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Where are Washington teacher union dues going?

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(The Center Square) – A recent blog published by the conservative Olympia-based Freedom Foundation questioning the “nonpartisan” status of the Idaho Education Association prompted The Center Square to ask about the political spending of member dues by the Washington Education Association.

Maxford Nelson, the Freedom Foundation’s director of research and government affairs, in his Feb. 29 blog notes the IEA is investing its members’ dues in a progressive advocacy organization with ties to left-leaning candidates and policies.

That may not seem surprising in the Evergreen state, where the WEA is far more open about its political positioning and advocacy and Democrats control the governor’s office and both chambers of the state Legislature. But in conservative Idaho – where the Republican Party controls the offices of governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and both chambers of the state Legislature – the IEA has attempted to position itself as nonpartisan.

But now he IEA has become a member of a progressive advocacy organization founded by Boise Mayor Lauren McClean, called the Idaho Progressive Investor Network.

According to IRS filings, the IEA contributed $25,000 to the Idaho Progressive Investor Network, describing the transaction as an “annual membership payment.”

In 2019, McClean described the mission of the Idaho Progressive Investor Network to the Idaho Press as connecting “those who want to contribute to progressive causes to organizations working on those issues throughout Idaho.”

The Center Square reached out to the Freedom Foundation to inquire about WEA’s spending on political advocacy and candidates.

“Total revenue for the WEA from union dues in the 2021-22 academic year was $50 million, which is just massive and that’s not counting the revenue from local affiliates around the state, or the money that gets forwarded onto the NEA [National Education Association] headquarters,” Nelson said. “It’s truly a massive labor union, probably the largest in the state.”

Nelson says tax returns tell where WEA’s priorities lie.

“By my count, WEA made nine grants in that year, and you can divide these into three main categories,” he said.

The first category, according to Nelson, are “advocacy organizations dedicated to increasing taxes in Washington state, like $50,000 to the ‘No Tax Cut For The Super Rich,'” campaign.

He went on to say, “The second would be giving to the established progressive infrastructure in Washington state, like the Economic Opportunity Institute and Seattle Out and Proud, an LGBTQ advocacy organization.”

And then there’s the third category.

“The most expensive category is a $1 million transfer of members dues from the WEA to the WEA’s political action committee,” Nelson said, “and that money gets funneled into direct political campaigning and support for candidates and to support or oppose ballot measures.”

In July 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that public employees do not have to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

As a result, WEA, like other state teachers’ unions, has lost members.

“It’s hard to know exactly how many Washington teachers are not members of the union anymore, but certainly it’s thousands fewer than would have been required to pay into WEA before the ruling,” Nelson observed.

The Center Square reached out to the WEA on multiple occasions for comment, but did not get a response.

“We’ve processed 2,600 WEA membership cancellations by public school employees since Janus,” Nelson said. “An unknown number of non-members who were forced to pay agency fees until Janus were dropped off the rolls automatically after, and some unknown number of teachers and school employees hired since Janus have never signed up for WEA membership in the first place. I’m sure other former members have cancelled their membership without going through us.”

Nelson adds these are massive unions “that have multiple levers at their disposal to increase revenue even if they are losing members.”

He noted. “The dues rate is not fixed, and we’ve seen a trend across many government unions of bumping their dues rates up to compensate to declining membership, so you may have fewer members but if you’re collecting more from each one, sometimes that’s enough to keep the finances steady or in some cases even increase them.”

Nelson’s blog points out “There is nothing illegal or inherently improper about a labor union contributing funds to another private organization like the Idaho Progressive Investor Network or otherwise advocating for progressive political views, policies or candidates.”

But, he goes on to say union “members deserve to know how their dues are spent so they can make an informed decision about whether membership in an NEA-affiliated union aligns with their values.”

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