Decisions by a federal court and the Colorado Secretary of State on consecutive days spelled a preliminary dual victory for individual teachers and a setback for unaccountable union bosses.
Together, the two decisions have the potential to empower union members with important information and greater autonomy.
On August 2, after a series of public hearings, Colorado Secretary of State Gigi Dennis released new rules to clarify the state’s campaign finance law. Membership organizations now have to obtain members’ written permission before transferring any part of their dues into a committee that funds political candidates.
Dozens of labor unions, professional trade associations, and other groups operate political or small donor committees to increase their ability to make political contributions. Some, like the Realtors association, ask members to check a separate box on the application form to authorize their money to be used for campaigns.
The teachers unions, on the other hand, have a different policy. Officials of the Colorado Education Association (CEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) assume members’ support of their political agenda by automatically deducting political dollars along with dues. Once a year a member can get a refund of the political portion. CEA members must ask before a December 15 deadline.
Many members simply do not know how their money is used or that a refund is available, and other busy teachers get wrapped up in work and forget about the deadline.
It’s no wonder then that CEA and AFT officials were upset enough to file a legal complaint against the Secretary of State in hopes of changing the rule. Officials said that asking a member’s permission to use his money on political campaigns will cause them to “suffer immediate and irreparable harm.”
Teachers union bosses have seen what happens when their members get a taste of empowerment. After the Independence Institute informed CEA members of the political refund, more than five times as many teachers asked for their money back.
If union membership is united behind the political agenda, getting written authorization should be nothing more than a basic formality. So should opening the books on general revenues and expenditures for members to see.
On August 1 the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals paved the way toward greater financial transparency from labor organizations. The court removed the injunction stopping a rule that would require all state union offices to provide detailed disclosures of financial transactions.
In 2005 the U.S. Department of Labor won the right to stricter enforcement of financial disclosures from the National Education Association (NEA) and many other large unions. Financial disclosures, including staff employee salaries, were reported on a government Web site for members to see.
Most NEA state affiliates—including CEA—were exempt from the initial disclosure requirement because they claim no private sector members. All CEA members are paid by taxpayer funds.
When Labor Secretary Elaine Chao sought to extend the enforcement of the disclosure rules to any group “that is subordinate to a national or international labor organization,” regardless of private-sector membership, union bosses fought back. They sued and won a ruling to enjoin Chao’s action. But the Court of Appeals overturned the judgment and gave the Labor Secretary the opportunity to provide “a reasoned explanation” for changing the rule.
The need for greater transparency in public employee unions is a strong basis for the federal rule change. The NEA disclosed sending millions of dollars to various state affiliates in 2004-2005. Members cannot see how that money ultimately was spent.
Colorado’s teachers deserve to know how their dues money is used not only because of their stake in their organization but also because they have a choice of membership.
Though state law does not require Colorado teachers to join or pay fees to a union, a majority of them belong to NEA and some to AFT. Educators join for different reasons, including the desire for liability insurance or support for collective bargaining. Many teachers, however, do not support the unions’ liberal political agenda.
Full disclosure to a government agency could arm teachers with important information, while the authority to decide whether their money is spent on political campaigns empowers their individual voices. Let’s not shortchange the ability of Colorado’s classroom instructors to judge their professional associations and political responsibilities for themselves.