WA Teacher Union Found Guilty

Published October 1, 2001

The Washington Education Association intentionally broke the law in spending non-member dues for political purposes, but the state watchdog agency in charge of enforcing the law didn’t act until “spurred to do so by citizen complaints” from the Olympia-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

That was the July 31 ruling of Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary R. Tabor, who presided over the trial of the teacher union on charges of misusing mandatory teacher dues and fees for political purposes over a five-year period.

The court found the WEA guilty of violating a state law that bars the union from spending agency fees–paid by non-members–on political activities without first getting specific affirmative authorization from the non-members to do so. The guilty verdict for five years of violations was not surprising, as the union had already agreed in a pre-trial stipulation that it had “committed multiple violations” of the law during 1999-2000.

The verdict makes the teacher union a repeat offender of the same law. In 1997, State Attorney General Christine Gregoire filed a $1.2 million suit charging the WEA illegally collected dues and failed to report using the money to help defeat two 1996 school reform initiatives. (See “Washington Teachers’ Union Faces Lawsuit,” School Reform News, April 1997.) The WEA settled that lawsuit–also triggered by EFF investigations of campaign spending violations–for $430,000.

As punishment for the union’s most recent offense, Tabor assessed a $200,000 civil penalty against the union, noting “a penalty amount is appropriate to preserve the integrity of our system and promote public confidence; those violating statutes will be held to answer.” He then doubled the $200,000 to $400,000 as a punitive sanction because he found the union did not accidentally violate the law but “‘intentionally’ chose not to comply with the clear language of the statute.”

The court also ordered WEA to pay for the costs of the investigation, the trial, and attorneys’ fees. The combined penalties, sanctions, and reimbursements ordered by the court will likely total more than $500,000, the largest fine ever levied against the WEA.

“WEA officials are used to breaking the law and having their way with teachers’ paychecks because they think no one is big enough to stop them,” said Lynn Harsh, executive director of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF), which initiated the action. “Judge Tabor just sent those union officials an expensive reminder that they are not above the law.”

Sinful, Tyrannical . . . Illegal

While Thomas Jefferson regarded it as “sinful and tyrannical” to “compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves,” the citizens of the Evergreen State added “illegal” to the third President’s words of opprobrium in a 1992 initiative, at least with regard to agency shop fees.

Agency fee payers are teachers who opt out of union membership, often for political or religious reasons, but who still are required to pay regular member dues, less the portion spent on politics and other non-traditional union functions.

“A labor organization may not use agency shop fees paid by an individual who is not a member of the organization to make contributions or expenditures to influence an election or to operate a political committee, unless affirmatively authorized by the individual,” according to Washington state law, section RCW 42.17.760.

But laws aren’t much help if they aren’t actively enforced, which in this case was the responsibility of the State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). While Tabor found the WEA had ignored the “obvious requirement” of the law because it did not want to go through the “laborious process” of securing affirmative authorizations, he also painted a picture of a watchdog agency dozing at its post.

“The PDC clearly did not move decisively to enforce this statute . . .” declared the judge. In fact, he added, “The PDC acted only when spurred by citizen complaints.”

Still, the court was unimpressed by the WEA’s attempt to use the PDC’s lack of enforcement as an excuse for its own illegal actions. The WEA argued that if the PDC had told them what was expected, they would have “immediately complied.” Tabor reminded the WEA that “a violation of statute is still a violation.”

“[A] person speeding down a roadway does not have the right to speed just because a police officer does not make a traffic stop when the opportunity arises,” the judge opined tartly.

The spur that prompted the PDC to act was provided by EFF in June of 2000, when the not-for-profit organization filed a 45-day notice with the state Attorney General on behalf of affected teachers, alleging the WEA had used teachers’ dues money from agency fee payers for politics, a clear violation of state law. After an initial investigation by the PDC, the case was referred back to the Attorney General and the trial was held in May 2001.

“The citizens of this state should be very pleased with the thorough investigation conducted by our attorney general’s office and their excellent arguments in court,” Harsh said.

The teacher union’s position was that agency fees were placed into the general fund and then spent each year as the union deemed appropriate, arguing that even if the agency fees had been separated, they would still come back into the general fund as “surplus” funds at the end of the year. Tabor found this reasoning “erroneous,” noting that the distinction between collecting and spending was lost when funds were commingled in the general fund. Also, the issue was not whether agency fees change their character after a year, but that the union was collecting them from non-members “without first gaining their affirmative authorization to do so.”

After the verdict was announced, the teacher union issued a news release saying it never intentionally used the agency fees for political purposes. The editorial board of The Columbian scoffed at this excuse.

“[T]hat is akin to telling someone you didn’t mean to get pregnant even though you weren’t using any form of birth control,” wrote Elizabeth Hovde for the editorial board. “The WEA obviously did not care enough about dissenting educators’ rights to ensure that their money was not misspent or misallocated.”

Tabor gave the WEA 90 days to present him with a procedure assuring that union officials will comply with the law in the future. Since the state did not seek this as a remedy, the ruling does not order reimbursement for those teachers whose money was wrongfully used by the WEA instead of being reimbursed to them. However, a separate class action suit has been filed on behalf of more than 4,000 affected teachers.

EFF is a public policy research organization, founded in 1991 with the mission of advancing individual liberty, free enterprise, and responsible government. The 341 individuals and businesses who supported EFF in its first year of operation now has grown to over 2,500 individuals, businesses, associations, private foundations, and trusts.

For more information . . .

Further information on the Evergreen Freedom Foundation and its work is available from the organization’s Web site at www.effwa.org, where a copy of Judge Gary Tabor’s July 31 ruling also may be found.