Union Dues and Political Campaigns

Mike Antonucci, of the Education Intelligence Agency blog, posted an interesting story the other day. Organizations back political candidates that support their agendas all the time. There’s nothing inherently insidious about it. You do the same when you donate your time or money to a candidate. Maine’s teachers union, the Maine Education  Association, is an active player in state politics; that’s no secret. They advocate for candidates and positions to their members and stump for politicians through various PACs – more on that in a moment.

Imagine you’re a union member. Your union dues could be going to a candidate you disagree with 100 percent, or to attack a candidate you support. This could be an uncomfortable situation. Now imagine your union dues were funding attacks against a family member. That’s exactly what happened to Jade Thompson, a high school teacher in Ohio.

Jade Thompson’s husband, Andy, is running for the State House in The Buckeye State. Co-workers gave Jade mailers which attacked her husband. “Now imagine my dismay when I saw that those defamatory mailers were paid for by the Ohio Education Association – my teachers’ union,” said Jade. “In effect, they are using my union dues to attack my husband!” Jade argued in an op/ed that teachers’ views are representative of the voting populations they come from – ie. diverse. She claims it is wrong for the Ohio teachers union to assume that all of Ohio’s teachers are liberal, as she states the OEA’s agenda is. Andy Thompson will supposedly back a bill that prevents teachers’ union due from going to a political cause without written permission. Ohio voted in favor of so-called “paycheck protection” twice, but the Ohio Supreme Court also overturned it twice.

Several states have paycheck protection laws in place:Washington, Utah, Idaho, Michigan, and Wyoming. One of the theories behind paycheck protections is to test if the union is properly representing its members. Union members can vote with their dollars. If a union is noticing many members are filing to have their dues withheld from a political campaign, the union will realize that they are misrepresenting their membership and change direction. It is a  market-based solution to greater democracy in unions. That’s the theory anyway. Many have worried that paycheck protections will just be subverted by loopholes. Some teachers unions have campaigned against these laws fiercely. The California Teachers Association threatened two teachers with jail time for circulating an email supporting the 2005 effort for paycheck protections in the state.

I have chided the Maine Education Association for not representing their members’ interests in the past, namely on the issue of school consolidation.  The MEA states that (pdf warning) they will advocate for member interests in the  political arena. They cite work on TABOR, school choice, education funding, school regionalization (consolidation?), and other issues. Is every Maine teacher/union member against school choice? Were they all against TABOR? Certainly teachers were on both sides of the consolidation issue as this was not a liberal vs. conservative problem.

The MEA, in addition to their K-12 membership, also supports members, professional and non-professional, from  higher education, MPBN and retirees.  This compounds the issue of representation even further.  Take higher education  for example.  The National Education Association has traditionally opposed for-profit schools. Understandably, the NEA’s higher ed members were taken aback when a subsidiary of their union, NEA Academy,  announced they were partnering with three higher learning institutes, one of them being a for-profit school.  This  program from the NEA Academy seeks to provide college degree discounts for members.

The MEA’s higher ed membership covers the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine, University of Maine Professional Staff Association, and Associated COLT Staff of the University of Maine.  MEA Executive Director Mark Gray has spoken out against for-profit schools before saying they “lack safeguards for students and accountability to taxpayers”.  Though the MEA does provide a link to the NEA Academy, the Colleges and Universities they suggest to members are all not-for-profit.

How does the MEA determine its members’ “interests”?  Surveys of members?  A sample of those involved at higher levels in the MEA?  This is not something that I am aware of, though if someone has this information certainly many MEA members and voters would be glad to see it.

For several years, the MEA has supported two state-level Political Action Committees (PAC): the MEA-PAC and the Citizens Who Support Public Schools PAC. The Citizens Who Support Public Schools PAC has recently released an ad attacking Paul LePage on his education platform.

The MEA is now part of another PAC formed in early September. Mark Gray, MEA’s Executive Director, has formed the Jobs, Justice and The Environment PAC in conjunction with Betsy Smith of Equality Maine, Chris Quint of the Maine State Employees Union, and Bernstein-Shur lawyer Patricia Peard.  The PAC’s title is somewhat confusing since it appears to have little to do with any of the three concepts. So far,We covered the JJE’s most recent campaign finance report here.  At this point, they have taken in $50,005, mostly from the SEUI Comittee on Political Education, and spent $27,666 on campaign literature and polling.  Their initial report showed the JJE received $23,800 in-kind for polling data from Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools – also an MEA PAC – and $25,000 for research data from the Democratic Governors Association. Mark Gray contributed the next highest amount, $2,040 for paid time.

Members deserve the greatest level of representation possible in their unions. Unions are meant to advocate for their interests. That shouldn’t mean making blanket decisions about what members interests are. Every member deserves an equal voice, since one of the points of a union is to provide equal footing. Are paycheck protections the answer? Probably not. They sound like a good idea, but are easily sidestepped. True reform depends on the members themselves. They can still vote with their dollar, by choosing to join the union or not, but since the reason many members join is the advocacy protection in their local contracts and not the state-level political agenda, it is not likely.

Let’s end with a few questions. Do all MEA members out there feel their interests are being accurately and adequately represented by the MEA? Are there reforms you would like to see to improve your organization?  Most importantly, how should those goals be reached? And what kind of help do members need to reach those goals?

Lastly, put yourself in Jade Thompson’s shoes. So far, we don’t know of any Maine candidates in that situation, but what if it were your spouse, or child, or parent who was being attacked with your own union dues? Just consider that scenario for a moment as you mull this piece over. What would you do?