An email sent to educators just 10 years ago opened a lot of eyes – including mine – about the true nature of the teachers unions.
In 2005, after having taught for 24 years, I was becoming quite agitated. All along I had been subsidizing the teachers unions’ political agenda and thought I had no choice in doing so. I then learned that I could opt out of the political portion of union dues, but the process to do so was designed to discourage such actions. Shortly thereafter I read about Prop. 75, a California ballot initiative, which would have done just what I wanted: make the payment of the political portion of union dues voluntary. Teachers and other public employees would have to give the union permission before it deducted several hundred dollars a year from each paycheck to fund its pet political causes. The unions’ largess, supporting many causes which had nothing to do with teaching or education, went almost entirely in a leftward direction – implementing a single-payer health-care system in California, limiting restraints on the government’s power of eminent domain, etc.
In June, 2005, political consultant Steve Frank recruited me to become part of the Prop. 75 campaign. The so-called “Paycheck Protection” initiative was very popular at that time with both teachers and the general public. But over the summer, deeply threatened that their easy access to workers’ money would be cut off, the unions went into overdrive and spent a huge amount of cash, much of it on misleading ads. The California Teachers Association told teachers that if the prop passed, their pensions would be threatened. The police union told their members that if it was successful, the public would learn where the cops lived. Both allegations were big lies, but they were effective in swaying public opinion.
In October, several weeks before the election, Fontana teacher Lillian Perry and I signed off on an email sent to 90,000 teachers by the Prop. 75 campaign. It began,
Dear California Teacher:
We are also California teachers and are writing to you because we’re concerned about what the leaders of our union, the California Teachers Association (CTA), are doing to our union and with our hard earned dollars that we send to them in Sacramento every month.
Here’s the bottom line: Our current leadership is on the verge of bankrupting the CTA to fund a political agenda that many of us do not support.
Every year, union leaders in Sacramento take more than $100 million dollars from California teachers’ paychecks. This is approximately $300 per teacher per year. Much of this is used to fund a political agenda over which individual teachers have little control. Even worse, this is taken from our paychecks without our permission.
Earlier this year, the CTA leadership decided it still didn’t have enough money to spend on politics, so the (they) decided to take an additional $60 each year from our paychecks for the next three years. This forced assessment gave the union leaders an additional $50 million or more of our money for their political agenda.
Then, the spit really hit the fan. To say that CTA was unhappy would be the understatement of the century. The email made news all over the state, and if nothing else, got everyone talking about the prop. The Daily Kos smeared those of us who had stepped forward. CTA boss Barbara Kerr was indignant, saying, “It’s insulting that it was sent to them at their schools.” The union tried to push the matter – even at one point threatening Perry and me with imprisonment for sending our missive to teachers at work which it claimed was illegal. (The bullying didn’t work; we sent two more emails which CTA couldn’t stop because it didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.)
We did get some sympathetic press, though. Deroy Murdock, a media fellow with the Hoover Institution, wrote “The Union of the Snake” for National Review, in which he detailed the ugly bullying tactics used by the union to combat the initiative. As is oh-so-typical, the unions rarely argued the merits of the prop; they simply threatened us, cursed at us and shouted us down. As Murdock reports, when a National Right to Work Foundation lawyer and several of the prop’s advocates held a press conference in Sacramento, some of SEIU’s finest showed up and yelled “Shame on you!!” over and over and over again as the proponents tried to make their case. Murdock also related the tale of Sandra Crandall – a Teacher-of-the-Year – who then was in her 36th year as a Kindergarten teacher in Fountain Valley. In September, Crandall told the Los Angeles Times, “This is a freedom-of-choice issue. The issue is so simple, my Kindergarten children understand it. Ask permission. Ask permission on how to use my hard-earned money.”
Crandall’s simple, fair-minded statement engendered a less-than-charming response from “Four Pro-Union teachers who think you and the governor and the Republican party (sic) stink.” A few highlights:
You are a disgrace in supporting such a measure … You not only deserve to be shunned by your colleagues, you deserve to be bitch slapped in public by all the teachers you work with for demonstrating such a high level of right wing drivel and stupidity. Do us all a favor, shut your mouth and stop providing ammunition to the enemy.
Ah yes, nothing like tolerance and civil discourse!
As Election Day neared, I was mildly optimistic that we’d win. Especially so, after I, along with Lillian Perry, former Mayor Richard Riordan and Deputy Sheriff Lon Jacobs, appeared before the Los Angeles Times editorial board to pitch the initiative. We apparently convinced them of its merits, because on October 16th, much to my delight, the Times officially endorsed Prop. 75.
In the end though, we couldn’t beat the powerful union machine. Fueled by CTA’s $12 million ad buys (paid for, of course, with dues money teachers were forced to fork over), the anti-75 forces outspent us almost 10 to 1 – $54.1 million to $5.8 million and the measure lost by 53.5 to 46.5 percent. Not surprisingly all the big money came from the unions, including a $3.3 million donation from the California Democratic Party – a bought-and-paid-for wing of CTA.
Needless to say, I was furious with the outcome. But it motivated me in 2006 to co-found the California Teachers Empowerment Network, whose mission is to give teachers unbiased information, and combat union spin and outright lies. In 2010, I worked on a similar prop – The Citizens Power Initiative – which unfortunately never made it onto the ballot. And in 2012 I stumped for Prop. 32, yet another initiative promoting worker freedom. It too failed at the polls.
Now – exactly ten years after the rise and fall of Prop. 75 – there are two lawsuits which could accomplish even more than what the failed initiative had tried to achieve. The Friedrichs v CTA case, due to be heard by SCOTUS in 2016, would make paying any dues to a union optional for all public employees nationwide. If Bain v. CTA flies, teachers will be able to opt out of the political portion of their dues without being forced to resign from the union.
Both cases promote teacher freedom and choice at the expense of union bullying and hegemony. It’s about time teachers and other public employees had both.
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.