Originally founded as the Pennsylvania State Teachers Association in 1852, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) has transformed itself from a professional development organization for educators into one of the wealthiest, largest, and most politically active labor unions in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
With more than 185,500 members, an annual income of more than $84 million through compulsory dues and fee payments and other sources, and 281 full-time employees, the union’s success depends on its ability to:
- Organize employees into collective bargaining units and secure compulsory dues and fees from workers and teachers;
- Influence legislation and financially support, elect, and lobby elected officials at every level of government; and
- Secure larger amounts of taxpayer money for the public schools and—ultimately—the union itself.
In the 1980s, Pennsylvania State Education Association membership numbered a mere 80,000. But with the passage of Act 84 of 1988—a law that granted labor unions the power to secure dues or fee payments from employees as a condition of employment—PSEA membership has more than doubled to over 185,500 today. The PSEA’s success in organizing teachers, cooks, janitors, bus drivers, and other school and health care personnel has provided the union with the numbers and the wealth to influence public policy in a manner that is virtually unrivaled in Harrisburg.
The PSEA has evolved into a powerful political machine with full and part-time political operatives in the state capital and in 13 regionally positioned offices throughout the Commonwealth. The labor union’s extensive network of personnel is able to directly and indirectly influence local, regional, statewide, and national political campaigns through hard and soft dollar contributions totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. But by completely politicizing public education at every level, the PSEA has effectively marginalized parents, children, and even teachers in communities throughout Pennsylvania.
Ultimately, the PSEA’s health and wealth is based on its success in lobbying elected officials to increase taxes on Pennsylvanians. Because salaries and benefits of public school employees—and, indirectly, union employees—are paid for by taxpayers, the union has a strong incentive to push for higher taxes. To this end, the labor union has been highly effective.
In the years preceding the passage of Act 84 (1968-1987), public school tax revenue from state and local sources grew respectively at rates 27% and 39% above the rate of inflation. However, in the years following Act 84 (1988-2007), public school tax revenue growth from state and local sources outpaced inflation by 56% and 92%, respectively. And during the post-Act 84 time period, property tax increases have grown by an inflation-adjusted 188%, compared to a mere 12% increase in the preceding nineteen years.
Although Pennsylvania teachers receive the fourth highest salaries in the nation (when adjusted for the cost of living), the real beneficiaries of the PSEA’s financial and political power are the PSEA staff and officers. In 2006-07, the average salary for a PSEA employee was more than $82,000. Even more startling, 99 out of 281 employees received more than $100,000 in salary alone.
The success of the PSEA in organizing employees, influencing politicians, and encouraging tax increases should be a concern for every Pennsylvanian. In addition to profiting from the $22.9 billion in taxpayer money that is spent annually (as of 2006-07) on public education, the PSEA heavily influences what is legislated in the statehouse and what occurs in our schools.
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The Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org) is an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA.