US Supreme Court in Knox vs SEIU: Democracy goes to… the highest bidder

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Now that fewer people are discussing the Supreme Court’s health care decision in public debates, I’d like to turn your attention to a much lesser covered case that signals just how tough a fight organized labor is facing.

The case captioned Knox vs SEIU involves unions’ ability to collect dues for political activity from “fair share” workers, which are non-members working in a public sector union shop who pay dues related to collective bargaining but can opt-out of paying dues for political use.

In that case, California-based SEIU 1000 sent out its annual funding disclosure, giving non-members the chance to opt-out of the political portion of their dues. Following this disclosure, there was an emergency need for funding to fend off anti-worker ballot initiatives mounted by then governor-Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The non-members sued, saying a new round of disclosures should have gone out, giving them another chance to opt-out immediately, instead of waiting for end-of-year refunds. The Supreme Court sided with the non-members.

Here’s the real blow to unions, however. In another holding of the case, which neither side asked the justices to weigh in on, the Court’s conservative wing essentially reversed generations of established precedent ruling that instead of opting out of political contributions, non-members workers have to opt-in, when such circumstances arise.

If the court is going to put this kind of restriction on unions, shouldn’t corporations have to disclose their political activities on an ongoing basis to shareholders in this post Citizens United political era as well?

Some might argue that a shareholder could always sell the stock of a company whose politics doesn’t suit him or her. But it’s usually not that simple. Most people are locked into mutual or pension funds that invest in a multitude of companies. There’s no practical way to opt in or even opt-out out.

To make this a mandate for unions and not corporations tips the balance in big moneys’ favor. These tight restrictions on unions and not corporations also allow corporations to act much faster than unions, thus weakening the effect unions have to try to balance out the issues.

Unions play a large role in many Minnesotan’s lives. Even if you are not a part of one, you likely benefit from their efforts. By weakening unions it becomes difficult to maintain the commons. It weakens our control over decisions made in our name as citizens, and furthermore weakens the way our democratic process is intended to work.

Tipping the balance further toward corporations ensures more of Minnesota’s prosperity and the fruits of our collective labor will accumulate into fewer hands.