Dissident educators have the power to change the course of teacher union politics in California.
A few years back I was on a panel with then California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel, who mentioned during his talk that about 35 percent of his union’s membership was Republican which is roughly the way the rest of the state lines up politically. That means there are about 100,000 right-of-center teachers in the Golden State.
It’s no secret that teachers unions are big political spenders, and in California, no special interest shells out more money than CTA. When asked recently about how CTA chooses its recipients, its leader Eric Heins said, “We decide our spending based on a democratic process with our members.”
Democratic process?! Maybe Heins is referring to the fact that CTA’s political decisions are made by their State Council, an elected governing body, though in reality few members ever know exactly who is running, what they stand for and where and when the elections are. Obviously if the union were truly democratic, at least some of its political largess would go in a rightward direction, especially in a place like Bakersfield which has a strong conservative bent.
But it doesn’t. CTA endorsed 35 state legislators in the June 6th primary – all Democrats. The union is financially supporting Gavin Newsom for governor – a man who has promised, if elected, would implement a “cradle to career” plan, a thinly disguised socialist-style arrangement that would have the government involved in parents’ lives starting when babies are in utero. CTA also plans to spend up to $10 million on five initiatives which will be on the ballot this November, including supporting one that would allow municipalities to apply stricter rent control regulations and fighting another that would strengthen Prop 13 protections.
CTA’s national partner, the National Education Association, is no less one-sided in its spending. Though its membership is politically mixed, (a 2005 NEA survey, consistent with previous results, found that members “are actually slightly more conservative (50%) than liberal (43%) in political philosophy.”) Regardless, NEA’s political spending goes more than 90 percent in a leftward direction. The union gives money to the Democracy Alliance, Progress Now, Progressive Inc., Media Matters, et al, which are all far left outfits. At its yearly meeting last week, the union gave former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick the “NEA President’s Award,” its highest honor, because of his “social justice activism.” Kaepernick is best known for disrespecting the country that has done him well by ostentatiously kneeling when the Star Spangled Banner played before a football game. The unions New Business Items, proposed projects and actions from the delegates for action during the coming year, continued the theme. NBI 36 says, “NEA shall, using existing digital media, post a list of known individuals with businesses who are committed to refusing services to same-sex couples and/or LGBTQ individuals.” (No mention was made of business owners refusing to serve Trump employees, however) And NBI 73 says, “NEA condemns the Supreme Court decision upholding Trump’s Muslim ban and demands its reversal as soon as possible.”
All this leads to Janus v AFSCME, the lawsuit that resulted in the U.S. becoming a right-to-work country. And it puts conservative and libertarian teachers in California and 21 other states in a powerful position. Prior to the ruling, teachers who didn’t like their unions’ political spending could opt out of paying the political portion of their union dues – usually about 35 percent of the total. A teacher would have to resign from the union, but still have to pay an “agency fee” of about $700 to their local union, and its state and national affiliates (usually CTA/NEA). But now no teacher has to pay a penny to a union as a condition of employment.
Conservative and libertarian teachers should start playing hardball and demand that the union change its political spending habits before they agree to join or maintain their membership. As the Manhattan Institute’s Daniel DiSalvo suggested in 2014, one way to do this is for the unions to make the election of union leaders much more transparent. He adds that unions should formalize their political decision-making “by holding referenda to gauge their members’ policy preferences more precisely” and the results should be made public.
One hundred thousand educators have a lot of power. Those teachers have been paying over $100 million a year in dues – every year – to the teachers union. It’s about time they begin to make some demands. “No taxation without representation” accomplished quite a bit politically about 250 years ago. It can be quite effective once again.
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 and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.