Teaching Profession

Political Initiative

As soon as state voters passed new campaign-finance rules, the Washington Education Association began scrambling to deal with their effects.
By Jeff Archer — January 21, 1998 31 min read
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With its promise to “put the average voter on even ground with the special interests,” Initiative 134 won the support of nearly three-fourths of the Washington state residents who went to the polls in November 1992.

But for many longtime players in state politics here, especially the Washington Education Association, what’s followed in the wake of the campaign-finance-reform measure has been nothing but trouble.

The powerful, 65,000-member teachers’ union now stands accused by the state of illegally circumventing the law’s strict new procedure for deducting political funds from employee paychecks. Union officials have been fined for incorrectly reporting the source of their pay. State authorities also maintain that the WEA and its parent, the National Education Association, flouted state rules by failing to report the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the national union that were used to fight voucher and charter school initiatives.

Union leaders dismiss the charges as involving, at worst, technical infractions. They contend that they are the targets of an orchestrated campaign by their conservative political foes--although charges now pending in a state court were brought by Washington’s Democratic attorney general, herself a past recipient of WEA support.

The legal struggle in the Pacific Northwest, meanwhile, is attracting national attention as other states and members of the U.S. Congress eye measures similar to Initiative 134.

Washington Education Association

Description: State teachers’ union affiliated with the National Education Association.

Headquarters: Federal Way, Wash.

Members: 65,000.

Approx. number of local affiliates: 400.

1997-98 budget: $18 million.

Leadership: Lee Ann Prielipp, president; James Seibert, executive director; C.T. Purdom, immediate past president.

However the claims and counterclaims shake out, the situation threatens to keep a spotlight on the political gamesmanship of teachers’ unions at a time when NEA President Bob Chase and other leaders are trying hard to keep the focus on their advocacy of teacher professionalism and school improvement. Whether the Washington state union committed serious violations or minor missteps, or is fully exonerated of any wrongdoing, the picture of an organization first trying to stop a campaign-reform law and then allegedly working to get around it hasn’t helped the union’s image. And it has given fresh ammunition to critics of teachers’ unions who argue that despite all their other activities, such organizations ultimately are political animals.

As then-WEA President C.T. Purdom wrote in an open letter to members of his union following the state’s charges: “No matter what happens in court, it will take time to bolster our reputation.”

The National Education Association and its affiliates clearly have ample amounts of two of the most important ingredients of political power: members and money. With 2.3 million members--more than any other union in the country--the NEA made more than $3.3 million in contributions to political parties and candidates for federal office during the 1995-96 election cycle, according to a recent report from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics. About 96 percent of those contributions supported Democrats. Only three other organizations spent more: the Philip Morris Cos., the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

The Washington Education Association appears largely to emulate its parent. The union’s political action committee gave some $258,000 to campaigns for statewide and legislative offices in 1992, reports the state Public Disclosure Commission, a campaign-finance watchdog agency.

That doesn’t include other politically related expenditures, such as contributions to ballot-initiative campaigns or the salaries of the seven lobbyists that the WEA has registered with the state’s commission. Affiliates of the WEA also throw their weight into local campaigns for bonds, levies, and school board members.

The state organization leverages additional influence through “coalition building,” or joining with like-minded groups in political efforts. And in 1996, the union helped elect former WEA President Terry Bergeson state superintendent of public instruction.

The teachers’ unions “are one of the most politically important of the interest associations in the state,” says David Olson, a political science professor and labor expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. “They are very active, very effective, and very powerful.”

It was just this kind of power that Initiative 134 set its sights on.

Evergreen Freedom Foundation

Description: Think tank with conservative leanings.

Headquarters: Olympia, Wash.

Number of current donors: 2,330.

1996 revenue (from tax records): $379,000. Subsidized by private, unnamed individuals, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. A prospectus shows $100,000 for “The WEA Project.”

Leadership: President Bob Williams, a former Republican state lawmaker and 1988 GOP candidate for governor.

For the WEA, the most threatening aspect of the plan was its “paycheck protection” provision, an idea that is now gaining national currency. Under this rule, an employee has to give permission each year before money can be deducted from his paycheck for political contributions. Supporters of Initiative 134 say the rule protects union dues-payers from having their money spent on political activities against their will.

