States may force unions to get worker consent before using fees for politics, the Supreme Court says. However, Washington's law has changed.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a Washington state case Thursday, saying states can force public-employee labor unions to get consent from workers before using their fees for political activities.

However, the ruling will have no immediate effect in Washington because the Legislature recently modified the law in a way that blunts the court’s decision.

The unanimous decision Thursday deals with an old state law, passed by initiative, that barred unions from spending a nonmember’s fees on politics unless that worker gives explicit permission.

Like many states, Washington allows collective-bargaining agreements that require workers who choose not to join the union to pay “agency fees” to help cover contract negotiations and other union expenses.

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The case started with a complaint filed by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank in Olympia that accused the Washington Education Association of unlawfully spending worker fees on politics. In response to that complaint, the state sued the WEA in 2000.

While the decision won’t have much practical impact locally, Mike Reitz, director of labor policy for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, said, “We are still thrilled with the ruling because the court affirmed that no one has to be forced to pay for a union’s politics against their choice.”

The narrow issue before the justices was whether, as the law formerly prescribed, employees must consent to having some of their money used in election campaigns.

The justices unanimously ruled that a state could indeed require such consent.

The Washington law now says that when labor organizations make political-campaign contributions, they’re not considered to be using agency shop fees when their general treasury has enough money to cover the contributions from other revenue sources. In practice, that means public-sector unions do not have to get special permission to spend nonmembers’ union fees on politics.

It’s expected that the new state law will be challenged in court.

And Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling “clears the way” for a new initiative or the Legislature to pass a law requiring that unions get permission before spending the money.

In the meantime, McKenna plans to go back to the state Supreme Court and ask it to reinstate the fines against the WEA imposed by the lower court ruling.

“It’s important that people follow the laws at the time that they’re written,” he said.

Charles Hasse, president of the WEA, said his union did nothing wrong and never spent nonmembers’ fees on politics.

“We’re very confident at the end of the day that courts will find we acted in good faith and made every effort to comply with the law,” he said.

The case had been working its way through the courts for several years.

In 2001, a Thurston County judge sided with the state and the Freedom Foundation by ruling that the teachers union had committed multiple violations of the prohibition against using agency fee money for politics.

The union was slapped with nearly $600,000 in fines and legal fees.

But in a 6-3 ruling last year, the state Supreme Court struck down the state law’s provision that the union get permission from each nonmember. The court said it posed an unconstitutional burden on the union’s free-speech rights.

The state court said the union, by sending twice-yearly notices, had given nonmembers a “simple and convenient method of registering dissent.”

McKenna appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the union had no First Amendment right to use nonmembers’ fees for political purposes.

The case was later consolidated with a class-action suit against the union filed by five teachers who didn’t belong to the WEA.

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or Material from Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press was used in this story.