Supreme Court: MEA must return $150,000 in dues

Teachers improperly charged fee for union politicking

A recent verdict by the U.S. Supreme Court will force the state's largest school employees' union, the Michigan Education Association (MEA), and its parent organization, the National Education Association (NEA), to return to members some $150,000 in union dues illegally seized from 1991 to 2000 for use in political activity.

The court settlement brings to an end a class action lawsuit, Bromley v. MEA, filed on behalf of 18 teachers and professors in 1992. The settlement orders MEA and NEA officials to return to 450 teachers dues money that funded union activities not related to collective bargaining.

The settlement also requires union officials to stop forcing members who object to underwrite union non-bargaining-related activities. This will reduce the amount of dues the teachers must pay in the future.

In a 1991 Supreme Court decision, Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, the court ruled that an employee who objects to funding his union's political or other non-collective bargaining activities cannot be forced by the union to pay for those activities. Despite this ruling, MEA officials continued to violate teachers' rights, prompting the Bromley v. MEA lawsuit, which challenged the union's calculation of how much of the teachers' dues was used for political and other non-bargaining-related activities.

Many teachers and other union members disagree with the positions their unions take with regard to various causes and political issues. But most union members are unaware that they can redirect the money they are forced to pay to the union for non-bargaining activities. According to Robert Hunter, director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, "There are a variety of ways under current labor laws to protect objecting union workers from financially supporting union spending on non-workplace-related activities."

Hunter is author of a recent study on the options available to workers who have religiously based objections to either union membership or payment of dues to a union. In the report, entitled Religious Liberty and Compulsory Unionism: A Worker's Guide to Using Union Dues for Charity, Hunter points out that such workers "can divert some or all of their dues money to charitable organizations and still be protected on the job."

Federal law enforcement authorities are beginning to investigate longstanding examples of union abuse of worker rights. For example, the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission are considering a probe into political spending by the NEA, with whom the MEA is affiliated. Although the NEA's reports to the IRS claim that no union dues are spent on politics, other NEA documents, uncovered by The Associated Press, show otherwise.

The NEA's 1998-2000 budget allocated $4.9 million to be spent on a "national political strategy" in the 2000 election that involves "candidate recruitment, independent expenditures, early voting, and vote-by-mail programs in order to strengthen support for pro-public education candidates and ballot measures."

The NEA also has failed to report previous political expenditures, including large contributions to state-based school employees' unions, slated for "electing education-friendly candidates" who oppose school voucher and charter school initiatives.

In a complaint to the IRS, the public interest law group Landmark Legal Foundation recently submitted complaints against the NEA, alleging that the union "has made improper contributions to federal campaigns" and that it "is spending substantial general operating funds on taxable political activities, which it has not reported on its tax returns for the last several years."

The complaint to the IRS further states that: "for several years the NEA has failed to disclose the full extent of its political activities and expenditures as required by the Internal Revenue Code. As a result, the NEA appears to have submitted inaccurate tax returns that understate its taxable income."

The lawsuit calls on the IRS to conduct a comprehensive investigation to determine the full extent of the NEA's political activities and expenditures. The NEA claims it is in compliance with the law.

Religious Liberty and Compulsory Unionism: A Worker's Guide to Using Union Dues for Charity is available on the Internet at www.mackinac.org or by calling 800-22-IDEAS.

The complaints filed against the NEA by the Landmark Legal Foundation can be viewed at www.landmarklegal.org.