Teaching Profession

Unions Pull Out Stops For Elections

By Jeff Archer — November 01, 2000 15 min read
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Though many of the contests in next week’s elections remain too close to call, on one prediction there can be little doubt: Whatever the results, the fingerprints of the teachers’ unions will be all over them.

Where a state voucher initiative fails, the unions will have played an active part. If a seat in Congress flips to the Democrats from the GOP, teachers’ groups will be able to claim credit. And should Vice President Al Gore win the White House, he won’t be able to ignore the role they played. In recent weeks, both national unions flooded their members in key states with e-mails, phone calls, and direct mailings seeking to boost the Democratic nominee over the Republican, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

“It’s fair to say that the Democrats would be nowhere without them,” Larry J. Sabato, who directs the Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Virginia, said of the unions. “And in my view, the NEA and AFT are the most effective union players out there, because they not only have the money and the muscle, they also have a positive public image from representing teachers that much of labor lacks.”

With all major players striving this year to play harder and smarter than ever before, the teachers’ unions appear to have only gotten better at what they’ve long done so well.

Such clout could prove decisive in what analysts see as the closest presidential race in a generation—and in the relative handful of congressional contests that could give the Democratic Party, at least in the House of Representatives, the majority position it lost in 1994.

Not only have the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers raised unprecedented funding for their political action committees; like others, they’re also spending more of it in ways that aren’t hampered by contribution limits, in an effort to both magnify and better focus their impact.

Moreover, both national unions also have significantly restructured their political operations over the past two years and are taking greater advantage of the latest technology to leverage what is perhaps their least-secret, but most powerful, weapon: a combined membership of more than 3.5 million voters.

“In terms of the NEA, there’s never been an election like this,” said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the union’s director of government relations. “It’s because of what’s at stake. Before, you could either count on the Senate being pro-education, or the House, or the presidency. This time, we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

Holding Their Own

Following the campaign-spending trail may not reveal all—or even most—of the political efforts made by teachers’ unions so far this year, but it does suggest something of their priorities and strategies, as well as their fund-raising prowess.

One of the most traditional conduits for such spending is the political action committee—a fund, separate from a group’s general treasury, set up for the sole purpose of making expenditures in support of candidates.

Out of some 4,000 PACs registered with the Federal Election Commission, the two national teachers’ unions each rank among the 25 top spenders in terms of candidate contributions this election cycle, according to analyses of FEC records by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog organization.

Specifically, the AFT’s PAC, which files its reports quarterly to the FEC, spent a total of $1.05 million—with all but $11,000 going to Democrats—between the beginning of the current election cycle in January 1999 and this past June. The NEA’s PAC, for which a more timely analysis is available because it files monthly, spent more than $1.1 million through the end of August, with all but approximately $40,000 going to Democratic candidates.

To be sure, in the bigger picture, labor groups like the teachers’ unions are not the biggest spenders. When the total expended by all corporate PACs is compared with all labor PACs combined, the corporate sector outspends labor by a ratio of 3-to-1. When contributions from individuals—including deep-pocketed corporate executives—are included, the total business-generated spending is more than 10 times the total spending by labor.

But the unions are doing their best to pick up the slack. Although only a union’s PAC money can legally go to contributions to the campaigns of specific candidates, unions can expend money from their general treasuries to encourage their members to donate to their PACs—a freedom both teachers’ unions have been exercising to a greater degree this year than in the past.

Nearly two years ago, for instance, the AFT set a goal of increasing such contributions by 10 percent. It urged its state and local leaders to stress to members the importance of raising money for the group’s PAC, known as its Committee on Political Education.

“We’ve always been an active union, and obviously our people know that legislative and political action is important,” said Elizabeth Smith, who directs the AFT’s political department. “But we just wanted to heighten it, and up the profile of it.”

And the push appears to have well exceeded the union’s hopes. As of mid-October, COPE reported total receipts of more than $1.76 million for this calendar year, about a 26 percent jump from the $1.39 million reported at the same time in 1996, according to FEC documents.

The NEA has posted similar gains, reporting receipts of more than $2.6 million as of mid-October, compared with $2.2 million at the same time four years ago.

A Threat Overcome

Such gains are particularly striking considering that only two years ago, organized labor faced what many people both inside and outside the unions considered a serious threat to labor’s ability to raise money for political activities.

At the time, so- called “paycheck protection” measures were being proposed across the country, both as legislation and ballot initiatives. In essence, such laws restrict the way unions use payroll deductions to collect money from their members for use in their political efforts.

Even a seemingly subtle shift in those procedures can have a dramatic effect. One of the earliest such measures—passed by Washington state voters in 1992—forced unions there to ask each member annually for permission to deduct PAC money from his or her paychecks. For the Washington Education Association, an NEA affiliate, the change prompted a 75 percent drop in the number of members that gave to its PAC.

