Although state law in Washington specifically prohibits the spending of mandatory union dues for political purposes, a recent Superior Court ruling in that state has given the go-ahead for the Washington Education Association and other public-sector unions to spend their members’ dues on political causes and candidates.
The court also, however, denied the union’s claim that it is not a political action committee, thus opening the union’s political activities to greater scrutiny.
The court’s ruling effectively ends full enforcement of the state’s pioneering paycheck protection law, which was approved by nearly three out of four voters in 1992 as a campaign reform initiative. The law required businesses and labor unions to obtain written consent from individual employees each year before any money could be deducted from their paychecks for use in political activities.
After investigating teacher complaints and numerous false filings by the WEA, the Olympia-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a public policy and research group, filed lawsuits regarding campaign finance violations by the WEA.
Earlier this year, as part of a settlement with Washington State Attorney General Christine Gregoire, the WEA admitted to violating campaign finance laws. However, the settlement also included a surprise finding by the state that the teacher union’s use of general treasury dues for political activities was, in fact, legal, despite evidence that the paycheck protection law was intended to cover both contributions to political action committees and general dues payments. In its July 2 ruling, the Thurston County Superior Court affirmed the finding of the state’s attorney general.
“This fall, union members will not have the right to choose whether or not to contribute to the union’s politics,” said Lynn Harsh, EFF executive director. “What this means is that teachers and all other union members will be forced to support candidates and issues through their required dues,” she added.
The court did not hand a complete victory to the union. The WEA’s claim that it is not a political action committee was denied, opening the door for EFF to explore in greater depth the union’s involvement in politics and also to move forward with its lawsuit regarding the WEA’s use of general dues for political purposes.
“This is a notable victory,” said EFF president Bob Williams. “We believe that WEA is not just a teachers’ union, but a highly political organization which should disclose its campaign expenditures to the public.”
The court’s ruling on dues could not have come at a better time for the WEA: The number of voluntary contributors to the union’s PAC has fallen off dramatically during the past year. More than 85 percent of public school teachers in the state have declined to contribute to the union’s political action committee, according to the union’s own newsletter, Action.
For example, in the heavily pro-union Seattle School District alone, 96 percent of teachers have chosen not to contribute to the PAC. The court’s ruling, in effect, allows the WEA to protect and maintain its political clout by augmenting its depleted PAC fund with teachers’ mandatory general dues monies.
Christian Trambley is deputy director of communications for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.