For teachers reeling from the ballooning union scandal in Washington, D.C., the outlook is bleak. In the last six weeks they have learned how their union, the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU), has been ripping them off for the past seven years. Meanwhile, the system of compulsory unionism still forces them to fork over their hard-earned dues money to a union whose top brass has betrayed teachers’ trust.
Although the ultimate fix for union corruption is to strip union officials of their government-backed power to seize mandatory union dues, current law allows teachers to fight back in a small way.
By now, the allegations are familiar: Since at least 1996, President Barbara Bullock and her two cronies, Gwendolyn Hemphill and Treasurer James Baxter, used the WTU treasury as their personal piggy bank. They went on personal shopping sprees for items like a $20,000 mink coat, plasma televisions, nearly half a million dollars in designer clothing, and more than $10,000 in shoes. All told, more than $5 million may have been embezzled. The union’s top three officials, each closely aligned with Washington Mayor Anthony Williams and prominent players in local Democrat politics, were forced to resign from union office. Even Hemphill’s husband was forced out of his employment with the city.
As the federal investigation continues, it’s likely that even more scandalous activity will be uncovered. But the biggest scandal is that 5,500 hardworking District teachers are the individuals who will ultimately foot the bill.
A spokesman for the WTU’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), told the Washington Post that AFT officials would “work to recoup the money and return it to the teachers.” But during a January court hearing on a lawsuit filed against the WTU and AFT unions by Anacostia Senior High School teacher National Saunders, union lawyer James Cole’s explanation of how AFT bosses planned to “repay” teachers dumbfounded U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan.
As Judge Sullivan pointed out, AFT bosses were, by their own admission, planning only to provide an aggregate “loan” of $250,000 to the 1,700 teachers who had asked for their money returned. However, the WTU will have to repay the loan, plus interest, and the funds for repayment will come straight out of the teachers’ forced union dues!
“That’s not a repayment, is it?” Judge Sullivan asked.
“I know it sounds odd that the teachers have to pay, but the teachers’ union was the victim,” replied Mr. Cole while managing to keep a straight face.
Despite this sad state of affairs, there is something Washington teachers can do to send a message while temporarily preventing the WTU cheating them out of their hard-earned money.
Those teachers who resign their formal memberships in the WTU can demand that the union provide an independent audit of union expenditures, and they can reclaim the portion of their dues that the union does not spend on collective bargaining. If the union does not provide the audit, then the employees cannot be lawfully forced to pay any dues to the union.
Employees have this right pursuant to the First Amendment as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Teachers Local No. 1 v. Hudson (1986). In that case, argued and won by National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation attorneys, the Court ruled that unions must provide objecting employees an advance reduction of forced union dues used for activities not related to collective bargaining. Under Hudson, the Court said union officials must provide audited disclosure of their books and justify expenditures made from forced union dues seized from employees who have chosen to refrain from union membership.
The problem for WTU officials? It appears the union’s books are unauditable, and auditors cannot even begin to determine the amount teachers can be charged for activities relating directly to collective bargaining. This means that those teachers who exercise their rights under Hudson can stop subsidizing a corrupt union until it gets its house in order, whenever that may be.
Of course, this is only a band-aid on a much larger problem. While filing for a Hudson notice may temporarily free employees from paying mandatory union dues, the long-term solution is to end compulsory unionism altogether. Until teachers are freed from the draconian obligation of financially supporting a private club that moonlights as a political organization, they will continue to be virtually powerless to hold union bosses accountable.
— Stefan Gleason is vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a nonprofit, charitable organization providing free legal aid to employees whose human or civil rights have been violated by compulsory unionism abuses.