News

Highest court may get into state teachers union dispute

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider a case allowing the state’s largest teachers union to determine how to spend non-members’ dues.

The case could have an impact on the relationship between unions and the state employees they represent and the First Amendment rights of members, according to Linda Dalton, an attorney on McKenna’s staff.

Dalton said it wouldn’t be until this October before the nation’s highest court will make a decision whether to hear the case.

Last month, the state Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that a state campaign finance law was unconstitutional and the Washington Education Association (WEA) was, therefore, not violating it as the state’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) and the conservative, non-profit Evergreen Freedom Foundation had argued. The law was cited by the PDC in its case against the union.

Evergreen, a frequent critic of the WEA, claimed the Federal Way-based teachers union was using non-members’ dues for political purposes and violating state law.

The WEA has more than 76,000 members, and more than 56,000 are teachers or other certificated K-12 educators.

In 1992, voters approved Initiative 134, changing state campaign finance laws. The initiative required unions to get written approval from non-members to use their dues for political projects. The state Supreme Court agreed with an earlier appeals court ruling the law was unconstitutional.

Charles Hasse, president of WEA, said the organization hasn’t used non-members dues for political purposes.

Teachers in public schools in Washington can opt not to join the WEA. They are labeled agency fee payers by the WEA because they must pay for the union to represent them in contract negotiations. When teachers fill out their employment paperwork, part of it is related to union membership. Teachers pay dues at the local, area, state and national levels.

Whether they are full-fledged members or agency fee payers, all teachers pay the same amount as allowed by state law: $320 a year for state dues and $140 a year for the national organization.

Teachers can also decline to pay union dues based on religious affiliation or beliefs, according to WEA spokeswoman Debra Carnes. If their request is approved, their dues are directed to a charity.

Less than 5 percent of the state and national dues pay for political work, according to Carnes. The WEA doesn’t give money directly to candidates, but uses the money to support ballot initiatives and lobby government officials, she said.

The union has a political action committee that financially supports political candidates, Carnes said.

Federal law allows agency fee payers to get some of their dues back, she said. They can write a letter to the union asking for a rebate on the areas their dues pay for that aren’t related to collective bargaining.

But the WEA reported less than 5 percent of teachers who are agency fee payers request the rebate.

Teachers also pay dues for local membership –– as in the Federal Way Education Association, the local union in the Federal Way Public School system –– and council membership which vary by district and council. A council is a step between the local and state union organizations.

Evergreen Freedom Foundation, believing the union was using non-members’ dollars for political purposes, filed a notice in 2000 that if the state didn’t investigate and sue the WEA, the non-profit agency would, according to Dalton, one of McKenna’s assistant attorneys. An investigation conducted by the PDC concluded the union was improperly using the dues for political causes, and McKenna filed a lawsuit by that fall.

McKenna said the state, in taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, is backed by a unanimous decision of the PDC.

“This decision overturns the will of the voters passing Initiative 134, the state’s campaign finance law,” McKenna said. The law will be vigorously defended, he added.

The case started in 2001 in Thurston County Superior Court, where a judge ruled the teachers union was using its fees for political campaigns.

An appeals court overturned the lower court’s ruling, and the case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard it in May 2004.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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