The Washington Education Association has fended off efforts to classify the teachers’ union as a political action committee. Although the union operates such a committee separately, the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation had argued in a civil lawsuit that the 73,000-member organization spends enough of its general budget on politics that it qualifies as a PAC. But a state superior court judge in Olympia ruled otherwise last month.
Since 1997, the foundation has accused both the WEA and its parent, the National Education Association, of numerous violations of state campaign-spending rules. The state attorney general last year reached a $430,000 settlement in its case against the union, but the foundation has continued to pursue its own legal challenge. (“Wash. Union Fined, Agrees To Give Refunds,” March 11, 1998.)
Washington state defines a PAC as an organization that has as “one of its primary purposes” the influencing of elections. Classifying the WEA as such an organization could have had powerful repercussions by forcing the union to collect a substantially greater portion of its fees through a process requiring annual authorization from each member.
Such authorization procedures, which affect payroll deductions, were instituted in 1994 following passage of the state’s “paycheck protection” ballot initiative.
Rejecting the foundation’s interpretation, Judge Tom McPhee wrote that the WEA’s “raison d'être is that of a standard public sector labor union,” which, he went on, was to “enhance the economic and professional security of its members.”
While the union spent more than $500,000 on political activities during one 16-month period, that amount represented only a small fraction of its total expenditures of nearly $24 million during that time, the judge pointed out.
A ‘Green Light’?
Bob Williams, the president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, said that the ruling had given labor organizations and other groups a “green light” to spend as much as they want on politics without having to report their activities. “If that kind of spending doesn’t make them a PAC, then nothing’s a PAC,” he contended.
Union officials claim that the foundation’s true aim was to make it more difficult for the WEA to finance its advocacy and to diminish its power in the political arena. “Their whole goal is to privatize education and use vouchers to do that, and they see us as standing in the way,” said Rich Wood, a WEA spokesman. “We hope they’ll go out and attack somebody else for a change.”
The foundation, however, has appealed a related ruling that Judge McPhee issued earlier in the case. The opinion allowed that a group could spend part of its general budget on politics without having to report the expenditure to the state agency that enforces campaign- finance laws or triggering the annual- authorization rule for payroll deductions. The Washington Supreme Court is slated to hear that case this fall.