Acton Commentary

NEA Above the Law?


Do teachers around the nation know where their union dues are going? Most often they do not. While membership in the National Education Association (NEA), and its affiliates, is voluntary, most teachers find themselves in the difficult position of either joining the union, or of being a “holdout”. Most teachers, when faced with that option, and the increasing potential for lawsuits alleging professional or personal misconduct, have little choice but to surrender a significant portion of their paycheck to the union.

The situation for the teacher, as it currently stands, puts teachers, especially teachers who are religious believers in an awkward situation. On one hand, they can pay their dues and simply partake of the more helpful services the NEA and its member organizations offer. Services such as the NEA legal representation give educators some assurance in an increasingly litigious society. On the other, the teacher who is a religious believer is stuck with the realization that their union dues support a political edifice that supports abortion, homosexual rights, and opposes solid reforms in education that many educators desire. The NEA actively blocks proposals for such reforms as merit pay for teachers, the expansion of charter schools, and educational choice initiatives, such as vouchers and tax credits. Given current labor laws, the conscientious teacher finds himself gored on the horns of a serious dilemma.

As upsetting as the political agenda of the NEA can be and often is to many in its ranks, it is shocking to see in a series of recent cases how the NEA knowingly and publicly subverts the rule of law. On July 1, a superior court judge in Thurston County, Washington, issued a ruling fining the NEA $800,000 plus court fees for “intentional” violations of a state law that prevents the use of agency fees (monies paid by former union members who leave the union) for political efforts, without the express consent of each individual fee-payer. This ruling came as a result of a challenge filed in the superior court by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EEF), a public policy research organization, located in Olympia, Washington. The EFF brought the suit after members of Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission “found the union guilty of violating state law, but expressed reluctance to prosecute”, according to a July 1, 2002 press release issued by EFF.

The truly appalling aspect of this case was the NEA’s blatant and public disregard for state law. After being served with official notice of the suit on April 23, the NEA was given 60 days to respond to the suit. Those 60 days came and went with no response from the union, and the superior court issued a default ruling effectively finding in favor of the EFF. The NEA denies that the complaint was served on April 23, stating instead that it was served on May 3. However, Thurston County Superior Court records show that the complaint was, indeed, served on April 23.

One interesting dimension to this recent episode in Thurston County, Washington is that this is not the first time that the union has been found to be in violation of Washington state law. In 2001, the NEA was fined more than $770,000 for violating the same state law. Nonetheless, the NEA continues to operate with impunity, claiming that the ruling this year was the result of false documentation provided to the court by the EFF.

The fact that the NEA seems to have little concern for state laws is merely symptomatic of greater problems with the union. Having positioned itself as a veritable kingmaker within the Democratic Party, the NEA proceeds to flout state and local laws at its leisure. The reluctance of the Public Disclosure Commission to prosecute the union in Washington is also telling. With 2.7 million members nation-wide, the NEA is the largest labor union in America. The fact that the NEA operates with a budget of $267 million dollars makes it a formidable opponent indeed.

The injustice committed by the NEA’s leadership against rank and file members is appalling. Teachers throughout the nation pay upwards of $100 to belong to the NEA, a union they believe exists to protect their rights. In reality, it seems, the union exists to play party politics, without disclosing, and at times, actively obscuring, the amount of money spent on these activities to union members.

Those who withdrew from membership in the NEA and its affiliate, the Washington Education Association (WEA), are forced to pay agency fees in order to cover the cost of collective bargaining. Those paying agency fees have discovered that the union has been using their agency fees for political activity they find objectionable. Many of these people withdrew from the union in the first place in order to avoid actively supporting an agenda with which they had strong disagreements. Now, they find that their agency fees have been going to support the very causes and issues that they left the union to protest. Sadly, the average educator is left with little recourse, save the courts.

Under the ruling, vacated on July 12 by the same superior court judge who issued it, the WEA would have been prohibited from collecting agency fees from up to 4,000 teachers in Washington State. These teachers pay $126 per year to belong to the union, with a yearly loss to the union of nearly $600,000. As this case proceeds to trial, the union may be faced with even more harsh consequences.

While some may question this as a loss of funds to the other teachers who belong to the union, the logical conclusion must be that which Marsha Richards, an EFF spokesperson, indicated in a statement: “If you’re not going to prove to teachers that you’re not spending their money on politics, the only fair remedy is not to take the money from them.”