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The Right’s Boon in Knox v. SEIU

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Posted on Feb 10, 2012
Steve Rhodes (CC-BY)

By Bill Blum

On the surface, the case of Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU), now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, lacks blockbuster appeal. Unlike other high-profile disputes on the court’s docket, such as those involving the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care legislation and Arizona’s immigration law, Knox has flown largely under the radar.

However, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January 2010, which was predicated in part on the tenuous claim that labor unions would counter the political influence of corporations, the Knox case has the potential to further rig the playing field in favor of big business and the right wing.

The facts in Knox are simple enough. With more than 2 million members, SEIU is the fastest-growing union in North America and one of the most progressive. According to The New York Times, in the last quarter of 2011 alone, the union contributed $1 million to Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC supporting Obama’s re-election, and hundreds of thousands more to super PACs established to help elect Democrats to the House and Senate.

Roughly half of SEIU members, like those who belong to the union’s Local 1000 in California, are employed by state and local governments. California law does not require state employees to join a union, but those who opt out are nonetheless assessed a “fair-share” fee (usually a percentage of ordinary membership dues) that is paid to the union to cover the costs of collective bargaining, which benefits all workers. The union, in turn, is precluded by federal law from using such fees for political advocacy without advance notice, affording non-members the opportunity to pay a reduced fee related only to bargaining. Although regular union dues are treated differently, even union members have the legal right to object to having their dues spent on political causes.

In June 2005, in compliance with federal law, Local 1000 sent mailers (known as “Hudson notices” after a Supreme Court case decided in 1986) to nonmembers containing detailed information on how their fair-share fees would be calculated and used. In August that year, the local sent out another mailing advising nonmembers and members alike that the union would levy a temporary assessment on both dues and fair-share fees to help defeat two initiatives promoted by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state’s Republican leadership that had qualified for the California ballot—one aimed at capping overall state spending and another aimed at further restricting the use of union funds for political purposes.


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The trouble was that the August mailing lacked the detail required for a valid Hudson notice. A group of nonunion state employees successfully sued the local in federal district court, claiming the use of their fair-share fees without a second Hudson notice violated their rights under the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently reversed the district court, but the nonunion members appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed last year to hear their petition.

Judging from the oral arguments in Knox v. SEIU heard by the court this past January, the justices will reject the union’s request to dismiss the case and issue a ruling against the union. The only issue will be the scope of the labor movement’s defeat. At a minimum, the ruling will highlight a longstanding contradiction at the heart of campaign finance law that Citizens United has greatly exacerbated. On its face, Citizens United held for the first time that corporations, unions and trade associations possess a First Amendment right to make “independent” expenditures (those that are not directly “coordinated” with candidates) from their general treasuries directly on political campaigns. Two months after the Supreme Court handed down its Citizens United ruling, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in v. FEC that such expenditures—typically made to what have come to be called super PACs and even more shadowy nonprofits—may be unlimited.

But as Harvard law professor Benjamin Sachs points out in a forthcoming article in the Columbia Law Review, the formal legal equality announced in Citizens United masks a fundamental inequality between unions and corporations when it comes to raising political action funds. While unions are prohibited by law from spending employees’ dues and fees on politics if the employees object, corporations are free to spend their assets on politics even if individual shareholders don’t want them to.

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By kookiecat, February 12, 2012 at 3:21 pm Link to this comment

I guess the takeaway from this piece is that we need public financing of
campaigns. But in the meantime, we also need to ensure that unions don’t have to
play with one hand tied behind their backs. Also, the title of this piece isn’t very
good. The issue is about more than SEIU.

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By NABNYC, February 11, 2012 at 2:43 pm Link to this comment

I agree that all working people should understand that only by uniting, acting together, forming groups and engaging in mass actions to support their demands, do they have any chance ever of standing up to the international criminal financial cartels.

I’m reminded of people who, every time an election grows near, tell me that I “must” support the Democrats, and I always ask when are the Democrats going to start supporting me.

