What do the American Ireland Fund, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network have in common?
All have received some of the more than $330 million that America's two largest teachers unions spent in the past five years on outside causes, political campaigns, lobbying and issue education.
The contributions-totaling more than $200 million from the National Education Association and more than $130 million from the American Federation of Teachers-were disclosed in annual reports that unions file with the Labor Department detailing their spending on political activities and advocacy work, as well as separate political-action-committee filings.
Some of the spending that the two teachers unions identified to the Labor Department as "political and lobbying" activities from fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2011 went to election consultants, voter mobilization and advertising. Additional millions went to PACs that donate almost entirely to Democratic candidates and committees. Dozens of other organizations that promote a range of issues-women's rights groups, organizations backing African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American civil rights, and think tanks producing pro-union economic studies-also received money, according to a review of the documents by The Wall Street Journal.
Some of the contributions provide indirect political benefit to the unions, by fostering allies among progressive groups. This has helped give teachers widespread political clout on Capitol Hill and in statehouses, and has made them nearly indispensable to the Democratic Party.