The decision is a blow to union political efforts.
Two justices joined in the judgment, but distanced themselves from the majority's conclusions. Two of the court's liberals dissented.
The case involves a California law that permits public-sector employees in a bargaining unit in a majority vote to create an "agency shop" under which all the employees are represented by a union. Even employees who do not join the union must pay an annual fee for "chargeable expenses" -- the cost of non-political union services related to collective bargaining.
A public-sector union can bill non-members for chargeable expenses but may not require them to fund its political or ideological projects under the Supreme Court's Teachers vs. Hudson in 1986.
In June 2005, a public-sector union, a local of the Service Employees International Union, sent California employees its annual Hudson notice, setting and capping monthly dues and estimating more than 56 percent of its total expenditures in the coming year would be chargeable expenses. A non-member had 30 days to object to full payment of dues but would still have to pay the chargeable portion.
The same month, the state's governor called for a special election on two ballot propositions opposed by the SEIU. After the 30-day objection period ended, the SEIU sent a letter to unit employees announcing a temporary 25 percent increase in dues and a temporary elimination of the monthly dues cap. The purpose of the fund was to help achieve the union's political objectives in the special election and in the upcoming November 2006 election. The union said the fund would be used "for a broad range of political expenses, including television and radio advertising, direct mail, voter registration, voter education, and get out the vote activities in our work sites and in our communities across California." Non-union employees were not given any choice on whether they would pay into the fund.
A group of non-union members filed suit, alleging a violation of their First Amendment political rights.
Under the First Amendment, when a union imposes a special assessment or dues increase levied to meet expenses that were not disclosed when the regular assessment was set, it must provide a fresh notice and may not exact any funds from non-members without their affirmative consent, Kennedy's majority opinion said.
He added there was no justification for the SEIU's failure to provide a fresh Hudson notice -- Hudson rests on the principle that non-members should not be required to fund a union's political and ideological projects unless they choose to do so after having "a fair opportunity" to assess the impact of paying for non-chargeable union activities.