Union funds of non-members restricted in use, court rules

May 31, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Labor unions that represent government workers may not pay for their lobbying, political activity and public relations tactics out of support fees paid by non-members they represent, a widely split Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In a sweeping decision seeking to spell out constitutional limits on non-members' right not to have fees they pay to unions used for causes they oppose, the court curbed a good deal of public-employee union activity with non-member fees.

The court was widely split in a case involving a union that represents faculty members at Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Mich.

The Ferris Faculty Association is tied to a state-level union, the Michigan Education Association, and a national teachers' union, the National Education Association. Six faculty members there refuse to belong to the local union but are required to pay support fees because the union is obliged to represent them on working conditions covered by the union contract.

The results, and votes, the court reached yesterday on such public-employee unions:

* Public-employee unions may not use non-members' support fees to lobby over school financing legislation or over education issues in politics, including school bond issues; lobbying can be done only on issues tied to the local union contract, such as providing budget money to fund it. Vote: 8-1.

* They may not use such fees to pay for lawsuits other than those directly involving the local union, or to pay for stories in a union newspaper or newsletter about non-local lawsuits. Vote: 8-1.

* They may not use such fees to pay for public relations campaigns to build up teachers' reputations before the public, by picketing, carrying signs or wearing buttons. Vote: 8-1.

* Support fees of non-members may be used to finance preparations for a strike, as a bargaining-pressure tactic, even if an actual strike would be illegal. Vote: 6-3. No fees may be used to finance an illegal strike. Vote: 9-0.

* Support fees may be used to pay to send delegates to conventions of state and national affiliated unions. Vote: 5-4.

* Support fees may be used to pay for the parts of union newspapers or newsletters that deal with job opportunities, unemployment and awards. Vote: 5-4.

* Support fees may be used to help support union activities at the state and national levels, so long as they are related to labor-relations issues. Vote: 9-0.

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