For many people, labor unions conjure up images of hard hats and factory floors. But such notions are increasingly out-of-date. The largest and most influential labor unions in America today represent government employees, particularly public school teachers.
With nearly 2.5 million working members, the National Education Association (NEA) is not just the nation’s largest teachers union; it’s the biggest union of any kind.
As has become increasingly apparent since the COVID-19 pandemic provided lockdown-weary parents unprecedented insight into public school operations and curriculum, the NEA’s influence on public education, public policy and elections is, to say the least, controversial.
Given the NEA’s consistent—and one-sided—political advocacy in every major area of public policy, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board in 2021 declared, “The NEA and AFT have become the ideological and institutional vanguard of progressive politics.”
This is partially because government unions have immense incentives to use electoral politics to capture control of government, from elected local school boards to the presidency, as unions themselves freely admit. In an article celebrating its electoral successes in the 2023 school board elections, the Idaho Education Association (IEA)—the statewide NEA affiliate—told its member teachers that,
“…there is no question that your work, from bell to bell, is political. Everything you do, from the hours you work to what you teach, is determined by elected officials. Engaging in politics is essential…”
And unlike their counterparts in private industry, government unions “have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss,” as New York union leader Victor Gotbaum infamously proclaimed in 1975.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a private membership organization supporting whatever cause, candidate or party it likes, so long as it does so with its own funds. But representative government is often about balancing competing interests and, when a private interest co-opts the government itself, it can use the power of the state to quash competing voices.
Unfortunately, government unions like the NEA have succeeded in getting taxpayers—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—to underwrite their operations and advocacy. In fact, the NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., specifically encourages its state and local affiliates around the country to attempt to secure a list of concessions that result in taxpayer-funded public schools allowing their funds, facilities, resources and personnel to be used for the purpose of union recruitment and administration.
The problem isn’t limited to the states one might expect.
The IEA’s most recent tax return reported $1.5 million in revenue from “government grants,” though it doesn’t specify which government entities provided the funds.
And in a new report, the Washington state-based Freedom Foundation—founded in 1991 as the Evergreen Freedom Foundation—reviewed the teachers union contracts for each of the 83 Idaho school districts known to have unionized teachers and identified hundreds of examples of NEA-sought giveaways.
- At least 52 school districts deduct union dues from educators’ paychecks and forward the funds to a teachers union. Annually, these districts use their taxpayer-funded payroll systems and personnel to collect about $4.4 million in dues from over 5,000 teachers. For each dues-paying Idaho teacher, $208 per year is forwarded to the NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and used to advance its political advocacy. By routing a sizeable percentage of members’ dues through the NEA, Idaho teachers unions can circumvent state laws prohibiting government employers from deducting political contributions from employees wages and from using public facilities for political purposes. For instance, in the 2021-22 academic year alone, the NEA sent back $500,000 to the IEA in “ballot initiative support grants.” The direct cost to Idaho taxpayers of collecting teachers union dues is difficult to measure, but could amount to tens of thousands of dollars per year. The privilege is certainly worth far more to the IEA, which leverages school district-administered payroll deduction to decrease its administrative costs and more easily cajole teachers into membership. The Boise School District goes a step further by providing teachers a monthly salary enhancement for “professional activities” that just happens to approximate the cost of union dues and can be conveniently deducted from their paychecks and forwarded to the union by the district.
- At least 51 school district teachers union contracts include provisions providing paid time off for teachers who serve as union officials to engage in union work and advocacy on-the-clock and at taxpayer expense. Some contracts even specifically permit teachers to lobby the legislature on the union’s behalf while on paid release from their teaching duties. Again, while the direct cost to taxpayers is difficult to measure precisely, it could easily range from $500,000 to $1 million per year.
- And at least 31 school districts provide the teachers union with preferential, no-cost access to and use of school facilities and communications well beyond what community groups or even competing unions are entitled to.
While teachers and public school employees are certainly one interest group with a valid stake in the operation of government schools, the interests of students, families and taxpayers matter, too. Unfortunately, when school boards allow teachers unions to benefit from public funds, facilities and resources, it artificially amplifies union influence and warps democratic processes. Taxpayers already fund the management side of the bargaining table; they shouldn’t also have to pick up the tab for union bargaining against their interests and advocacy for controversial political views to boot.
Idaho lawmakers can and should protect taxpayers and level the playing field by prohibiting direct government funding for teachers unions, requiring unions to reimburse school districts for the cost of teachers’ paid union leave, providing that teachers unions get no more access to or use of school facilities than any other civic group, and ending government collection of union dues via payroll deduction.