The same is true for unions.  Of course we need unions, but not the ones that exist today.  I see very little in most of the unions to inspire confidence.  What exactly have they done to fight on behalf of working people, other than concede again and again, such as to caps on insurance benefits, two-tiered wage systems.  Everything that will ensure the end of the union, but protect their own fat salaries and pensions of those who are older white men and who primarily have benefited from unions.

Go ask the carpenters’ unions about their policies of excluding women and non-whites.  Then ask them who stood beside them when the nation was flooded with unauthorized migrants who took all the carpenter’s jobs and were used to crush wages down from $25/hour to $8/hour.  Excluding such huge segments of the nation as women and non-whites has left these formerly all-white all-male unions powerless and left their members unemployed.  They did it to themselves.  I’m not talking about mafia ties.  I’m talking about the exclusion of the majority of working people in this country.

It is a lot like the Democratic party.  Yes, they used to represent working people, unions, women, non-whites, the poor, the disabled, seniors, the segments of our society with the least power and least money.  All that changed under the terribly corrupt influences of Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, and Bob Rubin, who worked together to turn the democratic party into the “other” Wall Street party.  They don’t represent us anymore.  You couldn’t get a democratic politician to say the words “working people” for a million dollars.  They only talk about representing the “middle class.”  You know why?  Because “middle class” is code for white suburban males, and everybody knows it. 

Same for unions.  Yes, they used to represent working people and were a progressive force.  Some still are, but many are not.  Instead of glorifying “unions” as a category, we should set about creating new unions, perhaps One Big Union, to represent all working people who earn under $80,000/year, or whatever cut-off is chosen.  We create the union, we run it, we decide policy, and we begin to tell the politicians what to do.  Starting with getting private attorneys to bust up every anti-trust monopoly violating corporations in the country including WalMart and every firm on Wall Street, every bank, most of the drug stores and grocery store chains.  Bust them up, destroy their united power, while creating our own.

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By Ralph Kramden, February 11, 2012 at 11:05 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A worker who is anti-union is like a deer who joins the NRA. Who gave you the 8-hour day, week-ends, overtime pay, holiday pay, sick pay, unemployment compensation, vacation pay, disability insurance? You think the Cato institute, the Koch bros. and Joseph Coors? This supreme court is not only corrupt but openly hates the working class. If ever we needed proof that Marx was right “government is the executive committe of the ruling class,” this government is a prime example. Lets repeal Taft Hartley and impeach at least Scalia and Thomas.

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By Kugel, February 11, 2012 at 10:57 am Link to this comment

Blum misses the point.  It becomes clearer and clearer that we need to get all
money out of politics.

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By ardee, February 11, 2012 at 9:53 am Link to this comment

The real strength of this nation lies with its working men and women. Unfortunately we forget that fact.

I have been, in my varied careers, a member of several unions, SEIU, Teamsters and ,currently, IBEW. I have seen a trending towards complicity with management as the salaries of the top union officials approached that of the corporate bosses with which they negotiated. I think that union management has lost its way and its idealism.

Recently, after months of negotiations between my company ( a major public utility) and my union, the new company CEO walked into the meeting, dumped a proposal on the desk, claimed it to be the final offer, and walked out. The union, instead of taking a firm position on this bullying tactic, knuckled under and now supports the contract proposals, many of which are a step backwards.

The vote is now under way as to whether or not to accept this contract. Odds are the rank and file will reject it, but I have no certain knowledge thereof, we are 21,000 workers after all. This, in microcosm, is the current reality of life in the United States, a slow regression from all the rights workers have won over the decades.

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By Leefeller, February 11, 2012 at 9:41 am Link to this comment

Labor is taking it in the shorts, collective bargaining is the only thing keeping workers above water, sure just like corruption in politics opportunists have graced the unions.

