Teachers' Union Learns Harsh Lesson On Mixing Dues With Politics
By Jackie Koszczuk, CQ Staff Writer
If organized labor and its Democratic allies seem particularly sensitive to the aggressive GOP attempt to restrict the use of union dues for political activities, they have reason to be.
One union's experience with a similar law in Washington state foreshadows immense obstacles ahead for unions if the federal provision and 10 more like it pending in statehouses around the country take effect.
The House, which rejected a related proposal in March, is expected to debate it again when it takes up campaign finance beginning the week of May 18.
The Washington restriction, which grew out of a 1992 ballot initiative, required unions to obtain annual written authorizations from members to continue payroll deductions for their political action committees.
The statewide teachers' union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), an affiliate of the National Education Association, had been taking voluntary payroll deductions from its members to support PULSE, its political action committee (PAC).
After the restriction went into effect, enrollment in the PAC plunged from 49,000 to 11,000 in just a year. Its annual receipts fell from roughly $588,000 to $132,000.
Faced with the need to finance battles with conservative groups over two major statewide initiatives, the WEA set up a separate account to subsidize its diminished PAC. But a conservative foundation filed a complaint accusing the union of circumventing the law.
The union set up a separate organization called the Community Outreach Program and began assessing members an additional $12 annually to pay for "political education."
The union used the Community Outreach Program to pay PULSE's overhead, including administrative expenses, fundraising, bookkeeping, meeting costs, printing, audits and supplies. It poured a total of $319,000 into the PAC unlawfully, according to a lawsuit brought by the state attorney general. The spending included money to help finance opposition to two ballot initiatives in 1996 -- one to establish publicly financed vouchers to pay for private school tuition and another to create charter schools, which are publicly financed but more autonomous than schools run by a central administration.
"We were looking for a way to do the things that had been done by the PAC before," said Teresa Moore, spokesman for the union. "We felt we were well within the law."
'Example of What Can Happen'
After state Attorney General Christine Gregoire held that the union had violated the law, the WEA publicly apologized even as it insisted it had not intentionally broken the law -- only that it had failed to "fully understand the campaign finance reporting law and to make sure we filed every report correctly."
The WEA settled with the attorney general in February of this year. It was forced to pay out $430,000 -- in effect, the largest fine in state history for campaign-finance violations. The union had to reimburse teachers and other school employees $319,000, and it was required to pay $100,000 in penalties and attorneys' fees.
"We think it says a lot about what the consequences would be," said Peggy Taylor, legislative director for the AFL-CIO, which has raised $13 million for a state-by-state battle against union dues initiatives, beginning with a major test in California on June 2. "We use it as an example of what can happen if you have to go through this kind of process," Taylor said.
Moore said the Washington state law and others like it constitute "a direct attack on the ability of working people to have a voice, and do nothing to place similar limitations on the rich and powerful."
But Bob Williams, president of the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a privately funded, tax-exempt group that brought the complaint against the WEA, said the union is doing better than it lets on.
In its settlement with the state, Williams complained, the teachers union managed to win a provision that paved the way for it to use union dues for political activities as long as the money does not go through its PAC. The attorney general agreed with the union that dues could be used without annual written permission from members as long as the union's mission was not primarily political.
Williams said that ruling undermined the whole purpose of the law. "That says if you're dumb enough to set up a PAC, you're in trouble. But if you launder union members' money through the general fund, you can use it for politics," Williams said.
Although other unions are sympathetic to the WEA's plight, they do not universally agree with its response to the nation's first "paycheck protection" law. Some organizers say the WEA should have tried to get reauthorizations from members, no matter how onerous and costly the task.
After Michigan passed a law requiring annual re-registration of PAC participants, the Teamsters undertook a time-consuming and costly campaign to re-sign every PAC contributor in that state. It succeeded and managed to add 4,000 participants, said Bob Nicklas, acting legislative director for the Teamsters.
But, Nicklas said, "it just puts an incredible burden on the resources of any union. We spent two months rotating people in and out of Michigan. We went to every work site. Thousands of people had to be contacted. It's like saying to a company, 'All of your sales contracts are null and void at the end of the year.' "
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.