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Send CEA Back to School

By Benjamin DeGrow

Colorado’s largest teachers union has bitten the hand that feeds its members.

Rather than preparing to welcome kids back to the classroom, Colorado Education Association (CEA) officials have been busy boycotting a store where students can restock for the upcoming school year. In so doing, they also have encouraged members to undercut their own pension plans.

CEA leaders have joined a national campaign called “Send Wal-Mart Back to School,” urging parents and teachers not to patronize the nation’s largest retail chain.

The National Education Association (NEA)–CEA’s parent organization–and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have lent their support to the effort, which kicked off the campaign with events in 30 cities across the country. CEA co-sponsored a rally at Denver’s East High School on August 10.

CEA has discouraged teachers from choosing to patronize a company that makes a significant contribution to their pension fund. By threatening Wal-Mart, union officials also have threatened harm to the retirement benefits for Colorado’s public employees, including school teachers.

According to the latest report (December 31, 2004) on the holdings of the Colorado Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA), the pension fund included more than 3 million shares of Wal-Mart stock at a total value exceeding $160 million, making Wal-Mart its eighth-largest holding.

CEA endorses candidates for the PERA Board of Trustees. By law, five of the 16 trustees are school employees elected by fellow school employees. At least three of the five are current CEA members. One of two board members representing retirees also belongs to the union.

Someone ought to ask CEA-affiliated trustees whether PERA should rescind its profitable investment in Wal-Mart stock or whether CEA should stop asking teachers to undercut their own retirement benefits. Also representing PERA beneficiaries at the August 10 event was State Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald (D – Golden), who along with fellow legislators draws from the same retirement system. Yet Fitz-Gerald was quoted in the Rocky Mountain News saying that Wal-Mart, one of PERA’s leading investment holdings, “has failed” America.

Teachers union officials also stood shoulder-to-shoulder with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) organizers at the August 10 rally. Nearly six months earlier, workers at a Wal-Mart Tire and Lube Express in Loveland, Colo., voted 17-1 against UFCW representation, after one of many unsuccessful attempts to unionize various stores in the retail chain.

With the UFCW seeking to revamp its efforts, CEA officials showed they were more in tune with other union organizers than with parents and students. The decision to join the boycott against Wal-Mart shows that the 37,000-member teacher organization is more essentially a labor union than a professional association. As such, promoting restrictive work rules and job security are among its leading priorities.

In a strange twist of logic, one official asserted that participation in the boycott reflected a concern for education funding. According to the News, Denver local union president Kim Ursetta said Wal-Mart “has robbed Colorado schools of millions of dollars” by depriving its many part-time employees of health insurance and forcing them to rely on government assistance for medical care.

Ursetta and her fellow boycotters neglected to point out that Wal-Mart provides nearly half of all employees with individual or family health insurance benefits, and that many of its uninsured employees may be covered by another family member. And no one forces employees to work for Wal-Mart in the first place.

But CEA officials don’t seem to have thought through the economic equation. The thousands of Colorado jobs provided and supported by the Wal-Mart Corporation generate more tax revenue for the public schools. And that’s just the beginning of the educational funds the retailer provides.

CEA Web site acknowledges that Wal-Mart contributed $40 million last year to scholarship funds and other causes supporting classroom instruction. Yet the site also justifies CEA’s actions with the absurd claim that Wal-Mart opposes providing children “a quality education.”

Wal-Mart officials plan to spend $45 million on education initiatives in 2005. In Colorado alone this year, the corporation’s charitable foundation will have distributed $137,000 in scholarships to 133 students entering college, $83,000 in teacher awards paid directly to schools, and more than $70,000 in grants to local literacy organizations.

Surely the leaders of the teachers union have a right to campaign against the nation’s largest retail chain. But having shown their true colors through their misguided efforts, maybe it’s time to send CEA officials back to school.

Ben DeGrow is an education policy analyst for the Independence Institute.