A Modesto Proposal

A Modesto Proposal

A California teachers union local is trying to break away from CTA/NEA and why it matters.

In 1870, a new town south of Sacramento was to be named for financier William C. Ralston, but he was too modest and asked that another name be used. Thus, the town – eventually immortalized in the film American Graffiti – was named Modesto. Today, the city of 200,000 is embroiled in an interesting and quite immodest battle of wills. The Modesto Teachers Association (MTA) – the city’s 1,525-member local teachers union – is threatening to divorce itself from its state and national affiliates, the California Teachers Association and National Education Association. While this may engender a yawn from many, the consequences could be far-reaching.

Upon entering the profession, public school teachers in California are forced into a unified dues structure. This means that they join a national union, its state affiliate and the local union. To ensure a steady cash flow, the union folks don’t let their members write a check or use a credit card to pay their dues. Instead, the unions simply get local districts to extract the money from a teacher’s paycheck on a monthly basis and then turn it over to the unions, all at taxpayer expense. (If teachers were allowed to voluntarily pay up, the union would be on life support.) In 2013-2014, CTA’s yearly portion of the heist is $644 while the NEA skims $182. The rest of the dues money stays with the local union. So teachers wind up paying on average over $1,000 a year to the three unions for the privilege of teaching in the Golden State.

As reported by the Modesto Bee, the MTA/CTA imbroglio in a nutshell:

The MTA leadership proposed leaving its state affiliate after CTA found the local was out of compliance in spending a $280,000 annual grant. The local has received the grant through the CTA for decades to pay for office staff: a full-time executive director and a secretary.

Here’s the hitch: The MTA does not directly employ its executive director. Instead, for 22 years, it has paid the Modesto district to keep a former teacher on its payroll.

After 22 years, why is CTA just now raising a ruckus? Has CTA been falling down on the job or did it intentionally turn a blind eye to the “problem?” Or is there another reason for the altercation?

In any event, this may seem like a family squabble with no ramifications for anyone outside the union circle, but there is a bigger picture worth noting. If the teachers do decide to go through with the disaffiliation (a vote is scheduled for May 6th), it will mean almost one million dollars less for CTA and over $277,000 less for NEA on a yearly basis. The money that Modesto teachers will be withholding from CTA is used for such things as communications ($22 per teacher), occupancy/properties ($20), governance ($34), etc. But while the aforementioned monies serve to feed the union bureaucracy, a hefty portion of teachers’ dues goes to politics. It is no secret that CTA is the biggest political spender in the state ($290 million in 2000-2013) and throws its weight around by fighting to limit charter school expansion and other forms of school choice, and keeping the tenure and seniority statutes in place. And unknown to many teachers and the general public, CTA spends millions on such controversial non-education-related issues as same sex marriage, implementing a single-payer health-care system in California, blocking photo ID requirements for voters, and limiting restraints on the government’s power of eminent domain.

NEA’s political spending – about $130 million a year – also has an overwhelming one-way political direction. It has given large blocks of money to the AFL-CIO, Media Matters, MALDEF and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.

Granted, if the teachers vote to disaffiliate, the unions won’t much miss their dues contributions: NEA’s total yearly income is typically about $400 million and CTA’s about $185 million. But if on May 6th, Modesto teachers step up, thrust a middle finger at the capo and demand independence, other teacher union locals could be inspired to follow suit. And if that happens, it could trigger a tectonic shift in the political landscape in California and the nation.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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