion.
"It grated on me that the union only supported pro-choice candidates, never pro-life ones," he told me. State law allows Joyce and other conscientious objectors to re-direct all their union dues to charity, which he has elected to do.
The very notion that public employment requires anyone to contribute to candidates or political causes they oppose wreaks of Tammany Hall, the antithesis of what civil service is supposed to be.
The Supreme Court's decision directing SEIU to reimburse its members was not an attack on the right of public-sector workers to act collectively, as SEIU claimed. Rather, it reaffirmed the free-speech right of individual public employees, and their right not to be bullied by their union.
Unions, including public-employee unions, have a right to participate in the political life of their communities and at the state and national level. It's the outsized power that public unions exercise, particularly among majority Democrats in California, that is worrisome.
At the local level especially, in elections for school boards, and fire boards, city council races, public-employee unions often are the biggest campaign contributors. The wider public interest can be overwhelmed when unions use dues extracted from public paychecks to elect their own bosses, the elected officials who decide their work rules, their pay and their benefit levels.
Public workers are not all the same. They don't always support the unions' candidates or positions on ballot measures. As the Supreme Court has made crystal clear, they don't have to. Union bosses may not like that, but their workers do.