The law took effect in 1994, and the teachers’ union felt the repercussions almost immediately. The number of WEA members contributing to its political action committee through payroll deductions plummeted from about 48,000 to about 12,000.

To ease the impact and to help cover its “soft money” political spending, the WEA instituted a mandatory dues increase of $12 a year for a new creation that it called its Community Outreach Program.

Now, the state attorney general’s office contends that the COP functioned as a political action committee—even though the union never officially registered it as one. Moreover, the attorney general claims that the union formed the COP to get around the new annual-authorization rule. The allegation is at the core of the lawsuit the office filed against the union last February that questions some $570,000 in political expenditures.

Unless a summary judgment or settlement is reached soon, a trial could begin later this winter in state superior court in Olympia. If the union loses, it could be forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, register the COP as a political action committee, and possibly even return money to its members.

Although the political dealings of various groups and individuals in the state have come under official scrutiny since Initiative 134 took effect, state investigators say the allegations against the union are among the most significant.

“It’s more serious because we’re talking about a lot of money and because of the underlying issue, which is that they set this all up to circumvent the annual authorization,” says John Gerberding, an assistant attorney general. “Plus, you have all these teachers who want to have a choice as to whether their money is used for political purposes or not, and the WEA is taking their money and using it for political purposes.”

The investigations into the Community Outreach Program have also led to a series of related accusations and legal challenges. Last summer, the Public Disclosure Commission fined union lobbyist Kristeen Hanselman $2,300 for reporting that her employer was the WEA, when she was actually on the payroll of the National Education Association. Then last month, the agency fined WEA Executive Director James Seibert $6,000 for also reporting he was employed by the state union while he was being paid by the NEA.

It was also last month that agency officials filed preliminary charges alleging that the two unions failed to report the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the NEA to its state affiliate to be used for political activities. The commission may make a final decision in that case as early as next month.

Neither Executive Director Seibert nor Purdom, the former union president, could be interviewed for this story, WEA officials said. But the officials have maintained that if they committed technical violations, it was only in their struggle to deal with what they call a complicated new law.

While defending its actions, the union has also sought to focus attention on the political motives of state and national conservative forces it says are using the controversy as part of a larger campaign to weaken organized labor and privatize public education.

In particular, the wea charges that an Olympia-based think tank, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, has used the bipartisan Public Disclosure Commission and the news media in a campaign to discredit the union.

At the same time, the union has done its own share of maneuvering. When the PDC fined Seibert last month, the WEA successfully bargained for an apparently unprecedented agreement that the agency would not hold a press conference, issue a news release, or give the Evergreen Freedom Foundation advance notice.

Claiming they are the victims of a larger attack on organized labor, union officials point to the efforts being mounted to get similar “paycheck protection” initiatives passed elsewhere. Voters in California, home to the NEA’s largest state affiliate, this June are likely to consider a measure modeled on Initiative 134. The Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform, a major supporter of the California effort, is launching a nationwide drive for other comparable state measures.

“Legislation will be introduced in as close to as many states as humanly possible,” says Grover Norquist, the organization’s president.

And although a similar measure failed in Congress last fall, Republicans have pledged to revive the issue as lawmakers again grapple with campaign-finance issues this session.

Before Initiative 134 took effect in 1994, the WEA’s political action committee was guaranteed ample funding through its automatic payroll deduction, known as a reverse checkoff. When teachers joined the union, they could authorize it to deduct an additional $13 a year for the WEA’s political action committee. Unless the teacher later stopped it, the deduction continued indefinitely. The PAC took in slightly more than $500,000 through the deduction in 1993, according to state records.

But with Initiative 134 came the stipulation that without their annual authorization, employees could not have part of their wages withheld “for contributions to political committees or for use as political contributions.” As the state’s largest organization depending on a reverse checkoff, the WEA saw the provision as a direct attack against its political strength.

“I think we’ve been real powerful in this state in electing candidates and in stopping what we believe to be negative legislation,” says Gary Brown, the president of the Olympia Education Association, the union’s affiliate in the state capital. “I think [advocates of Initiative 134] figured that if the money were cut off, we would lose all ability to be a player.”

