Free the Teachers

Marsha Richards, Lynn Harsh, Steven Miller

In 1996 a group of concerned teachers visited NPRI’s sister think tank in Washington state, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF), and asked for help protecting their paychecks and their free speech rights.

They wanted the National Education Association and its affiliates to stop taking money from their paychecks, which violated state and federal law, to promote controversial political causes that had nothing to do with education.

Four years before, Washington voters had adopted a campaign finance law that, among other things, protected the paychecks of union members from being raided by union bosses looking for political funds. The law made it clear that political donations had to be given willingly by employees, and that money taken for collective bargaining purposes could not be used for politics. The teachers who came to EFF’s office wanted this protection and felt they weren’t getting it.

EFF analysts, looking into the teachers’ claims, discovered they were right. Union officials in Washington state had responded to the 1992 paycheck protection law by creating a badly disguised “political education” fund, where they continued to deposit mandatory “contributions” from teachers’ paychecks identical in amount to previous political action committee assessments.

Understandably, many teachers were upset.

EFF filed a complaint with the Washington state attorney general, which resulted in a lawsuit against the NEA’s state affiliate. Losing in court, the union was fined $100,000 and required to return $330,000 to teachers. Instead of mending their ways, however, WEA officials continued illegally using teachers’ money for politics. Another lawsuit filed by the state attorney general (a Democrat who had received campaign contributions from the union) resulted in a $400,000 fine and an order to return nearly $200,000 to teachers. The union appealed, and the case is presently before the state Supreme Court.

Why does the teacher union openly thumb its nose at state and federal laws? Because, usually, it can. Going to court is just a cost of doing business for the union, which collects tens of millions of dollars a year in states like Nevada, where politicians have given the union brass exclusive monopolies on workplace bargaining—whether individual teachers want union representation or not. Thus few people dare challenge the union bosses because it costs more money than most individuals will have in their lifetimes.

Also, the NEA is expert at breaking its opponents’ spirits, reputations and bank accounts through abusive SLAP suits—such as two teachers, Cindy Omlin and Barb Amidon, who were sued personally by the NEA’s Washington state affiliate (WEA). What had they done? They published a homemade newsletter informing colleagues of the union’s illegal activity. Before the union finally dropped its bogus charges, Cindy and Barb worked under the dark shadow of the lawsuit for a year and a half.

Why is the union so abusive of dissenting teachers? Because it knows from experience that, given a choice, teachers will not voluntarily support the union’s hard-Left political causes. In Washington state, 91 percent of teachers refused to voluntarily give even one dollar to their union’s political agenda. Clearly, most teachers want to control their own political choices.

Unfortunately for those teachers, however, so-called “political assessments” are only part of the funds that the NEA diverts into radical politics.

In Washington state, because of a lawsuit by EFF, analysts representing independent teachers managed to get a rare glimpse inside the giant union’s financial records. Afterward, the analysts estimated that 75 percent of all money collected by the union is being spent on politics.

The NEA itself officially admits that 38 percent of its expenditures are not related to traditional union activities like collective bargaining, contract negotiation and grievances. But four years ago NEA General Counsel Robert Chanin told Congress that all the union’s activity was political: “So you tell me how I can possibly separate NEA’s collective bargaining from politics—you just can’t…. It’s all politics.”

Testimony by one of the union’s representatives at a 2001 hearing suggests that returning 100 percent of NEA’s national fees would be about right: “As a national labor organization with various state and local affiliates,” he said, “NEA does not directly service its members for the most part, but works though its affiliates in order to provide those services.”

But teachers already pay significant dues and fees to the union’s local, regional and state affiliates to cover the cost of services provided at those levels.

Clearly, if the NEA does not provide workplace services, all teachers are getting for their national union dues is: Politics.

Marsha Richards and Lynn Harsh are the principle authors of a new Evergreen Freedom Foundation report on how the NEA blocks students and teachers from achieving academic and professional excellence: See Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.