Will legislation stop union spigot? Texas teachers unions banked $200M since 2010

At the Texas Capitol: Corpus Christi American Federation of Teachers

Teachers unions in Texas have collected at least $115.5 million so far this decade from educators and other school workers — and that figure is perhaps closer to $230 million, a Texas Monitor analysis of teacher association dues collection shows.

This analysis appears to be the first that provides a detailed number to how much money teachers unions raise in Texas.

The hundred-million-plus tally is likely to add fresh arguments to those fighting for and against legislation being debated in the Texas Legislature prohibiting state and local governments from collecting dues for public unions, dubbed the “paycheck protection” bill at the Capitol.

The Texas Monitor examined responses to public record requests sent to every Texas school district, including charter schools seeking to review the total number of payroll deductions sent to any union or employee association from 2010 through 2016.

Out of the 1,217 school districts contacted, 636 districts complied with the records request by the deadline. The total amount of dues that these 636 school districts have collected over the requested time period for the four largest teachers unions in Texas adds up to $115.5 million.

The total breakdown of money collected between 2010 and 2016 according to records:

  • The Association of Texas Professional Educators collected $35.2 million
  • The Texas State Teachers Association collected $32.4 million
  • The Texas American Federation of Teachers collected $31.0 million; and
  • The Texas Classroom Teachers Association collected $16.9 million

The school districts that complied with the request by the deadline account for 348,570 full-time personnel. That is just over half of all employees working in Texas school districts. Using that information as a starting point, one could extrapolate that teachers unions have collected as much as $228 million since 2010.

Supporters of the bill, who have been Republicans, say that the government should have no official role in collecting dues from public union paychecks since taxpayer money is used to do so. This is a common view in many other states that have passed similar legislation, such as Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

Opponents of the Texas legislation dismiss that argument, saying that Texas state and local governments are allowed to bill the unions for any time and work done in the process of collecting union dues.

The Texas Monitor money analysis shows that perhaps the argument goes beyond those talking points because union money is also used to hire lobbyists to work the halls of the Texas Legislature and unions use their leverage to raise money that is used for political campaigns.

“From a practicality perspective, the Republicans know that to the extent that those dollars are used for politics… that it’s used for Democratic candidates attempting to defeat Republican candidates,” said Mark Jones, a Fellow of political science at Rice University.

Jones notes that Republicans are looking at the bill through a philosophical lens, too.

“They generally oppose unions, and don’t like that the government is facilitating the unions’ ability to collect dues,” he said.

But: “In many ways it’s a ‘twofer,’’ Jones said. “You can vote from a principled perspective as well as a pragmatic perspective.”

In Texas, union dues money goes to underwrite “representational activities,” such as mediation proceedings. This cash also supports the day-to-day operations of the unions, such as the salaries of union officials and mundane items such as office rentals, phones, and copy machines. A large chunk of this money goes to liability insurance, too.

In addition, for some teachers unions, a chunk of this money also flows out of state into the coffers of the D.C.-based national teachers’ unions. Indeed, too much money is funneled out of state, some top Texas union officials have privately lamented.

And while union dues cannot be used directly to support candidates, the money can be used to start up and support political action committees. This cash can also be used to pay for political mailers and phone calls to members’ homes, and other similar activities.

For example, the Association of Texas Professional Educators said they use none of their dues money to fund political candidates. Its members must give additional money beyond their dues if they want to support the union-backed candidates.

And plenty of teachers do exactly that through union PACs.

The Texas State Teachers Association, which is closely linked to the National Education Association gave more than $3 million to candidates and causes over the past 20 years, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics; The Texas Classroom Teachers Association gave $1.2 million; the Association of Texas Professional Educators gave $1.1 million, and; the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which is associated with the national American Federation of Teachers gave just under $1 million.

And it’s no secret that unions favor Democratic candidates.

On the national level, teachers union PACs overwhelmingly back Democrats.

Closer to home, unions back Democrats as well, but less stridently than on the national scene. Just over three-fourths of union campaign contributions went to Democrats since 2000, records show.

For example, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association spent more than $1 million to back Democratic state legislative candidates and $611,000 on Republicans over the past 20 years, according to an analysis from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. In addition, the Texas State Teachers Association has given $2.7 million to Democrats and $570,000 to Republicans, the same report shows.

Association of Texas Professional Educators lobbyist Mark Wiggins argues, though, that the paycheck legislation is more complex than a simple Republican vs. Democrat issue.

“It’s not so much a Republican thing as it is a policy thing,” Wiggins told The Texas Monitor. “One of the biggest debates we’re having at the capitol right now is over the privatization of the public school system, through vouchers and things that operate like that, such as the efforts to privatize public pensions.”

He said the backers of those policies are the ones that want to stop unions cold, and some union workers say that the Texas legislators pushing this bill are seeking to replicate what happened in Wisconsin.

A hotly contested 2011 law passed by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature stripped many perks and benefits from the public unions there. In part, that law put prohibitions on government employers withholding union dues from workers’ paychecks.

Now, union membership in Wisconsin is down nearly 40 percent.

“What they want to do is hand over our schools and retirement systems to private businesses,” Wiggins said. ”What better way to do that than to keep people who are defending schools out of the way.”

The Texas Senate last week passed its version of the bill by a 19-12 vote. No Democrats voted for the legislation and Republican State Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville broke with his party, joining the Democrats in a ‘no’ vote.

The debate now moves to the House.

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Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story referenced that union dues go to assist in collective bargaining. In Texas, it is illegal for any government entity, such as schools, to enter into any collective bargaining agreement with a union. The Texas Monitor regrets the error.

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.