Labor Complaint Is Latest Hurdle For Teachers' Union

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - The National Education Association is facing yet another hurdle to its ongoing political activism: accusations that the nation's largest teachers' union illegally concealed the use of millions of dollars in tax-exempt teachers' dues and fees for political activities.

The Landmark Legal Foundation filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor Monday charging that the NEA failed to properly report its revenues and expenditures as required by the federal Labor and Management Reporting Act.

That law requires unions to report their financial activities in adequate detail to clearly identify the union's operations. Both the organization and its officers may be subjected to civil and criminal penalties for failure to comply with the act.

According to Landmark, internal NEA documents and filings with the Department of Labor and other federal agencies prove the expenditure of millions of dollars in tax-exempt income since 1994 to recruit and support candidates for local, state and federal elective offices.

None of those expenditures were specifically reported, according to the filing, "thereby making it impossible for NEA members to determine the full extent of the union's political activities."

The complaint also alleges that the union failed to document its direct participation in a nationwide, coordinated campaign with Democratic Party campaign organizations, the AFL-CIO, and the Emily's List political action committee during the same period.

Union Calls Charges 'Bogus'

NEA Spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons says the charges are "bogus."

"They are completely without any merit whatsoever," she said. "NEA has always followed all the rules and procedures prescribed in federal law."

Lyons adds that the union is "confident" that they have not done anything wrong. She questioned the motives of the complaint, saying that it was "similar to other complaints they have filed that haven't gone anywhere."

Monday's complaint to the Department of Labor is the third in a series of actions filed by Landmark against the NEA, first with the Internal Revenue Service in 2000, and then with the Federal Election Commission in 2001. In those complaints, the firm charged that NEA's "unreported political expenditures and activities" violate federal tax and election laws.

"The NEA obviously doesn't want America's teachers, parents and taxpayers to know how it is using tax-exempt membership dues and fees," said Mark Levin, president of Landmark. "But federal labor reporting laws require the union to tell truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about its political activities and expenditures."

Lyons insists that, "all the 'T's are crossed and 'I's are dotted. We are very, very meticulous and careful about all the federal reporting requirements."

New Teachers Not Necessarily Joining NEA

Landmark's most recent complaint was filed just one week after Mike Antonnuci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency, commented that some NEA state chapters are failing to recruit as many new teachers into the union as in past years.

EIA originally reported that union enrollment was not keeping pace with the number of new workers entering the workforce in January 2002.

"One last national statistic needs mentioning," Antonnuci wrote analyzing annual statistics published by the Labor Department, "the aging of the union membership."

"About 18 percent of all workers over the age of 45 belong to unions, but only 15 percent of the 35 to 44 age group and 11.5 percent of the 25 to 34 age group do," he continued.

Virginia Education Association Executive Director Jerry Caruthers lamented his group's failure to recruit new teachers at the VEA 2002 annual convention.

"We had another small gain in membership this year, an approximate one percent increase over last year," Caruthers told VEA delegates. "However, I must reiterate that we are losing market share. In other words, our membership growth is not matching the growth in additional employees in the state and therefore we are representing a smaller potential of eligible employees."

Antonnuci says some of the NEA's recruitment problems stem from its alliances with liberal political causes.

"It's very important in left-wing groups that everybody follows along [with] whatever each little individual faction wants," he said. "The difference with conservatives is ... everybody's allowed to focus on their individual issue. It's not that way on the left."

Therefore, Antonnuci asserts, if a small faction of homosexual activists within the NEA wants a "Gay and Lesbian History Month" they get it; unless it costs the union too much money or too many members.

"That's not to say that the NEA is not a liberal organization," he added, "but, if left to their druthers, they would be spending their time hammering us on more money for education and not get involved in this other stuff."

Antonnuci argues that the organization is, at heart, a labor union with the primary goal of getting more money, benefits, and job security for its members.

"They are very knee-jerk liberals, until it comes to losing money," he explained. "Then, all of a sudden [they say], 'Well, we have to figure out a way to not be this extreme."

Decline In Growth Of NEA Membership Not Just About Politics

Pointing out that two-thirds of teachers are union members, compared to only nine percent of the private sector workforce, Antonnuci says the NEA is also losing members because of the current structure of the teaching profession.

"Once you reach a certain stage as a teacher, there's no promotion for you. You're a teacher and that's it until you retire," he theorized. "The reason they are not only dropping out of the union but a lot of them are [also] going into other professions is because they want to be rewarded for their excellence."

Krista Kafer, senior policy analyst for education with the Heritage Foundation, believes the combination of NEA's political stances and the entrepreneurial spirit of younger teachers accounts for the slowing growth in the union's membership.

"I think they're both strong reasons for why it's becoming less popular among younger workers to join," she said.

Kafer says financially supporting the NEA could be especially troubling for a young, conservative teacher.

"I would think that would be particularly difficult to allow the money that you worked so hard for to go, not for negotiations for higher pay or the things that unions are supposed to do, instead it's going to defeat candidates that you support and going to causes that you really don't agree with," she argued. "I would think that would be a big disincentive."

In the most recent set of NEA resolutions, Kafer notes that the word "sexual" appears 41 times, "sexual orientation" 19 times, "reading" six times, and "mathematics" only five times.

"It seems like a preoccupation with an agenda that has nothing to do with reading and mathematics. I would think that would be a great concern to a teacher who is deeply committed to learning," she added. "There are other resolutions in there, too, about the environment, about cultural issues, things that have nothing to do with teaching, learning, or kids."

Attracting and Keeping 'Young, Talented People'

Both Kafer and Antonnuci agree that schools will have to treat teachers differently if they want to attract and retain bright, young candidates.

"You have a lot of young, talented people coming out of college with a heart for teaching. They want to get plugged in, they want to move up. They want to do the best they can. They're not interested in contributing to the sort of 'factory model' where everybody gets paid the same and somebody else negotiates your pay and benefits," Kafer said.

"To some of these people, the union is an obsolete thing," she concluded. "They want to be able to control their careers."

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