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Teachers Union Offices Need to Improve Information on Member Political Dues

Originally posted at Colorado Peak Politics. Re-posted here with permission.

By Ben DeGrow

Here’s hoping all Colorado teachers union branches care enough to arm their receptionists with information on their members’ automatic political contributions. It would be a small tip of the hat to customer service to stop taking member funds for granted in this way.

On two different dates in September, a couple of young people volunteered for the Independence Institute by calling around to the offices of various local Colorado Education Association (CEA) affiliates. They wanted to know if some union dues went to support political candidates and other campaigns. Many, many hard-working teachers understandably don’t have a clear sense of how it all works.

For years now CEA has operated the Every Member Option, or EMO, to fund state and local political campaigns. Our Independent Teachers website explains the process — a $39 annual refund available from CEA and a separate refund worth up to $24 from various locals. A teacher may have to write two letters to two different offices by two different deadlines to exercise their “voluntary” option.

Many of the union offices Kait and Bob called provided generally accurate information about how dues are used for politics, how much is taken from each member, and how to obtain a refund. It’s not surprising that no one volunteered the information about teacher member dues funding false and malicious 527 political ads. And almost no one who took the question by phone knew the exact amount of CEA’s refund, but you can hardly blame the individuals at the local union for failing to know every pertinent detail about the state union’s political program.

Teachers who join the local union also have to pay CEA & NEA dues, however, and may not easily distinguish how the various branches use their funds. One union deduction line item typically shows on a member’s pay stub, nothing to indicate separate amounts for separate offices, and especially not any separate item to indicate a refundable political contribution.

Much of the info may appear on the authorization form they signed when they first joined, but the system may have changed. Hence, a call to the union office for clarification should generate clear and straight answers. Unfortunately, not everyone who answers the phone and the questions is equipped with the correct information. Take the St. Vrain Valley Education Association (SVVEA) in Longmont:

No union dues money goes to candidates? The information provided Kait was egregiously incorrect. CEA’s small donor committee has contributed more than $130,000 directly to state-level candidates (all one party… I’ll let you guess) this year alone. SVVEA itself has contributed nearly $10,000, though all happened after the call was made.

The union’s receptionist deserves credit for correcting her error while talking with Bob three weeks later. Interestingly, she noted that no voluntary dues go to support federal candidates — though two years ago her union office nearly got in trouble for trying to slip some money from a state small donor committee to Congresswoman Betsy Markey’s reelection. While she got the facts on candidate giving correct, she only mentioned the $10 local political refund available and omitted mention of the CEA’s $39 refund.

Then there’s the Jefferson County Education Association, the CEA’s largest local, serving thousands of members:

On both the September 4 and September 27 calls, the receptionist repeated the same incorrect figures after volunteering to answer the question. She explicitly stated that each full-time member’s CEA and JCEA political refunds are worth $12 apiece ($24 total) rather than the correct $39 and $24 figures, respectively. A teacher could ask for the wrong amount and not get back what he or she is entitled.

Also, during the earlier call, Kait was told that the EMO funds mainly go to support the local mill and bond campaign, as well as school board races. The fact is JCEA has given considerably more to one party’s candidates this year than to support the 3A and 3B tax proposals.

No doubt the CEA and its local affiliates have made some improvements in their efforts to disclose the availability of member political refunds. A good start would be making sure all receptionists are prepared with a fact sheet at their disposal. Or maybe they all should just bookmark their Web browsers to the Independent Teachers website.