Union Hid Political Spending, Suit Charges

Published July 1, 2002

The 2.7 million members of the National Education Association (NEA) apparently get a terrific bargain for their membership dues: Political clout at no expense.

In promoting itself to current and prospective members, the teacher union not only touts itself as “education’s most powerful voice” in the nation’s capital, but it also fields a small army of 1,800 local political operatives, called UniServe directors, who coordinate lobbying efforts, help screen candidates for public office, and organize local political activities.

But according to official documents filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, the NEA reported spending nothing on political expenditures since 1994.

Required by Law to “Tell the Truth”

Puzzled by the paradox of cost-free political activity, the Landmark Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm with offices in Herndon, Virginia and Kansas City, Missouri, undertook an analysis of reports the NEA filed with the U.S. Department of Labor since 1994, together with thousands of pages of internal union documents.

After completing its analysis, Landmark filed an unprecedented complaint with the Labor Department on April 22, charging the NEA with concealing since at least 1994 its use of millions of dollars of tax-exempt teachers’ dues and fees for political activities. Landmark’s complaint also details the teacher union’s failure to document its direct participation during that period in a nationwide coordinated campaign with Democratic Party campaign organizations, the AFL-CIO, and Emily’s List.

“The NEA obviously doesn’t want America’s teachers, parents, and taxpayers to know how it is using tax-exempt membership dues and fees,” explained Landmark President Mark R. Levin. “But federal labor reporting laws require the union to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about its political activities and expenditures.”

While it is perfectly legitimate for an organization like the NEA to pursue a political agenda, the federal Labor and Management Reporting Act (LMRDA) requires labor unions to report their revenues and expenditures in sufficient detail to accurately reflect the union’s operations. This is done through the filing of an annual report with the Department of Labor on form LM-2. Violation of the LMRDA may subject a union and its leaders to substantial civil and criminal penalties.

Internal union documents show the expenditure of millions of dollars in tax-exempt revenue to recruit and support candidates for local, state, and federal elective office. However, Landmark found none of these expenditures are specifically reported in the union’s annual LM-2 filing, thereby making it impossible for NEA members to determine the full extent of the union’s political activities.

“The LMRDA was enacted to ensure that union members could make informed, responsible decisions about their union’s leadership and its activities,” explained Levin. “The NEA’s leadership spends millions of tax-exempt dollars on political activities every year, in coordination with the Democratic National Committee, yet reports none of it on its Labor Department filings.”

Bragging, But Not Reporting

Senior NEA officials make no bones about the union’s specific political agenda, its extensive political activities, the effectiveness of these activities, and their cost. For example, NEA General Counsel Robert Chanin told other NEA officials last year it had cost the Association $20 million to defeat the voucher initiative on the 2000 California ballot.

The NEA and its affiliates, he said, “have been singled out because of our political power and effectiveness at all levels—because we have the ability to help implement the type of liberal social and economic agenda that [some other] groups find unacceptable.”

Despite this clear involvement in extensive political activities, Landmark points out NEA members cannot make a reasonable determination from the LM-2s for any year since at least 1994 that the union has allocated any resources for political purposes. Such a failure to disclose political expenditures justifies an immediate investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, according to the Landmark complaint.

NEA spokesperson Kathleen Lyons saw “no basis for any complaint,” according to an Associated Press report.

“We filled out the forms properly as we do every year,” she said. “We acted in good faith. We followed all laws and reporting requirements.”

An example of what the NEA reported is $50-$60 million every year for “Grants and Joint Projects with State and Local Affiliates,” totaling over $330 million for the period from 1994 to 2000. None of this was reported as political activity expenditures. Landmark points to “overwhelming evidence” the NEA makes substantial contributions, gifts, and grants to political organizations, political campaigns, and candidates for public office at the local, state, and federal level.

Another example involves the more than $40 million NEA spent to support its 1,800 UniServ directors every year from 1994 to 2000. NEA did not report that spending as political activity expenditures. Yet among the UniServ staff’s responsibilities are “developing and/or executing local association political action,” according to the NEA. Guidelines for the NEA Michigan UniServ include “Lobbying at the state Legislature and the national Congress,” and “Organization of political efforts to achieve local legislative goals, e.g., millage campaigns, school board elections, political party primaries, etc.”

“I estimate that at least one-third of UniServ time is devoted to political action,” writes teacher union authority Myron Lieberman in his book, The Teacher Unions (Simon & Schuster, 1997). “This means that the UniServ program employs the equivalent of 600 full-time political professionals. … Regardless of the precise numbers, the NEA and its affiliates employ more political operatives on a full-time basis than the Republican and Democratic parties combined.”

Similar Complaints Filed with IRS, FEC

Landmark’s complaint to the Labor Department follows earlier complaints filed in 2000 and 2001 with the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission charging NEA’s unreported political expenditures and activities violate federal tax and election laws. (see “Teacher Union Denies Political Activities to IRS,” School Reform News, September 2000; and “Union Called Shots on Democrats’ Agenda,” School Reform News, September 2001.)