On June 24, a group of ten teachers filed suit against the Washington Education Association for taking money from their paychecks without permission and using the funds to pay for the union’s political lobbying activities. The plaintiffs, calling themselves Teachers for a Responsible Union, are seeking to recover any unapproved paycheck deductions used for the union’s political activities. State campaign finance laws require a teacher’s written consent every year before an employer can make such deductions for the union.
This latest action against the union follows a $1.2 million suit filed in February by State Attorney General Christine Gregoire, charging the WEA with “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in campaign finance violations. (See “Washington Teachers’ Union Faces Lawsuit,” School Reform News, April 1997.) The current suit is sponsored by the Olympia-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation, whose discovery of $4.2 million in WEA campaign spending violations triggered Gregoire’s action.
Although the WEA has called the latest lawsuit a political attack, labeling some of the teachers “disgruntled dinosaurs,” the union itself has not hesitated to attack teachers who have questioned its funding of political activities. Elementary school teacher Jeff Leer recounted his experiences in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
“I got involved in 1995, when I learned that the WEA had given and then forgiven a $162,000 ‘loan’ to its political action committee,” says Leer. When asked for an explanation, the union went on the attack, calling a meeting at Leer’s school to denounce the “misinformation” that “someone” was spreading.
After Gregoire’s suit was filed against the WEA, Leer urged his employer to stop deducting money from teachers’ paychecks for the Community Outreach Program (COP) without their consent. According to a sworn statement from WEA lobbyist Robert Maier, COP was simply “an internal ploy to raise more WEA-PAC money.” Leer’s employer agreed to stop the deductions–until the union threatened legal action.
The WEA also threatened to sue Leer if his employer stopped deducting the dues. Although most teachers agreed that the deductions required their consent, they also feared retaliation if they spoke up. Thus protected by threats, the disputed deductions continued, totaling almost $60,000 a month statewide.
“I don’t want to be an activist,” says Leer, admitting that he was scared by the threats. “I want to be a teacher.”
But after Leer got scared, he got angry, refusing to yield his paycheck to WEA officials to be “pillaged at will.” Now, with Teachers for a Responsible Union, he is fighting back and suing the union. Giving up the struggle is no longer an option.
“The very principles of liberty and free speech that drove our Founders are at stake,” he declares. “What kind of teacher and father would I be if I gave it up now?”
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].