The Supreme Court is putting increasing limits on unions’ abilities to raise political funds at the same time it is freeing corporations' ability to spend. That’s the argument being made by some academics after a Supreme Court decision Thursday that requires that nonmembers opt in to contribute to public employee union political fundraising, rather than opt out if they don't want to give.
“The court clings to the trope that the unions' political spending is somehow extraneous to the core services provided by the union to the represented employees. But political spending is perhaps even more important to unions than it is to corporations,” wrote Matt Bodie, a law professor at Saint Louis University, on a prominent law blog.
Political spending by corporations pays off big time, according to a study released by the Manhattan Institute earlier this week. Corporate political spending usually leads to lower taxes and more favorable legislation, the study found. So, Bodie argues, why shouldn’t unions have the same rights to spend as the corporations that often serve as their antagonists?
“Courts recognize the interest of corporations in protecting themselves in the political arena, and I think they need to extend the notion to unions,” he said. “If unions are going to be representing people, part of their duty is protecting the unions' rights and by extension, the employees’ rights.”
But in many public sector unions, not all opt to join. The Supreme Court argues that it should not be so easy for unions to use the money of these nonmembers to fund political causes they don’t agree with.
Paul Secunda, a law professor at Marquette, says that shareholders don’t always agree with the political causes corporations spend their money on. But they can’t opt out because they have decided that the corporations’ leaders will make decisions that are, at the end of the day, good for the business. In the same way, union leaders make decisions that are in the interest of workers, even if those workers are not union members, Secunda argues.
“We are now in an environment where its easier for corporations to raise money for political lobbying than it is for unions,” Secunda said. “But in spending, corporations and unions are treated alike, have the right under the 1st Amendment to express their views without government interference.”
Unions aren’t technically businesses under the law, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor at UC Santa Barbara. They were put into the same category as granges, horticultural societies and other voluntary associations charged with protecting the public good when laws first regulated them. But “courts have narrowed and limited what unions can do,” he said. “Unions are subject to much more severe economic regulation of their affairs than corporations.
The decision will slow unions in fundraising, all three professors say. At the same time that both corporations and unions, because of the 2010 Citizens United decision, have more ability to spend, unions are going to have more trouble raising funds. That gives unions a disadvantage in the 2012 election.
“If the country were run this way, anyone who didn’t like the defense budget could opt out,” Lichtenstein said. “The very concept of unionism, the legitimacy of collective actions by workers covering all sorts of workers, is being chipped away.”