WASHINGTON – The National Education Association is crying foul play after a Washington state judge slapped the country's largest teachers union with an $800,000 fine for failing to show up for court on charges that it was illegally spending members' dues on politics.
The NEA said it had until Tuesday to respond to a suit filed against it by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, which claims the union was violating a state law that protects members from involuntarily supporting political campaigns.
The claims by EFF are "categorically false," said NEA spokeswoman Kathleeen Lyons, who insisted the union received the lawsuit on May 3, and had 60 days to respond. Lyons said the union responded to the suit in a brief filed overnight on Friday.
EFF's mission is "to silence the voices of teachers in the state of Washington," Lyons said, adding that the union will appeal.
But according to court records, the union was served on April 23, making the deadline more than a week ago. According to state law, if lawsuits go unanswered, judges can presume the facts and allegations in the claims are valid and rule accordingly.
In the NEA's absence at a court hearing Monday, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Daniel Berschauer ruled in favor of EFF.
"This just shows the pure arrogance of the NEA," said Evergreen President Bob Williams, who testified June 20 in front of Congress that the NEA's treatment of members "may be the last institutionalized civil rights violation remaining in our nation."
In the course of two lawsuits against the NEA and its affiliate, the Washington Education Association, Evergreen has attempted to call the union to task for its political spending. Currently, the other suit, which resulted in a $400,000 fine against the union, is under appeal.
In January, the WEA was ordered by Berschauer to pay $190,000 in legal fees to the Washington state attorney general's office, and another $143,000 to teachers for illegally spending dues on political causes.
In Washington state, teachers can "opt out" of the union, but still pay a "representation fee" that is supposed to go to collective bargaining and other benefit services for the member. According to Williams, about 4,000 out of Washington's 75,000 teachers have taken this option. However, many of them complained their dues have gone to political spending anyway.
Meanwhile, about 90 percent of union members have chosen not to have any portion of their dues contribute to the NEA political action committee, which raises money specifically for the national parties and is separate from the other state and national political spending.
In the 2002 election cycle, the NEA PAC has given $578,000 to Democrats and $52,000 to Republicans. It gave $1.6 million out of $1.7 million spent in the 2000-2001 election cycle on Democrats.
Critics say the lack of interest for the PAC has in part led the union to pay for its politicking illegally, by taking it from the general dues.
"The union, rather than say, 'Oh my goodness our agenda doesn't reflect what our members want,' they just make it up through the general dues," said Williams. "They ignore the law."
But union leaders denounced the foundation's claims and the foundation itself as the work of yet another conservative organization bent on busting the union in Washington, and across the country.
In his own testimony in front of the House Subcommittee for Workforce Protections June 20, NEA General Counsel Robert Chanin said the union would respond to the EFF lawsuit accordingly and explained to Congress that it has a diligent accounting system that indeed separates the regular dues payers and those "agency" payers, or those who have opted out of the union.
"This procedure has worked exceedingly well over the years," said Chanin. "To be sure, the procedure may occasionally break down or other problems may arise, but considering NEA's tremendous size and the variety of state laws with which it must comply, such problems are few and far between."
Dan Cronin, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Foundation, said if the union wants to avoid problems, it can change its rules.
"If you want to solve this problem and not have union members dues paid for politics against their will, you have to make all dues paying completely voluntary," he said.