Union democracy, PACs and dues.

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When I was in charge of an Illinois Education Association local we were very careful about keeping dues money and political action money separated into totally different buckets.

We had to be very careful, and I was warned over and over again by union leadership in Springfield – and by my IEA Uniserv Director – never to use my work computer for anything other than union business.

No politics.

And local dues money could never be used for local political activity.

I thought this was dumb, but I followed the directive to the letter.

In fact, in 2011 my entire history of work emails were the subject of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Ben Velderman of the Michigan-based Education Action Group. Velderman on behalf of the anti-union EAG wanted  to find even just one email that showed I had crossed the line between union work and so-called political activity.

The line that separates the unions’ duty of fair representation and political action is wiggly. But Velderman and his cohorts could find nothing in my emails that violated the law because there was nothing to find.

To be clear, I think this separation of union dues money from union political action money is stupid. The laws were written by pro-business politicians, that are intended to undermine union members’ collective action in support of the politicians who support us.

The Koch brothers are not so constrained.

The entire purpose of a union is collective action whether it is in support of bargaining a labor agreement, supporting pro-labor legislation or electing pro-labor elected officials.

If the collective action is decided democratically, with full transparency and with full rank and file voice, then to me it’s all the same.

Even before Janus, public employee union members could choose to withhold political action committee contributions.

Post Janus, public employee can also choose to withhold agency fees which are their fare share of the cost to bargain a contract and enforce it.

Not surprisingly very few have decided to do that.

Some have suggested that since Janus treats both union membership and political action contributions as voluntary, the legal distinctions should go away.

Mix it all up.

I agree with that.

But if recent news reports are true, some in union leadership have been mixing it all up already – but without the necessary transparency and union democracy.

Around $300,000 in CTU PAC, IFT COPE and IEA IPACE money was forwarded to The Friends of Michael Madigan for purposes CTU, IFT and IEA members never knew about or agreed to.

Just in the last quarter.

When teacher union members are led to believe that their PAC, COPE or IPACE donations are going to individual pro-teacher politicians but end up instead in the personal accounts of The Friends of Michael Madigan, with the unions functioning as nothing more than a pass through for member dollars to pay for sexual harassment law suits, settlements and lawyers, then something is seriously wrong.

Reports suggest that the wall between bargaining and contract enforcement and fair representation on the one hand and political action on the other has become very permeable.

But in the wrong way.

I have been told that $35 of each member’s annual dues are transferred to IFT COPE per Article X, Section 3(a) of the IFT Constitution.  Members have the option each year to redirect their COPE contributions.

Is that transparent and known to the members?

If dues money or PAC money is ending up paying for sexual harassment law suits and Madigan’s lawyers (or to pay some union officials three times the salary of the highest paid member) than that should be known to the rank and file as well.

They shouldn’t have to read about it in the Sun-Times.

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