OLYMPIA – Washington’s teachers union has agreed to pay nearly $1 million to settle state allegations that it improperly spent nonmembers’ money on politics.
The settlement includes up to $240,000 in small refunds to thousands of teachers.
“After eight years, it was time to settle this case so members could focus on what they do best: educating students,” said Eddie Westerman, interim communications manager for the 80,000-strong Washington Education Association.
The union, which has maintained for years that it does not spend nonmembers’ money on politics, did not acknowledge any wrongdoing. And state lawmakers last year amended the law to make it easier for the union to comply.
“It was an unclear law, and now it’s been cleared up, which we’re thrilled by,” Westerman said.
State law requires most teachers to pay dues or fees to the union. The payments from those who don’t want to join the union are considered “agency fees” to cover the price of collective bargaining and other WEA services. If they request it, they can get a refund of the percentage of the money that the union would otherwise have spent on politics.
“The union says basically that by not asking for a refund, they’ve authorized it,” said Mike Reitz, general counsel for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, which frequently clashes with the WEA.
In 2000, Washington sued the union, saying it was wrongly using nonmembers’ agency fees to pay for political activities. In such cases, the law required “affirmative authorization” from those people first.
The WEA challenged that law, saying it was unconstitutional. A state appeals court and the state Supreme Court agreed. Then, last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law was valid.
Despite the fact that the WEA didn’t admit guilt, Reitz said, “I think that a Supreme Court ruling and a million-dollar settlement says a lot about who was at fault.”
In a statement, the WEA acknowledged that the settlement is a lot to pay, “but continuing this case in the courts would cost a lot, too.” And members, it said, clearly have a legal right to be involved in political issues that affect public schools.
Under the settlement, Westerman said, the payments will amount to $15 a year for agency-fee payers from 2003 to 2007. The union also will pay $735,000 to the state.
The settlement does not affect a related case, Davenport v. WEA, brought by nonmember teachers suing the union over alleged political spending.
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