updated 9/26/2006 2:25:45 PM ET 2006-09-26T18:25:45

The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide whether public employee unions must get special permission before spending some workers' dues on political causes.

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Justices accepted an appeal from the state of Washington that involves fees paid to the Washington Education Association by teachers who decline to join the union.

Those workers still can be charged dues by the union to help pay for labor negotiations that affect them. But they can't be forced to pay for the union's political activism, under a string of Supreme Court rulings that reach back nearly 30 years.

At issue is whether the union needs teachers to say "yes" before the fees can be used for political causes or whether teachers must specifically object to having a portion of their fees spent for that purpose.

Union rights vs. individual rights
The court will hear arguments in the case, as well as a related lawsuit by five teachers to recover their fees, early next year.

Washington voters in 1992 adopted a campaign finance law that requires unions to get the consent of each worker before spending fees on political activity. The law also required the unions to refund the fee to teachers who did not agree with the political activity the union was proposing.

The Washington Supreme Court overturned the requirement that union officials get worker consent, saying the union's annual offer to reduce fees for any nonmember who registers an objection to the political spending is sufficient.

The state court said that forcing the union to seek permission from each worker violated the union's free speech rights.

The three dissenters on the state Supreme Court, however, said the ruling "turned the First Amendment on its head," by valuing the rights of the union above those of individuals.

Only such law in the nation
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said the decision conflicted with prior court cases upholding similar laws.

The union is the state's largest teachers union, representing teachers and other employees of public schools and colleges. Fewer than 5 percent of the 80,000 people the union represents choose not to be members, the union said.

Arguing against the appeal, the Washington union said the state law is the only one in the nation that restricts otherwise lawful union spending.

The amount of money at issue is relatively small, about $10 a person, said Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, which is representing the teachers who sued the union.

But if allowed to stand, the Washington high court ruling could open the door to union efforts elsewhere to roll back limits on the use of union dues, Gleason said.

The case stemmed from a complaint filed by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Olympia, Wash. The foundation has fought for years with the union over the collection of fees from workers who choose not to join.

The cases are Gary Davenport v. Washington Education Association, 05-1589, and Washington v. Washington Education Association, 05-1657.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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