Critics of the initiative argue the measure tilted the playing field away from large groups that pool smaller contributions from many donors. The new law set a limit of $1,000 per election (later raised to $1,100) on what an organization and all of its affiliates could give to individual candidates for statewide office. The effect is seen in the WEA’s political spending during the next campaign year. During the 1996 election cycle, the WEA’s political action committee reported giving just $77,500 to campaigns for statewide and legislative offices, a nearly 70 percent drop since 1992, according to state records.

The Helena, Mont.-based Western States Center, which studies the region’s political landscape, further reports that while organized labor made about 8 percent of total contributions to Washington state candidates in 1996, businesses made nearly 41 percent.

“I like to say that 134 cut business off at the ankles, but it cut labor off at the knees,” says Chuck Sauvage, the executive director of Common Cause Washington State, a campaign watchdog group.

Those who claim the measure was a politically motivated attack against Democrats and their supporters point out that the state’s Senate Republican Campaign Committee was the initiative’s top contributor. The same year the initiative went into effect, the GOP regained a majority in the state House. Two years later, it won the state Senate.

Others have maintained that Initiative 134 did little to rein in the influence of money in Washington state politics. Since the new contribution limits went into effect, many state organizations have exploited legal loopholes in Initiative 134 to maintain high levels of political spending.

Despite its restrictions, the reform did not limit what are known as independent expenditures. These allow groups to spend unlimited sums on such activities as mailings to encourage voters to support specific candidates as long as they’re independent of any cooperation with the candidates or their campaigns.

When independent expenditures are taken into account, overall spending on political races in Washington state has actually increased since Initiative 134 became effective, according to the Washington Council for Fair Elections. The Seattle-based group is advocating amendments to the law, including limits on independent expenditures.

The WEA made more than $30,700 in independent expenditures in 1996, the PDC reports.

Despite the loopholes left by Initiative 134, the WEA feared that by wrecking its reverse checkoff, the new law would deal a major blow to its political muscle. In an attempt to stop the measure at the polls, the union’s political action committee gave $41,000 in contributions--the biggest gift it made in 1992--to People Against Phony Election Reform, a campaign opposing Initiative 134, according to state records.

The union also sought, unsuccessfully as it turned out, a ruling that the annual-authorization requirement didn’t apply to public school employees.

Eventually, the organization recognized it would have to change the way it did business.

Its response is outlined in a letter titled “Setting the Record Straight,” which union officials released to WEA members after the attorney general’s office filed its suit. The union’s actions were based, the letter says, on the recommendations of its Life After 134 Task Force, a panel of WEA staff members and elected leaders appointed in January 1993. Minutes from a task force meeting that February, subpoenaed by the state, show the group weighing its options, given that “it is still a significant interest of our members to participate in political action and to have a vehicle to do so.”

Union officials don’t deny that they’re still heavily involved in state politics. They point out that more than half of what’s spent on public education in Washington comes from the state, and that the legislature each session wrestles with teacher-related issues ranging from certification requirements to salary scales.

“Our membership would kill us if we didn’t go the state legislature and ask for pay raises,” says Kevin Teeley, the president of the Lake Washington Education Association.

The union speeded up the collection of its PAC deductions just before Initiative 134 went into effect. Instead of having them deducted on a monthly basis, the union had all the contributions for the school year taken out before January 1994.

The group also decided it should segregate “hard money” from “soft money’’ expenditures.

Another memo from a WEA lobbyist explains the union’s understanding that “anything that is not a direct or in-kind contribution to a candidate at the local, legislative, or state level can be paid for with soft money.” It also lists several potential soft-money uses, including “internal communication,” “initiatives and referenda,” “community organizing and forums,” “member lobby,” and “issues campaigns with registered voters.”

So while the organization’s well-financed political action committee had historically paid for a wide range of political efforts, union officials decided a new WEA-PAC would concentrate on what they considered hard-money expenditures: contributions to campaigns for individual candidates.

The other politically related expenditures--the soft-money spending--they decided could be paid for out of dues collected without the need for members’ annual authorization. The $12 annual dues increase for the Community Outreach Program, which union delegates approved at their 1994 state convention, was to help cover some of those soft-money expenditures.

