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Supreme Court Allows Use of Non-Members' Fees for National Litigation

    Client Alerts
  • January 30, 2009

In a long series of decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has set forth rules regarding the use of union dues and fees charged to non-union members for various political and strategic union purposes.  Last week, in Locke v. Karass, the Court unanimously upheld the use of such fees to support litigation efforts by the local union’s national affiliate.

The lawsuit was filed by non-members of a Maine state employees union.  The collective bargaining agreement requires non-members to pay a fee equivalent to union dues to support local representation efforts.  Based on previous Supreme Court decisions, the local fee could not be used for political lobbying or campaign contributions by the union.  However, the fee included amounts intended to support the national union’s litigation activities.

Several non-members sued, alleging that the deductions violated their First Amendment rights by requiring them to financially support the national union’s litigation.  They claimed that their fees could only be used to support local bargaining and related activities.  The Supreme Court rejected this view of the First Amendment.  The union was able to demonstrate that the litigation activities supported by the fees were used for collective bargaining and not political activities.  The litigation may not have been aimed at strictly local concerns, but locals could pool their resources to support one another’s litigation needs.

The key to the legality of the fees was the reciprocal nature of the litigation services.  One local may pay to support another’s legal efforts, but could expect the same assistance from the national union should it encounter legal problems.  All locals benefit from this collective pooling of litigation resources.  This arrangement was deemed not to violate the non-members’ constitutional rights.