In the long run, however, total expenditures on politics in the state have actually increased dramatically since 1992 because so many of the major political players there— including labor groups—now make greater use of types of campaign spending that are less regulated than PAC contributions.

Still, the change in rules in Washington state did precipitate years of legal headaches for the WEA; eventually, the state attorney general hit the union with stiff penalties after it sought to continue fully funding its political efforts despite the new restrictions. (“Political Initiative,” Jan. 21, 1998.)

As a result, labor leaders knew they didn’t want to see the Evergreen State’s experience repeated elsewhere.

A showdown on the issue took place in 1998. That year, a paycheck-protection initiative was on the ballot in politically crucial California, and conservative groups—led by Americans for Tax Reform— were hoping to get the issue on several other state ballots, before a handful of state legislatures, and in Congress. Many of the measures—including the one in California, known as Proposition 226—were more restrictive than the one that Washington state had adopted.

In the end, the unions won in California, owing in large measure to a massive, coordinated effort by labor groups from around the country that poured staff, volunteers, and millions of dollars into the campaign against the ballot proposal. Today, the victory seems to have been the battle that won the war. This fall, Oregon is the only state with a paycheck- protection measure on the ballot.

“I think it’s pretty much off the radar screen,” said Milton Chappell, a lawyer with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a Springfield, Va., group that is a leading foe of organized labor. “And I attribute that basically to the unions beating it back in California, and to the way it turned out in Washington [state], where their wings have not truly been clipped.”

This year, both the NEA and the AFT are doing their best to be smart campaign investors by spending more money in ways that get around the limits placed on traditional contributions.

For example, between January and mid-October, the AFT’s COPE had contributed $1.29 million to federal candidates and related committees—about $550,000 less than at the same point four years ago, according to FEC documents. But total disbursements from the union’s PAC have topped $2.86 million—about $888,000 more than during the same period in 1996.

Soft Money

What is the major reason for the increase? The answer is so-called soft money.

Contributions to the individual campaigns of a candidate—whether by PACs, other organizations, or individuals—are restricted to no more than $5,000 for a primary election, and another $5,000 for the general election. But only some types of contributions to political parties have such limits.

There’s no limit, for instance, on what a group can give to political parties’ “nonfederal” accounts, which can finance such efforts as get-out-the-vote drives, “issue ads” that don’t mention a specific candidate, and campaign literature that simply urges people to “vote Democratic” or “vote Republican.”

This year, nearly every significant political player is making greater use of soft money than ever before. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, total soft-money spending this election cycle is more than five times what it was eight years ago.

Based on analyses carried out by the center at Education Week‘s request, the AFT’s political action committee made $387,000 in soft-money contributions to the Democratic National Committee during the entire 1995-96 election cycle. (None went to the Republican Party.) By comparison, documents filed with the FEC show that, between January 2000 and the end of this September, the AFT gave at least $1.3 million to the DNC’s nonfederal accounts.

“They’re following a trend that everyone else is,” said Larry Makinson, the Center for Responsive Politics’ executive director.

“Every arrow in the 2000 election is pointing up, in terms of expenditures, so every group that wasn’t to influence this election has ramped up their soft money giving,” Mr. Makinson said.

It’s a case of fighting fire with fire, Ms. Smith of the AFT said. Traditionally, Republicans have outdone Democrats in terms of total dollars raised for soft money. For the GOP, those reserves have proved critical in the final weeks before elections, when the party has been able to pay for issue ads and direct-mail campaigns aimed at tipping the scales in tight races.

“In the past, we have seen good candidates who looked like they were winning, and they got dumped on in the last few weeks because the Republican Party had a lot of money to send in,” Ms. Smith said. “So generally, because of those reasons, we have upped our own contributions.”

But critics of the union question the appropriateness of a teacher group’s putting so much into soft money.

“It’s one thing to the members if the officers you trust endorse a slate of candidates, but it’s very different to give what is essentially a blank check to a national party to put ads on TV that have nothing to do with educational issues, and may be used for negative ads,” said Amy Kauffman, who directs the Campaign and Election Law Project at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. “And $1.3 million could go a long way to buy school supplies.”

The NEA, the larger of the two teachers’ unions, with 2.5 million members, also appears to be on track to give more money to the parties than in the past, but the increases would be less dramatic than for the AFT.

Controlling the Message

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NEA gave at least $386,000 in soft money to the Democratic Party, and $90,250 to the GOP, between January 1999 and the end of this August. That compares with a total of $387,000 that the NEA’s committee gave during the entire 1995-96 cycle.

But those patterns don’t tell the whole story, because the NEA is also making increased use of something called “independent expenditures.”

