School & District Management

AFT Shells Out Millions to Lure Members Back Into Fold

By Vaishali Honawar — October 17, 2006 5 min read
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Total membership in the American Federation of Teachers dropped in the 2005-06 fiscal year, even as the union spent nearly 10 percent more than it did the previous year, including generous outlays to bring back teachers.

The American Federation of Teachers’ LM-2 disclosures are available from the U.S. Department of Labor.

**To access forms: Once on the query page, go to “Union Abbreviation,” which is on the left, and choose “AFT” from the dropdown list; hit “Submit.” Scroll down to file number 000-012. Click on the file with the title “Teachers AFL-CIO National Headquarters."**

The latest required disclosures filed by the AFT with the U.S. Department of Labor offer a window into how the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union spent the $219 million it received over the fiscal year from member dues and other sources.

More than $214 million was spent over the fiscal year, with representational activities, such as negotiating contracts, resolving grievances, organizing locals, and recruiting members, taking up $55.4 million, or just over a quarter of the total. Spending on political activities and lobbying added up to $14 million.

The union, incidentally, voted in July this year to increase member dues by 6 percent to pay for stepped-up recruitment and political programs.

According to the disclosures, the union’s net membership fell from 828,512 in 2004-05 to 822,504 in 2005-06—a loss of less than 1 percent. The membership cited in the disclosure is different from the AFT’s commonly cited number of 1.3 million because it includes only full dues-paying members and not, for instance, retirees and associate members who pay partial dues.

Officials said the union lost some members after hurricanes devastated areas in the Gulf Coast, and they had no jobs to come back to. The AFT spent $350,000 to keep the New Orleans local afloat.

The union also lost 32,000 members in Puerto Rico, which severed ties with the AFT last year. The national union has since been hard at work to bring teachers back into the fold, said Secretary-Treasurer Nat LaCour. It spent nearly $1.9 million in Puerto Rico, including assistance to the affiliate there before the charter was terminated, and to pay for organizers who are trying to return teachers to the national organization.

On a brighter note, officials say membership losses have been partially offset by the 68,000 members that the union gained over the past two years.

The AFT laid out more than twice what it did in 2004-05 on contributions and gifts, taking that total to more than $4 million. Nearly half that amount—$2.1 million—went toward relief operations and victims of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, which devastated the South last year, scattering students and teachers.

“After Katrina hit, we began to provide grants to our members who requested it to the tune of $500 each,” Mr. LaCour said. Money also went toward giving teachers help with buying groceries and repairing homes, among other things, he added.

‘A Transparency Issue’

This is the second year that the union has filed detailed disclosures of its spending, after the Labor Department revised those forms, called LM-2s, in 2002.

Kenneth Boehm, the chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Falls Church, Va.-based union-watchdog group that lobbied for the detailed disclosures, said the reports are an antidote to corruption and a deterrent to illegal behavior by union officials.

“We saw [the disclosures] primarily as a transparency issue,” he said. “When people operate behind closed doors, there isn’t any accountability.”

Under federal law, labor unions with receipts of more than $200,000 that represent any private-sector workers are required to file the reports, even if the vast majority of their members are public employees, such as public school teachers. The AFL-CIO lost a lawsuit to block the disclosure regulations by arguing that compiling the information was burdensome and went beyond what was required of, say, corporations. The AFT is a member of the labor federation.

AFT officials say the procedure is indeed burdensome, and has cost the union $700,000 over two years. Among other actions, the new disclosures required programming changes to the accounting system, said Mike Benner, the AFT’s general manager.

The union believes in transparency, he added, and has for several years provided members reports on dues expenditures. Audits of the union’s expenses are made available to members on the Internet.

Lower the Threshold?

Union watchers say loopholes remain in the law, however.

Justin Hakes, the legal-information director for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation in Springfield, Va., said he believes that in the AFT report, several expenses were lumped into the representational-activities category “so they can conceal to employees the full extent of their political activities.”

Window on Expenditures

A big chunk of the American Federation of Teachers’ spending in 2005-06 went toward representational activities.

$214 million | TOTAL SPENDING

$55 million: Representational activities (bargaining contracts, organizing locals, recruiting members)

$35 million: Officer and employee salaries

$14 million: Political activities and lobbying

$4 million: Contributions, gifts, and grants

SOURCE: American Federation of Teachers’ LM-2 Disclosure Forms

“They know that most teachers object to having their money being used to fund an ideological movement, and it would be bad PR with teachers for the LM-2 form to show significant expenditures outside of the representational-activities category,” Mr. Hakes said.

Mr. Boehm said another flaw in the disclosure report is that only disclosures above $5,000 are required, which means expenses for eating out or travel charged to a union credit card could still fly under the radar.

“The teachers’ union scandal in D.C. started out with credit cards and turned into something much bigger,” said Mr. Boehm, referring to the Washington Teachers’ Union, whose employees milked more than $5 million in union funds to pay for personal expenses. (“D.C. Union Leader Admits To Bilking Funds,” Oct. 15, 2003.)

Mr. Boehm, who favors dropping the disclosure minimum to $200, or at least to $1,000, added that a lower threshold could help nip abuses in the bud.

Salaries and Contributions

More than 16 percent of the union’s outlay went toward salaries, allowances, and expenses for officers and staff.

The top earner at the union in 2005-06 was president Edward J. McElroy, who grossed $282,800. Mr. LaCour earned $227,550, followed by Vice President Antonia Cortese, who made $225,000.

The union paid out a total of $33.8 million in gross salaries, allowances, and expenses for its 335 workers—an average of $101,000.

Contributions made by the AFT went to organizations with positions similar to its own on education issues. For instance, the union gave $150,000 to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that calls for more education spending and has issued reports critical of vouchers and charter schools.

In the category of political activities and lobbying, the union gave nearly $10,000 to the New York City-based College Board. The College Board released a report last year calling for drastic improvements in salaries and working conditions for teachers.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as AFT Shells Out Millions to Lure Members Back Into Fold

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