According to “Setting the Record Straight,” two of the COP’s purposes were to allow the union’s regional offices “to carry on politically related activities in local communities and to cover WEA’s soft-money costs in order to preserve hard money for political contributions.” In addition, half the Community Outreach Program funds were to be returned to the union’s 22 regional offices for local use.

So as the union eliminated its old PAC, which had been subsidized by voluntary $13-a-year contributions (but not subject to annual authorization), it initiated two different politically related enterprises: the new WEA-PAC, paid for by voluntary $12-a-year contributions (subject to annual authorization), and the COP, financed by a mandatory dues increase of $12 a year.

From fall 1994 to fall 1996, the Community Outreach Program took in more than $1.2 million, according to PDC records.

But a few teachers felt the union had made an end-run around its own members. One of the first people to charge that the union had run afoul of Initiative 134 was Barbara Amidon, a high school guidance counselor in the Olympia public schools. Amidon says she resigned from the WEA in 1992 after growing frustrated with the union’s political activities.

“I am conservative,” she says, “but I’m certainly not right-wing.”

Employees cannot be forced to maintain their union membership to keep their jobs. But as in 19 other states, teachers in Washington who are represented by a union still can be required to pay so-called agency fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and the processing of grievances. Since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, teachers’ unions have not been able to charge agency-fee payers for political work. COP contributions, for instance, were not charged to agency-fee payers, which Amidon interpreted as evidence that the outreach program’s primary purpose was political.

A typical teacher in Washington pays a total of about $575 a year to the NEA, the WEA, and their regional and local affiliates. Union officials say about 78 percent of the WEA portion is chargeable to the union’s approximately 2,700 agency-fee payers.

After resigning from the union, Amidon founded a loose-knit organization called the WEA Challenger Network with Cindy Omlin, a former teacher who quit the union for similar reasons. Claiming a mailing list of 400 to 500 names, they maintain a home-page on the World Wide Web and publish a newsletter about three times a year. The two say they formed the group not to investigate the WEA, but to inform other teachers about their rights to quit the union and to challenge its agency-fee calculation.

Amidon and Omlin have joined a federal class action--separate from the controversies surrounding Initiative 134--challenging that calculation. Backed by the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, that suit is scheduled to go to trial this summer.

Both educators argue that the union’s political agenda does not reflect the views of its members. Although more than 80 percent of the union’s PAC money goes to Democrats, they point out that a recent WEA poll showed just 55 percent of its members identifying with the party and about 22 percent calling themselves Republicans.

Sometimes, they argue, the union’s agenda also includes issues that are not directly related to education, occasionally forcing individual members to support causes they disagree with. The NEA, for instance, has an official stance in favor of “reproductive rights,” while Omlin, a Roman Catholic, opposes abortion.

Although the WEA contributes far more to education-related campaigns, the organization and its affiliates have in recent years also given money to support ballot initiatives that sought to protect homosexuals from job discrimination and to require trigger-locks on handguns.

“What’s that got to do with education?” Jeff Leer, a physical education teacher in the town of Sedro-Woolley, says of such causes. “If the union would simply use the voluntary dues, the WEA-PAC dues to do that, I would have no problem with being a member and paying my full union dues.”

Teresa Moore, a WEA spokeswoman, acknowledges that the union tends to be more supportive of Democrats and their issues. She adds, however, that her organization is beginning to explore backing more Republican candidates and to reconsider its promotion of issues less tied to education.

But she balks at the implication that the severe drop in contributions to WEA-PAC following Initiative 134 reflects widespread dissatisfaction. Instead, she says, it only shows the difficulty of trying to reach all its members each year to solicit support.

“I don’t think people can say we don’t represent teachers,” Moore says. “Do we take positions that always represent what 100 percent of our members want? No--how could we with 65,000 members? But are we democratically ruled and majority ruled? You bet.”

But the dissident teachers argue that union dues were used to bolster the organization’s political action committee in violation of state law.

It was in her attempts to learn more about the union’s involvement in politics, Amidon says, that she discovered what she sees as proof of connections between the WEA’s general funds and its PAC money. Amidon spent several evenings at the Olympia Public Library reviewing microfiched WEA-PAC documents she bought from the Public Disclosure Commission. In them, she says, she found that the union had lent some $162,000 to its political action committee, and then forgave the loan. She says union officials told her that the loans were given to help cover the PAC’s overhead and administrative costs. Officials also told her they were actually repaid by Community Outreach Program funds.

