In 1992, voters in the state of Washington approved an initiative that, among other things, prohibited unions from funding political efforts with mandatory dues. That wasn't good news for the Washington Education Association, which saw contributions to its political action committee drop 83 percent.
Worried that its political clout might wane proportionally, the WEA created a "Community Outreach Program," and charged each of its members $12 per month for "educating the community." Barb Amidon, a dues-paying school counselor, was suspicious of the new fee. She asked about the fund and, in a slip of honesty, a union representative told her the money was for political causes. Amidon reported the fund to the state's Public Disclosures Committee. When the committee barely budged to investigate, Amidon took the case to Bob Williams of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a Washington state think tank.
Williams, a certified public accountant, claims to have found more than $4 million in union spending abuses and brought his findings to the PDC, which turned the matter over to the state's attorney general, who filed a lawsuit against the WEA in February.
The lawsuit charges the WEA with failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions, "loans," and expenditures used for the union's political activities. The state also claims the outreach program's "primary purpose was to influence the political process by supporting or opposing candidates and ballot measures." No court date has been set.
The stakes are high for the union, which could be fined as much as $10,000 per violation. "The whole thing is an issue of integrity," says Amidon, who complains that the union cares more about partisan politics than educational issues. "We want the union to get back to meeting the real needs of classroom students and teachers."