Several years back, my experience with SEIU was just as NABNYC commented, our local union was very progressive and kicking managements asses on issues of work place abuses and violations, at our last local meeting, stereotypical cigar smoking union bosses of the Union walked right into our local meeting and dissolved our militant local right there, probably because we were costing them money and getting things done, never gave a reason.  I also suspected they were working with management?

Some Unions like the Steel Workers Union appear to be attempting to keep jobs here and fight out sourcing, which is not an SEIU issue, lets face it service workers are like white collar workers, they seem less inclined to be involved in labor issues compared to a blue collar worker, though I guess right to work states prove my theory wrong? Since the dawn of the first Union, management has been fighting to destroy collective workers right to bargain.  Apparently the GOP is in the 1 percents pockets, while the Democrats seem less and less supportive of the 99 percent, some appear to be in someones pockets besides labors!

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By Big B, February 11, 2012 at 7:22 am Link to this comment

When will the timeless old bullshit argument that corruption led to the downfall of unions end? And the myth that they still somehow weild political power in the new corporate age is laughable at best.

The fact is that since the late 1960’s there has been a concentrated and well organized effort on the behalf of corporate america and the top 1% to disempower unions, thus eliminating all political gains made by the working class in the US since the great depression.

Take a look at your paychecks, your medical benefiits and your retirement plan. that strategy seems to be working like a charm.

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By oddsox, February 11, 2012 at 4:30 am Link to this comment

Political contributions should be allowed from individuals only. 
Legal US citizens with full disclosure.
No corporations.
No unions.
No PACs.

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By kookiecat, February 10, 2012 at 10:17 pm Link to this comment

Again Bill Blum elucidates some of the important cases coming before the
Supreme Court.  It is clear that after Citizens United the political terrain has shifted
against progressives.  There has been a systematic attempt to destroy unions. 
Whether or not you like this particular union that attempt must be defeated.

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By NABNYC, February 10, 2012 at 8:03 pm Link to this comment

Most of the problems faced by unions are the result of their own corruption, and alliances with big business against American working people.  I know Andy Stern got himself a very good job after he beefed up the SEIU membership and got them to campaign for democrats.  But what exactly did he get for American working people?  In too many instances, the SEIU is more aligned with business than with workers.  I have often wondered if they were a management union, or at least one that is run completely by the democratic party.  Exactly what did the SEIU get for the millions contributed to Obama?  They couldn’t even get a card-check law passed to make it easier to organize. 

Decades ago, I had women friends trying to get into traditionally-male unions, and they found all the doors slammed in their faces.  When American workers across the country were being fired and replaced with unauthorized migrants, who stood up for the Americans?  Not the SEIU.  They waited until all the Americans had been fired from $14/hour jobs and replaced with unauthorized migrants at $6/hour, then rushed in to “organize” the new workers, promising them $7/hour.  They organize, management is happy because they’re paying half what they used to.  Andy Stern and the other insiders are happy with their generous six-figure salaries.  The unauthorized migrants are happy to have a job, even though it’s an American’s job, and the American is now unemployed.

We’ve seen the SEIU attack other legitimate unions, specifically the California nurses, and oppose a state-wide health insurance proposal, siding with Governor Schwarzenegger and undermining the other unions.  What did Andy Stern get from all that?  I assume he got something.  The SEIU has had a long and contentious dispute with another healthcare union in Oakland, and tried to undermine yet another union in Puerto Rico. 

With unions like this, I say we should start over again.  Create unions for American working people, unions that do not work for the politicians or for businesses, but work for American working people.  I really don’t care if the SEIU disappears.  I don’t see that they do anything for anybody except a small group of overpaid insiders.

As far as the other unions go, where have they been since 1970?  Sitting on their cushy fat bank accounts and fat asses, investing in stocks and real estate, and doing nothing to either organize or help American working people.  They’re useless and corrupt.  Obama “saved” the auto industry?  Really.  I thought he just used taxpayer money to help them move their factories to Brazil.  And what did the union do to stop it?  Nothing.

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