Nonetheless, Amidon objects: “It’s still reaching into our dues money to pay a PAC loan.”

Amidon filed a complaint asking the PDC to investigate in February 1996. But she claims the agency didn’t act until after she, Omlin, and Leer went to the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, the conservative think tank based in Olympia that is headed by former Republican state legislator Bob Williams. A certified public accountant who once worked for the U.S. General Accounting Office, Williams plowed through more records and filed another complaint alleging numerous violations.

After investigating the teachers’ and the foundation’s charges, PDC officials concluded that the Community Outreach Program is, by definition, a political action committee and should be subject to the state laws regulating PACs, including Initiative 134’s annual-authorization requirement for payroll deductions.

In fact, the agency maintains that state law doesn’t distinguish between hard and soft money, as the union did in restructuring its political action committee. A Washington statute says a contribution is “anything of value,” and a political action committee is any organization “having the expectation of receiving contributions or making expenditures in support of, or opposition to, any candidate or ballot proposition.” In restructuring itself, the union created a PAC, subsidized by mandatory dues, that sought to operate outside the state campaign-finance laws, the PDC alleges.

“They made what we feel was a deliberate attempt to circumvent 134,” says Melissa Warheit, the executive director of the agency, whose five-member commission is appointed by the governor. “It was a well-thought-out plan to get around the problem of the checkoff.”

Citing the magnitude of the possible violations, the PDC in November 1996 handed the case over to Attorney General Christine O. Gregoire, who filed her lawsuit against the WEA three months later.

In the course of their investigations, the PDC and the attorney general’s office have subpoenaed thousands of internal memoranda and other documents from the union, as well as testimony from more than a dozen elected officials and employees of the WEA.

In its suit against the union, the state contends that the “COP’s primary purpose, or one of its primary purposes, was to influence the political process by supporting or opposing candidates and ballot measures.”

Gerberding, the assistant attorney general, says the loans Amidon discovered were made “so WEA-PAC was able to use all of the money it collected through the automatic deduction for contributions, and didn’t have to use any of its money for overhead.”

In addition to the COP loan, which Gerberding charges the union “never [had] any intention that WEA-PAC would pay back,” the state has made two other claims: The union’s restructuring of its political action committee resulted in at least $180,000 of in-kind contributions not being reported, and the union failed to report at least $220,000 in contributions to a campaign opposing vouchers and charter schools.

Moore, the union spokeswoman, characterizes the attorney general’s case as “a legitimate disagreement over interpreting a very complex law.” In its legal response to the state’s complaint, the union argues that the COP is simply a line item in the organization’s overall budget and doesn’t fit the state’s definition of a political action committee. The COP has no separate officers and holds no meetings.

The union points out that federal election law does allow a labor organization to use its general funds to cover overhead and administrative costs for its political action committee without categorizing those payments as contributions. While the union’s general funds were sometimes used to pay for its PAC’s administrative and overhead costs, the WEA says it was careful to ensure that only voluntary contributions were given to candidates. And although federal election law only applies to federal elections, union officials say they naturally sought advice on the federal definitions of hard and soft money, which had never been an issue in Washington state before the passage of Initiative 134.

The WEA isn’t the only group to come under the PDC’s scrutiny since Initiative 134 took effect. The agency recently fined Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, $2,500 for reporting violations committed during his 1996 campaign. The PDC also has investigated the Building Industry Association of Washington, another political heavyweight whose executive vice president serves as an adviser to the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

“I think that if you look at who is filing the complaints and against whom, it is a continuation of the political process by other means,” says Olson, the University of Washington professor.

The PDC even investigated Attorney General Gregoire herself in 1996, and fined her $1,250 for reporting violations. Her 1992 campaign to become the state’s top law enforcer won an endorsement from the WEA and $10,000 in contributions from the union’s political action committee, state records show.

The WEA gave Gregoire’s 1996 re-election campaign $1,100--now the legal limit during the general election--but she returned the money after launching her investigation of the union.

