The state teachers union will reimburse partial dues to 121 teachers who objected to paying for what one teacher described as “liberal social and political agendas that have nothing to do with education.”
To avoid the cost of a threatened lawsuit, the Washington Education Association agreed to reimburse each teacher about $200 to $300 this school year. Dues for next school year will be cut in half.
The out-of-court settlement does not apply to teachers who did not join the challenge.
The settlement will not curtail the union’s political activities, said state President C.T. Purdom.
“When decisions about members’ salaries, benefits and working conditions all are made in a political environment, it would be foolish for an organization representing 63,000 members not to take some stands on some issues,” Purdom said.
The teachers objected to the union’s stand on a variety of political candidates and causes, including opposition to a California school choice initiative.
“I’m disappointed that the NEA masquerades as a friend of education but it primarily promotes liberal social and political agendas that have nothing to do with education,” said Steve Cowdrey, a Clarkston social studies teacher.
In Washington, teachers’ annual dues range from $400 to $600 depending on local fees. For example, Spokane teachers pay $520 a year, with about 68 percent going to the state and national associations.
The union contends dues are not used for political contributions. Teachers already have the right to quit the union and have their compulsory dues reduced significantly.
That right is not generally known, according to teachers who joined the challenge.
“Teachers are told when they hire on that they have to belong to the union and that is false,” said Cindy Omlin, a speech-language pathologist for Spokane School District 81 who helped organize the challenge.
Omlin is secretary of the Spokane County Republican Party and formerly represented an anti-abortion rights group on the school district’s sex education advisory committee.
For many teachers, the money was not as important as the chance to make a statement about political stands of the state and national teachers union, said Spokane attorney Greg Casey, who represented the teachers along with Seattle attorney Steve O’Ban.
“They took a very courageous step and I foresee more of this unless the WEA and the NEA (National Education Association) become more responsive to the people they represent,” Casey said.
The national association has taken stands on controversial issues including abortion, Casey said.
The attorneys received assistance from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation in Springfield, Va., a group helping employees who believe their rights are violated by compulsory union membership.
Union attorney Kathy O’Toole said political contributions do not come from union dues, but from voluntary contributions made to the association’s political action arm.
“People get inflamed because they hear WEA has endorsed, say, Mike Lowry for governor and they interpret that to mean WEA dues make contributions to that person’s candidacy. That’s not what happens,” O’Toole said.
Teachers who object to other issues-oriented spending - such as public opinion advertising on subjects like overcrowded classrooms - have the right to quit the union and request a reduction of their fees, O’Toole said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that under an “agency shop agreement,” unions can require employees to contribute to the costs of collective bargaining, but not to political or ideological spending.
The Washington Education Association typically knocks off 20 percent of local, state and council fees and about 35 percent of national fees to non-union employees who object to the union’s political and ideological spending.
“That’s automatic. That’s without a hearing. All they need to do is write a letter to WEA requesting it,” O’Toole said.
The 121 teachers believed the reduction was too low and threatened to sue in federal court.
“We believe a lot of man hours or woman hours or people hours were put into things at union expense that were never projected in their calculations,” Casey said.
The 121 teachers live on both sides of the state. Omlin and Olympia School District counselor Barb Amidon headed the effort to round up teachers who wanted to join the possible lawsuit.
Their phone numbers were printed in an article in Christian News, a Spokane newspaper, last June. In the article, Omlin encouraged teachers to “act immediately” if they wanted to join the possible suit.
The state association recently changed the way it makes political endorsements.
Before 1992, endorsements were made by the political action committee board. Now the association holds a statewide convention where delegates vote on state endorsements. Since last year, local units make local political endorsements, or choose not to make local endorsements at all.
“We wanted the process to be more representative of what individual members wanted to pursue,” Purdom said.