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Public Service Message Irritates Teachers' Union

By Benjamin DeGrow

Colorado teachers’ unions diligently take money from every member and spend it on politics. However, the unions are less diligent about letting their members know how that money is spent and how to get it back.

Leave it to the Independence Institute to tell teachers about their rights. Leave it to union officials to get angry about it.

Public school teachers in Colorado are free to join – or not join – any union or professional organization. Most of them are members of the Colorado Education Association (CEA). Some have joined the other union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-Colorado. The rest belong to one of several alternative organizations or to none at all.

The teachers’ unions distinguish themselves by their active involvement in partisan politics. Both CEA and AFT-Colorado take money from each member’s paycheck and give a portion of it to partisan political campaigns. Members who join don’t opt in or check a box on a form saying they want to participate. While many teachers who have joined are comfortable with their union contributing dollars to political causes, others prefer to spend their own money on politics as they see fit.

A teacher may have joined a union because they like the benefits of collective bargaining. She may have wanted to join only the local?which may not be active in partisan politics?but was also required to join the state and national organizations, which do give money to political parties and candidates.

Another teacher may have joined CEA or AFT-Colorado for the benefits of liability insurance, though alternative organizations offer comparable packages. She may not have been aware what sort of alternative organizations exist. Often, the local union that negotiates with the school district for salary, benefits and working conditions is the only organization actively recruiting members at new teacher orientations and other events.

Since their union does not need their authorization to give a portion of their membership fees to political candidates and committees, some teachers are glad to learn?or be reminded?they can get that amount back.

CEA deducts $24 a year from each member’s paycheck and puts it in an exclusive fund that contributes money to political parties, candidates and ballot initiatives. Some of its local associations deduct an additional $12 or $24 for the same purpose. The political deductions are not listed as separate line items on a teacher’s monthly paycheck.

According to reports filed with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, CEA and some of its local associations operate a total of 13 political and small donor committees that collect and spend these funds. A CEA member may request in writing a full refund of her respective political contributions from the state or local union office before the Dec. 15 deadline.

CEA does make some minimal efforts to disclose the political contribution and available refund. Some of the membership authorization forms used by its local associations reveal the transaction. CEA prints announcements on an inside page of two issues of its bi-monthly Journal. But one searching through the entire CEA Web site will find no mention of it.

The Independence Institute has researched and exposed CEA’s practice of taking a separate automatic deduction from member paychecks for political purposes, known as the Every Member Option (EMO). In the process, the Institute has heard from many members unaware a refund was available or even that the EMO existed.

That’s why the Institute recently sent e-mails to nearly 40,000 Colorado public school teachers in advance of the Dec. 15 deadline, informing them of the EMO and the available refund from CEA and some of its local associations.

The message also pointed out that all AFT-Colorado members give 25 cents a month to the state organization’s politics. Like their CEA counterparts, they are also eligible to get a refund. From January to November 2004, AFT-Colorado’s small donor committee gave 97% to Democrats and the rest to unaffiliated State Board of Education candidate Karen Teja (who ran against a Republican incumbent). No Republicans received contributions from its committee.

During the same period, the CEA’s and its local associations’ 13 committees reported sending 94% of their political contributions to the Democratic Party and its candidates. Republicans received 5.4%, and less than 1 percent went to Teja. The Institute included the information on teachers’ union political contributions within its message.

CEA officials circulated a letter among its members, in response to the Institute’s e-mail. While not disputing any of the facts presented, they insist our notice is not necessary. The letter says that CEA members are fully aware of the EMO and the available refund because the information is printed twice a year in their bi-monthly publication.

The union doth protest too much, methinks.

If all members knew what CEA has insisted they know, the Institute wouldn’t be seeing and hearing so many revelations. One teacher called the day she received the e-mail, saying she had been a union member for more than 20 years before recently quitting because of political disagreements. She had never even heard of the EMO refund before receiving the Institute’s message.

A letter from the offices of the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) – CEA’s largest local association – to its representatives has described the Institute’s message as a ‘mischaracterization” of their policy. The letter contends that “no dues money is used to support political candidates.” While the argument might make sense to bookkeepers recording union funds in separate accounts, it does not register with members whose union fees are lumped together on their pay stub.

JCEA’s letter assured its representatives that, of course, union officials tell all their members about the EMO deduction and available refund. Nevertheless, union members from Jefferson County have contacted us indicating they didn’t know their local association has been financing politics automatically through their paychecks. Not all of the local associations that take an additional EMO payroll deduction inform their members as well as they claim.

Here are some suggestions for union officials:

Make sure this information is disclosed not only in writing on authorization forms but also verbally at all meetings, as well as recruiting sessions. Send a letter (or an e-mail) to members detailing how their money was spent and reminding them about the upcoming refund deadline. Post a visible link on the main page of your Web site.

Until then, the Institute’s message remains a public service.

(c)2004, Independence Institute