Teachers in the Grandview, Sunnyside and Mabton school districts together pay more than $500,000 each year in union dues to the Washington Education Association.
In a case that appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, some of their teaching colleagues from around the state are challenging the WEA's use of union dues to contribute to political causes without their consent.
The Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a self-described "Washington State think tank", first brought attention to the issue in 2000 and the case has since made its way through superior and state courts.
The results have been mixed.
Thurston County Superior Court initially ruled on behalf of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a group of teachers and the state, represented by Attorney General Rob McKenna.
Since then, though, both the Court of Appeals (2003) and the Washington State Supreme Court (2004) have found in favor of the WEA.
Neither court decision was unanimous.
Following an appeal, the case is now being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Just as court opinions on the WEA's political activities with union dues have been mixed, so too are opinions by local teachers
"I'm very suspicious of the union on a national and even on a state level," says Sunnyside High School history teacher Troy Whittle. "But I think our local union (Sunnyside Education Association or SEA) does a great job. They know us and meet our needs."
Whittle, who has been at the high school for six years, says he pays in the neighborhood of $800 each year for union dues and doesn't know where the money goes.
"If it's important enough that the Supreme Court is looking at it, then maybe there's something that needs to be addressed," Whittle said. "I definitely think they (the WEA) should get our approval before contributing to any political cause."
That sentiment was echoed by Jeff Sevigny, who teaches career classes at Grandview High School.
"We don't have a say as far as what the WEA uses the money for," Sevigny claimed. "I guess they have our best interests at heart, but I would like a vote as far as where our money's going."
Teachers have full access to information on how the WEA spends union dues and have a say in the process.
That's according to Dan Thomas, a Sunnyside High School English teacher. Thomas served three years as SEA's president and is one of the union representatives for Sunnyside's high school teachers.
"We don't contribute members' money to political campaigns," Thomas said. "Any individual campaign backing is through a political action committee."
Thomas said WEA does participate in political campaigning related to ballot measures and lobbying in Olympia to "advocate for issues that are of direct concern to our members."
Thomas said publications are regularly sent to union members which spell out how WEA spends union dues.
"The people who say they don't know how their union dues are spent are the people who don't read the information that comes to them in monthly newsletters," Thomas contended.
In fact, teachers have more control over their union dues than they think.
Of the more than 600 teachers in Sunnyside, Grandview and Mabton, all but about 10 are paying optional dues to the WEA for its lobbying efforts.
The amount, between $1 to $5, isn't much compared to the $67 or so in union dues, but it is optional.
That's news to Whittle and Sevigny, who say they didn't know they could simply choose to not pay that portion of their dues.
"There's not a big outreach (by the WEA) that says 'here's your choices'," Whittle contends. "That's one thing that needs to happen."
Whittle also pointed to what he claims is a divide in that the state union, and for that matter the national union, do not reflect the values and beliefs of teachers in more conservative eastern Washington.
Thomas counters that a lack of agreement on all issues is the logical result of an organization as big as the WEA. He said that if the union loses its ability to advocate for issues such as teacher wages, retirement benefits and working conditions could be threatened.
"If they take away our ability as an association to speak out on issues they're really just trying to silence the association's view point," Thomas claims. He noted that the Evergreen Freedom Foundation is funded mostly by private contributions from outside of the state. One of the foundation's supporters, he notes, is the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame.
"They aren't even motivated by in-state interests," claims Thomas, who has been a teacher for 26 years, the past nine of them in Sunnyside. "I really think that most of this opposition comes from outside groups that are concerned only with attacking public education."
Sevigny and Whittle hope that whatever decision is rendered by the Supreme Court leads to better, more open communication between the WEA and the state's teachers.
Thomas is hoping the high court upholds the WEA's victories in lower courts. "Everything we've done has been validated by the courts," he said. "We feel we have to take a stand if we want to preserve our voice as an association."
As the chief negotiator between SEA and the Sunnyside School District, sixth grade teacher Rebecca Partch is accustomed to seeing both sides of an issue.
The WEA case is no different.
"It's a little bit of a catch-22," Partch observes. "I think the majority of our members are going to be happy (that the WEA is being challenged by the Supreme Court), but a defeat could take a little bit of the bite out of our power to get money for the education system."
Partch, a language arts/social studies teacher at Harrison Middle School, understands teachers who want to have more say in what political causes their money goes toward.
"Originally, I was very hesitant about backing something political that I may not agree with," she said.
Partch said her perspective changed as she learned more about the WEA's efforts.
It's a perspective she feels more teachers would share if there was more opportunities for interaction between local union leaders and teachers.
"For us to get all the members together one-on-one is tough, but I've been in meetings on why they (the WEA) do what they do," Partch says.
Though she sees both sides of the Supreme Court case, Partch said the meetings opened her eyes.
"Their (the WEA's) intention is to get more funding for education in the state of Washington," Partch observes. "I don't know who would want to argue with that."