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation maintains that the attorney general’s lawsuit represents only the tip of the iceberg. On behalf of Teachers for a Responsible Union, a group formed expressly for the legal challenge, the foundation has filed its own lawsuit against the WEA, the NEA, and 15 school districts.

While the attorney general says that the Community Outreach Program is a political action committee, the foundation claims that the union’s use of general funds for political purposes is so widespread that the WEA itself is a PAC. The amount of money WEA-PAC spends on candidate campaigns, it says, is eclipsed by the total the union spends on such activities as ballot-initiative campaigns, lobbying, and encouraging members to support local tax-levy and school bond elections.

“Our objection is not to the WEA participating in politics,” says Williams, the foundation’s president. “It is how they participated, and did they disclose it. If they disclosed the money and they properly raised it, then we have no complaint.”

The foundation points out that the union used general funds--not PAC money--to contribute at least $700,000 to oppose state ballot proposals on vouchers and charter schools in 1996. Local affiliates of the union also made tens of thousands of dollars of their own contributions to the same cause. The campaign against the two initiatives, both of which were defeated, raised a total of $1.1 million, compared with the $1 million raised by proponents.

If a judge orders refunds of all these expenditures by the WEA and all the fines the foundation says the union should pay, the total cost to the WEA would be well over a million dollars.

The foundation’s suit also names the 15 districts as co-defendants because district administrators actually withhold the money from teachers’ paychecks under collective bargaining agreements. A lawyer for the districts says they would be in violation of state labor laws if the districts were to stop withholding the money or even ask what it is used for.

In fact, when Jeff Leer sought to get his district to stop deducting Community Outreach Program money without employees’ annual authorization, the WEA threatened to sue him. The union said the teacher was attempting to interfere with its collective bargaining agreement with the administration.

As the Evergreen Freedom Foundation continues to receive thousands of papers documenting the WEA’s political activities, the group also has sought to bring official scrutiny to its national parent.

It was the foundation’s complaints that led to the Public Disclosure Commission’s fines against both Hanselman and Seibert for reporting the WEA as their employer while they were on the National Education Association’s payroll. State union officials blame a “procedural error” in Hanselman’s case and say Seibert’s violation was unintentional because although the NEA pays his $108,000 salary, his work is directed by the WEA’s board.

In October, the foundation filed another complaint with the PDC, this time alleging that internal memoranda that surfaced during the state investigation show the WEA asked for and received more than $400,000 from the NEA to help finance its fight against the 1996 charter school and voucher initiatives. Labeling that arrangement “money laundering,” the foundation points out that Washington state members paid their dues allotment to the NEA, without being asked for annual authorization, and then the national union gave money back to the WEA for use in its political efforts in the state.

Although NEA lawyers call the charges “ridiculous,” the PDC staff last month filed administrative charges against the national union, arguing that the organization should have reported the money transfers as contributions. The agency may decide as early as next month if violations occurred and if penalties should be levied.

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation charges that all three cases show a clear effort to conceal the role the national organization was playing in Washington state politics.

Officials at both the NEA and the WEA claim that the Evergreen Freedom Foundation is capitalizing on the attorney general’s case to paint a misleading picture of an organization that takes its members’ money and then does what it pleases. The WEA told members in its October 1996 issue of WEA Action: “Their strategy is to create conflict and distrust among WEA members and leaders.”

“I think when this is over, it will be just as the WEA has said: That if there were violations, then they were of the kind that are not unusual whenever any new law like this goes into effect,” says NEA President Chase.

Like the WEA’s Moore, Chase calls the foundation’s endeavors “an effort by the far right to cripple unions.”

Although Williams, the Evergreen president, denies that his foundation’s lawsuit is politically motivated, both he and the organization he runs have a decidedly conservative bent. The Republican was known as a budget watchdog during the 10 years he served in the state House. In an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1988, he courted the support of traditional conservative groups. Then, in his latest campaign, a run for Congress in 1990, the National Education Association contributed some $10,000 to his Democratic opponent, who won the race. Williams later helped write Initiative 134.