In essence, a group makes an independent expenditure when it makes an effort in support of, or against, a specific candidate without actually working with that candidate’s campaign. As a form of campaign spending, it resembles soft money in that there are no limits on how much money a group can put into independent expenditures. But, by definition, soft money only involves money given to the political parties.

The NEA made one such independent expenditure last spring, for example, when its PAC spent $37,000 to bolster an Arizona Republican, Susan Bitter Smith, in her unsuccessful attempt to win a primary election for an open seat in the U.S. House. (Of the 325 candidates the NEA endorsed for the House and the Senate this year, 17 were from the GOP.)

The union-backed fliers in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District looked much like standard campaign material—sharply contrasting Ms. Smith’s positions on education with those of her decidedly more conservative opponents. But the cost of producing the literature was not subject to any contribution limit because it came directly from the NEA’s political action committee, without any cooperation from Ms. Smith’s campaign.

Another benefit of using independent expenditures is that a group also retains control over its message. Richard B. Wilkof, an NEA staff counsel, said: “If we do our own, independent expenditure, we’re not limited as to how much money we can spend to promote a candidate. And number two, we can tailor the message that we want to get across.”

Eight years ago, the NEA’s PAC made virtually no independent expenditures on candidates for federal office, while the AFT made nearly $104,000, according to analyses by the Center for Responsive Politics. Four years ago, the NEA made nearly $490,000 in such expenditures.

This year, the NEA has set aside $2 million in its PAC budget for independent expenditures. And, Ms. Teasley said, “we will spend down every dime.”

A common strategy with independent expenditures is to play things close to the vest almost until Election Day. As a result, observers only recently started to see where the NEA was planning to spread some of that money in the general election.

Last week, for example, new documents at the FEC showed that the union’s PAC recently spent nearly $90,000 to shore up support for Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel, D-Pa., a freshman incumbent locked in a tight race to keep his House seat. The money paid for a direct-mail effort to reach thousands of voters in Mr. Hoeffel’s 13th Congressional District with the message that he is the stronger candidate on education.

Such investments are not made lightly, Ms. Teasley said. In Mr. Hoeffel’s case, the union made the call only after polls taken by the NEA last month showed that the race was close, and that voters in the district—in Philadelphia’s wealthy “Main Line” suburbs—consider education a major issue and the NEA a credible messenger.

Ms. Teasley expects her group to make between 15 and 20 independent expenditures by Election Day.

‘It’s All Politics’

The unions also conduct plenty of political activity that needn’t be reported to the FEC at all.

Nowhere at the FEC, for instance, is there a record of the $700,000 the AFT spent on television ads that have run on CNN. Nor should there be, based on federal election rules, which allow groups to spend money from their general treasuries to influence the public so long as specific candidates are not mentioned.

While urging viewers to “find out where the candidates stand” on such issues as vouchers, the AFT’s ads never mention Gov. Bush—who supports giving publicly financed tuition vouchers to students in failing schools—or Vice President Gore, who is adamantly opposed to publicly supported voucher programs.

The structure of national unions like the NEA and the AFT—with their layers of affiliates—also makes it hard to measure their full impact.

The unions’ state and local affiliates largely mirror their national parents.

So while the NEA gives money to the Democratic Party to pay for campaigning at the federal level, its state affiliate in Michigan has planned to give $1.3 million to the Michigan Democratic Party to try to influence, among other races, campaigns for the state legislature, NEA officials said.

Also not reported to the FEC is money raised by the national unions through their general dues—as opposed to their PACs—that they send to their affiliates for use at the state level.

Since 1984, the AFT has set aside $2 a year in the dues collected from each member to be disbursed through a political-activity grant fund to its affiliates.

This past summer, the NEA raised its fees by $5 per member, 60 percent of which was designated for helping state affiliates lobby on legislation and campaign for or against state ballot initiatives. The increase has generated more than $8 million toward helping NEA affiliates’ work on ballot measures in six states.

Because the FEC regulates only spending on federal elections—not state-level activity—such money moves about below its radar screen.

In short, it’s nearly impossible to arrive at a full accounting of all that the teachers’ unions are doing to influence elections around the country this fall—a fact to which the unions’ critics often call attention.

“From my perspective, I think they’re more interested in being in politics than they are in collective bargaining,” Mr. Chappell of the Right to Work foundation said.

Not surprisingly, union leaders see it differently, though many do agree that their two primary forms of advocacy—political action and contract negotiations—are becoming more intertwined.

In fact, such interdependency makes perfect sense, says Robert H. Chanin, the NEA’s general counsel, given that the ability of unions to represent their members through labor negotiations depends on labor laws adopted—and often modified—by politicians.

“So you tell me how I can possibly separate NEA’s collective bargaining efforts from politics—you just can’t,” Mr. Chanin said. “It’s all politics.”

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