During her years as a public-school teacher in Elgin, Rep. Toni Hasenbeck said she and other teachers joined the Oklahoma Education Association primarily for one reason.
“It was just a vehicle for liability insurance,” Hasenbeck said. “That’s why all of us had it.”
Hasenbeck, a Republican, said she was one of nine OEA members at her school. Eventually, all nine left the union. Hasenbeck was able to get coverage through one of her husband’s business policies, while the other eight teachers left the OEA and joined a non-union teachers’ group that also provided liability coverage, “because it was so much cheaper.”
The union’s stances on political issues were never discussed, Hasenbeck said, and membership was purely a function of insurance coverage.
For Republican legislators, the OEA offers no comparable utilitarian benefit, yet many GOP politicians have tried to portray themselves as friends of the union, particularly on social media. Yet those same lawmakers, in different settings, tout themselves as supporting numerous issues that put them at odds with the OEA and its national parent, the National Education Association.
There’s an inherent tension there that Sen. Mark Allen, R-Spiro, says isn’t wholly explained by legislators lacking knowledge of the union’s political stances.
“I don’t think they’re unaware,” Allen said.
Rebecca Friedrichs, a 28-year educator from California who gained national prominence when she challenged forced unionism in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, sees a simple explanation for the apparent self-contradiction.
“They’re afraid they won’t get re-elected unless they kowtow,” Friedrichs said. “They’re kowtowing to the unions, or they play a politically correct game.”
The divide between the stances many Republican lawmakers claim to champion and the positions embraced by the OEA/NEA is stark.
A legislative tab on the OEA’s website links directly to the NEA’s “Legislative Action Center,” where union members are urged to lobby on a wide range of issues with little or no direct tie to the classroom. Among other things, that site urges union members to contact the U.S. Senate in support of the “Background Check Expansion Act,” a major gun-control measure.
The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action has noted that the “universal” background checks mandated by the legislation are “unenforceable without a comprehensive national registry of firearms.”
Don Spencer, president of the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association, said his members are aware of the OEA’s activism.
“Yes, OEA, they’re an anti-gun group,” Spencer said.
He said his group has sought to curtail illegal political activism by the OEA through three bills filed this year.
“We’ve actually introduced legislation to make sure that public entities, such as schools, cannot use public equipment and time to lobby against any constitutional right,” Spencer said. “That’s a huge problem that they’re using our taxpayer dollars to do this with.”
The OEA/NEA’s activism extends well beyond gun control. The NEA issue page on taxes declares the 2017 federal tax cuts were designed to “enrich the wealthy and corporations.”
The union also urges its members to support efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and revise the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act so that individuals, such as the Christian baker in Colorado who won a U.S. Supreme Court case, can no longer decline to create custom cakes for same-sex weddings.
That stance places OEA/NEA in opposition to legislation authored last year by now-Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. Treat’s bill, supported by many Republicans, allows faith-based agencies to provide state adoption services even if those agencies do not place children with same-sex couples due to religious beliefs. That bill passed the Senate on a 33-7 vote and the House on a 56-21 vote.
A union publication listing 2017–2018 NEA Resolutions includes one resolution that declares, “The National Education Association believes in family planning, including the right to reproductive freedom.” The latter two words are a common euphemism for abortion.
Yet many Republicans, including at least seven who received OEA endorsements in 2018, voiced support for numerous legislative proposals that would restrict or outlaw abortion in a candidate survey released by Oklahomans for Life.
Another NEA resolution declares, “The Association believes that humans must take immediate steps to change activities that contribute to global climate change.”
On the NEA’s issue page for health care is a letter from Marc Egan, director of government relations for the NEA, in which Egan claims to speak on “behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association and the 50 million students they serve.” That letter, sent to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, endorses Sanders’ “Medicare for all” proposal, which would strip citizens of private health insurance coverage and put everyone into a government-run system.
Egan declares, “We applaud your vision of a single-payer system …”
Friedrichs says such stances are not outliers, pointing to the NEA’s union-resolution documents and the list of new-business items considered at the union’s annual meetings.
“There were 159 new-business items in 2017,” Friedrichs said. “Almost none of them had anything to do with representing teachers.”
Records show strong ties between the OEA and its parent organization. The web site of the Education Intelligence Agency, citing publicly filed statements, shows that OEA relied on NEA grants for 20.2 percent of its funding in the 2016-2017 school year (the most recent year for which data was available). That placed the OEA among the most NEA-dependent state affiliates in the nation. Only 13 NEA state affiliates received 20 percent or more of their funding from the parent organization.
Allen sees last year’s teacher walkout as a sign of the national parent’s sway over its Oklahoma affiliate, since the walkout occurred after lawmakers had voted to raise taxes and fund large teacher pay raises, and no significant legislation was advanced in response to the walkout.
“We already had their teacher pay raise and the union pushed them into coming up here anyway, just because they had national support behind them, and to make a show,” Allen said. “And they did. And it turned out—to me, in my words—it was a two-week tailgate party.”
While the OEA at least provided insurance coverage when Hasenbeck was a teacher, it did little for her as a candidate. The group did not endorse her.
The Republican lawmakers who voted for much of the OEA’s 2018 agenda, which included tax increases and large pay raises for teachers, fared little better. The OEA declined to endorse many of those incumbents and notably snubbed House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and House Appropriations and Budget Chair Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston.
The OEA’s lack of support, and sometimes outright opposition, appeared to have little impact on most races.
Allen opposed last year’s tax increases, but still received 63 percent of the vote over a primary challenger and 63 percent in the general election against a Democratic opponent.
How did he win by such large margins when teachers were supposedly against him? Allen said the union doesn’t really speak for many teachers and the OEA members that lawmakers hear from through organized union advocacy represent just a small fraction of teachers.
“I have a lot of teachers that are supporters of mine, because they think we need to be teaching the kids in the classroom,” Allen said.
The Education Intelligence Agency reports that OEA had 19,112 members in the 2016-2017 school year. According to the Department of Education, there are more than 41,000 teachers in Oklahoma. And Hasenbeck’s experience suggests many who join OEA take only a passive interest in the organization and have no emotional attachment to it. Hasenbeck’s exit from the union involved no drama or soul-searching.
“I just didn’t turn in the paperwork to pay my dues,” Hasenbeck said. “And then I just stopped paying dues.”
Friedrichs said the majority of teachers are “passive” members who join a union because they believe that’s the only way to get liability coverage and because they believe the union provides job protection. As Hasenbeck and her colleagues found, insurance coverage can be obtained elsewhere. And Friedrichs says many teachers’ faith in the job-protection services of a union is similarly misplaced.
“I know teachers who paid their union dues faithfully for 25, 26 years, who were fired in a few days and the union won’t defend them,” Friedrichs said. “And teachers think if they’re harassed on the job that the union is going to defend them. No. The union only defends you if you get sued.”