(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that local unions can charge nonmember employees a “service fee” that helps cover the cost of national lawsuits, so long as the litigation isn’t related to political activity, and other unions chip in for similar local lawsuits.
Government employees in Maine claimed that they should not be required to pay a service fee that the Maine State Employees Association, which the plaintiffs chose not to join, uses to pay its national union organization. The national union uses a portion of that money to pay for the costs of litigating on behalf of other local unions. The full fee amounts to about $9.70 per month, $1.34 of which goes toward the national affiliation fee.
Though the amount was relatively small, the plaintiffs sued on principle, claiming the fee and its use violate their First Amendment rights to free speech and free association.
The lower courts upheld the fee as constitutional, and the Supreme Court agreed that precedent justified a ruling for the union.
“In [previous] instances,” Justice Breyer wrote, “the Court has determined that First Amendment burdens accompanying the payment requirement are justified by the government’s interest in preventing freeriding by nonmembers who benefit from the union’s collective-bargaining activities and in maintaining peaceful labor relations.”
The justices said the fee doesn’t violate the First Amendment, provided that “(1) the subject matter of the (extra-local) litigation is of a kind that would be chargeable if the litigation were local, i.e., litigation appropriately related to collective-bargaining rather than political activities, and (2) the litigation charge is reciprocal in nature, i.e., the contributing local reasonably expects other locals to contribute similarly to the national’s resources used for costs of similar litigation on behalf of the contributing local if and when it takes place.”