Opinion: Columnists

Sean Higgins: Californians must pay union dues whether they join or not

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If you want to work for the Los Angeles County government, you have a choice: You can become a dues-paying, public-sector union member, or you can decline to join a union.

But either way, you still have to pay union dues. Not only that, but the California Supreme Court ruled last week that you have no right to privacy from the union, either.

If you decline to join, the union still gets all your personal contact information so it can follow you home and explain why it is in your best interest to sign up.

The ruling is the latest example of how union prerogatives have trumped individual privacy rights in the Golden State. California's anti-trespass law has a specific exemption for union activities, for example. The logic the court applied will only make future encroachments easier.

Here's what the court said in County of Los Angeles v. Los Angeles County Employees Relations Commission and Service Employees International Union Local 721:

"We hold that, although the county's employees have a cognizable privacy interest in their home addresses and telephone numbers, the balance of interests strongly favors the union that represents them."

It was a big victory for the California SEIU, which first began demanding the contact information in 2006. California is one of 26 states that allow unions to negotiate so-called "union shop" contracts with employers. These require everyone in the workplace to either belong to a union or at least pay membership dues.

In theory, the purpose is to prevent what economists call "free ridership." Since unions negotiate for wages and benefits on behalf of all employees, one who doesn't pay is getting the benefits without the costs.

California allows state and local government employees to object to those dues being used for purposes other than collective bargaining, including political campaigns. Unions must send out annual notices explaining their spending plans and giving workers a chance to object.

Those notices were sent to a state agency, which forwarded them to the employees. This layer of bureaucracy preserved their privacy.

But an SEIU local asked Los Angeles County in 2006 to give it the information so it could contact the workers directly. To its credit, the county stood up for the workers' privacy. SEIU took the county to court.

Why might workers object to joining SEIU? Well, last January, Tyrone Freeman, former president of Local 6434, the largest in the state (and second-largest in the nation) with 180,000 members, was convicted of embezzling funds.

SEIU has an aggressive reputation, too. In 2008, the California Nurses Association got a restraining order against SEIU after its activists showed up at CNA leaders' homes during a bitter fight over representing nurses.

A CNA board member even accused the SEIU of "unprofessional, thug-like behavior."

The California Supreme Court nevertheless came down on SEIU's side.

It ruled that, since unions negotiate for all employees, they should be able to contact them all.

The problem with this ruling is that unions don't have to represent all people in a workplace. Nothing prevents them from negotiating "members-only" contracts where they only represent those people who voluntarily join.

Unions just don't like that approach because contracts thus negotiated result in fewer members and fewer dues.

The court's decision is even more inexplicable given that the California Constitution specifically includes privacy rights (something not found in the U.S. Constitution). The court even noted that the "employees who exercised their right not to associate with the union have a somewhat enhanced privacy expectation."

Nevertheless, the court said SEIU's needs took precedence. And it blithely dismissed any potential concerns that may arise from its decision. "Giving SEIU this contact information will not coerce employees into joining the union," the court said.

No, it just gives SEIU a list of those people and how to find them.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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