“He’s a nice guy, but he’s an arch, arch-conservative,” says Jerry Hughes, a teacher and former Democratic state lawmaker who, despite his political leanings, says he supports the foundation’s lawsuit. “The Evergreen Freedom Foundation’s agenda is to eradicate unionism from education, and they should be more candid about that.

“But on a few issues, I would tend to agree with them,” Hughes continues. “I think the unions need to be dissolved or re-created because they’ve become very, very corrupt.”

In addition to the head of the Building Industry Association, the foundation’s board of directors and advisers include a number of former GOP state lawmakers, some of whom ran against candidates supported by the WEA. The union, for instance, gave $750 to the 1994 state House campaign of Democrat Kristin Molesworth, who lost to Evergreen Freedom Foundation board member Cheryl Hymes.

Tax forms show the foundation had annual revenue of about $379,000 in 1996. The foundation guards the identity of its donors.

Espousing free market principles, the 6-year-old organization has issued policy papers touting the savings it says could be realized by privatizing government services. But during the past year, the group has devoted much of its energy to the teachers’ unions. A 1997 prospectus for the foundation shows a budget of $100,000 for “The WEA Project,” which has the aim of informing “teachers and the public of the proper role of teachers’ unions.” It also says: “We must somehow separate the role of the union in representing the best interests of teachers from providing the best education services to students and parents.”

“I think it’s very clear that they have made this a major fund-raising issue,” Moore says of the foundation’s interest in the union. “And they are looking for every opportunity to raise questions in the eyes of the public about the WEA.”

The union believes the foundation’s true objective is to destroy the union’s political clout.

The WEA hasn’t taken the legal assault lying down. Last fall, Brown of the Olympia union and Teeley of the Lake Washington affiliate began raising questions about the foundation’s tax-exempt status. In letters the two sent to the Internal Revenue Service and a state office that regulates charities, they contended that the Evergreen Freedom Foundation engages in political work that should keep it from enjoying the same tax-exempt status as the Special Olympics and the American Cancer Society.

In November, the WEA also accused the PDC of “abuse and harassment” and asked a state superior court judge to bar the agency from continuing to subpoena testimony and documents the union said it already had given.

But the teachers who filed the initial complaints say the union is trying to deflect attention from the specific violations with which it’s been charged. “They’re attacking the messenger and totally ignoring the charges,” says Jeff Leer, the physical education teacher. “They have yet to even admit that what they’ve done may be wrong other than to say that ‘we may have misunderstood these complicated laws and reported things wrong.’”

Leer says he doesn’t want the lawsuits against the WEA to end with just a settlement or even a summary judgment. Only a trial will shine the spotlight back on the issues that first led him and Barbara Amidon, the Olympia counselor, to file complaints against the union nearly two years ago. They say the issue boils down to a question of whether members who decide not to contribute to the union’s PAC can still have their dues channeled in any way into the union’s political efforts. They say no.

Like Amidon and Cindy Omlin, Leer has quit the union and joined the federal suit challenging the union’s calculation of agency fees. But he feels he shouldn’t have had to resign to avoid giving financial support to the union’s political agenda.

“I appreciate the things the union’s done for me,” Leer says. “I appreciate the collective bargaining power that we have. I want to be a member. I would love to be a voice in my union and try to change some of the direction that we’re taking.

“But in order not to pay for the political garbage, I have to resign, go through arbitration, or file a lawsuit to get back the money they spend on political issues.”

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Teaching Profession The NEA Faces an Unexpected Labor Adversary—Its Own Staff Union
Staff for the nation’s largest teachers’ union picketed at its Washington headquarters Thursday, striking for the first time in decades.
3 min read
Staff of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, strike outside the organization's building in Washington on June 20, 2024. The staff union alleges that the NEA violated labor law.
Staff from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, protest outside the organization's building in Washington, D.C., on June 20, 2024.
Stephen Sawchuk/Education Week
Teaching Profession Teachers Report Lower Pay, More Stress Than Workers in Other Fields
It's yet another warning sign for the beleaguered profession.
4 min read
Teacher working on scheduling at desk.
Teaching Profession Teachers Are Pushing for Paid Parental Leave. How It's Going
Efforts to implement paid parental leave policies are slowly gaining traction, with teachers often advocating on their own behalf.
7 min read
Image of a pregnant person at work.