Union Dues Fuel Political Activism, Records Show

Some Pennsylvania public school teachers prefer to teach and not get involved with the political activism of their unions at the state and national level. That’s one reason why Keith Williams, who is a former public school teacher himself, joined Americans for Fair Treatment in 2018.

The nonprofit based in Harrisburg is “designed to help public sector workers exercise their First Amendment Rights without fear of coercion from unions.” But, at the same time, Williams believes government workers should be free to join a union if they so choose. He finds that many teachers are pleased to be part of their local unions but are less keen on being tied in with the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the National Education Association (NEA). Unfortunately for them, most of the dues collected from teachers are going to the PSEA and the NEA, with a small percentage, if anything, reserved for the local unions.

So then, the question becomes, where is this money going? The Commonwealth Foundation has put together an infographic that helps to answer this question. From 2007 to 2019, political dues accounted for about 60% of government union political spending, according to U.S. Department of Labor LM-2 financial disclosure forms. The rest came from political action committees.

Graphic: Pa. Government Union Political Spending 

A deeper dive into these figures show that since 2007, the Pennsylvania teachers’ unions figure prominently into this equation with the PSEA spending almost $40 million in dues on politics and the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania spending more than $650,000 in dues collected on politics. All told, the government unions spent more than $135 million on politics during this 12-year time period.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that public sector workers do not have to either join a union or pay union dues or fees. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania labor laws have not yet been adjusted to restore free speech rights to public employees that the high court now says never should have been denied in first place.


These updated financial records show that local unions are operating as conduits for the political activism of their state and national counterparts.

While legislative and legal efforts aimed at reforming state laws continue to gestate, Williams sees another way out. He is proposing that local teachers’ unions be permitted to break away from the PSEA and by extension the NEA. There’s a certain precedence for this that Williams details in an article for The Wall Street Journal

Under the First Amendment, government workers should not be forced to pay for political activism they do not support. That’s what the Supreme Court has said, but the PSEA has a long history of violating Supreme Court rulings, according to legal briefs the Fairness Center has filed in a lawsuit against the union.

The nonprofit, public interest law firm based in Harrisburg is representing several public school teachers in a suit that could potentially overturn key portions of Pennsylvania’s labor laws that conflict with First Amendment freedoms. A definitive ruling in the case of Hartnett v. PSEA from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals cannot come soon enough from the perspective of teachers who do not want their dues spent on politics.

The PSEA’s annual LM-2 report for 2019 shows that it transferred $28.5 million in dues to the NEA. Influence Watch, a project of the Capital Research Center, describes the NEA as a “major political player” that “gives generously to Democratic political campaigns as well as left-of-center organizations.” 

These updated financial records show that local unions are operating as conduits for the political activism of their state and national counterparts. If local unions were permitted to end their affiliation with the PSEA and NEA, state and national unions would be more accountable to teachers and compelled to justify where and how union dues are spent.