THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION: COMPELLING TEACHERS, LOBBYING POLITICIANS, AND INCREASING TAXES by Matthew J. Brouillette & Ann C. Thomson, J.D.*

Executive Summary

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 160,000 members, an annual income of more than $66 million through compulsory payments and other sources, and 276 full-time employees, the union’s success depends on its ability to:

1. Organize employees into collective bargaining units and secure compulsory dues agreements from school boards;

2. Influence legislation by financially supporting, electing, and lobbying elected officials at every level of government; and

3. Secure increasingly 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 in 1988—a law that granted labor unions the power to compel dues or fee payments from employees as a condition of employment—PSEA membership has more than doubled to over 160,000 today. The PSEA’s success in organizing teachers, cooks, janitors, bus drivers, and other school and health care personnel has provided the union the numbers and 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 11 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 prosperity is based on its success in getting 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 9 and 13 percent faster than inflation. However, in the years following Act 84 (1988-2000), public school tax revenue growth from state and local sources outpaced inflation by 102 and 133 percent, respectively. And during the post-Act 84 time period, property tax increases outpaced inflation by 149 percent, compared to a 12 percent increase in the preceding nineteen years.

Although Pennsylvania teachers receive the 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 2000-01, the average salary for a PSEA employee was more than $73,000. Even more startling, 84 out of 276 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 $17.4 billion in taxpayer money that is annually spent on public education, the PSEA heavily influences what is legislated in the statehouse and what occurs in our schools—which are supposed to educate our children and help prepare them for responsible citizenship and productive lives.

Introduction

The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA)—founded in 1852 as the Pennsylvania State Teachers Association to promote professional development for educators—is one of the wealthiest, largest, and most politically active labor unions in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Rivaled by only a handful of other special interest groups, the school employees’ labor union boasts more than 160,000 members, an annual income of more than $66 million through compulsory payments and other sources, and 276 full-time employees.

The PSEA is currently the exclusive bargaining representative for 900-plus local associations. In addition to public school teachers, the union represents school cooks, janitors, bus drivers, school dental hygienists, school nurses, school psychologists, school social workers, librarians, community college and junior college faculties, students and retirees, as well as private sector healthcare workers.1 In approximately 600 of the local associations, the PSEA has negotiated with employers—primarily school board members—the power to compel payments from employees as a condition of employment. It is this “taxing” power that has enabled the PSEA to become a dominant force in Pennsylvania politics.

Today, the PSEA’s strength in numbers and wealth enables it to effectively advance its agenda on a daily basis. The labor union’s success is dependent on its ability to (1) organize employees into collective bargaining units and secure compulsory dues agreements from school boards; (2) influence legislation by financially supporting, electing, and lobbying elected officials at every level of government; and (3) secure increasingly larger amounts of taxpayer money for the public schools and—ultimately—the union itself. To date, the PSEA has earned an “A” for all three subjects.

Organizing Employees

In 2001, the Pennsylvania State Education Association numbered 160,513 members in its ranks. Although PSEA membership was approximately 80,000 members in the 1980s, the passage of Act 84 in 1988 rejuvenated the association by granting the union the power to compel dues or fee payments from employees as a condition of employment.

The labor union bills itself as a “voluntary” membership association, and that “No school employee or health care professional is required to join and pay dues, nor can they be fired or be subjected to any punitive action for choosing not to join.”2 The irony, however, is that the PSEA is one of the few organizations where non-membership costs hundreds of dollars per teacher on an annual basis. In the 2001-02 school year, teachers who chose not to join the union were forced to pay more than $345 each in fees to the PSEA and its national affiliate, the National Education Association.3

These “agency shops”—whereby school board directors agree to a union contract that forces every teacher to pay money to the union in order to enter and remain in a classroom—have increased from zero school districts in 1987 to 333 out of 501 districts statewide today. Although one-third of Pennsylvania’s school districts do not force their employees to make payments to a labor union, the other 333 agency shops account for nearly 3 out of every 4 teachers in the Commonwealth. Only three counties in Pennsylvania—Juniata, Mifflin, and Perry—fully guarantee teachers’ freedom to accept or decline union representation.4

Irrespective of the PSEA’s willingness to compel payments from people as a condition of employment, the labor union’s success in organizing employees is impressive, to be sure. However, an even more significant display of its political power has been the union’s ability to effectively influence the political and legislative process.

Influencing Politicians

In addition to being a government-sector labor union, the PSEA has evolved into a powerful political machine, with full and part-time political operatives in the state capital and in 11 regionally positioned offices throughout the Commonwealth. The ability to influence politics and shape public policy—even beyond education—is key to the union’s survival and prosperity. Therefore, the PSEA has powerful incentives to build an extensive network of personnel to directly and indirectly influence local, regional, statewide, and national political campaigns through hard and soft dollar contributions totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While most employees in the private sector earn a larger paycheck by working harder at their jobs to provide a better product or service, employees in the government sector (including public schools) often receive a larger paycheck simply through electing preferred candidates for office, lobbying the state legislature and local school boards for increased taxes, preventing private competition for the provision of services, and involvement in other politically driven activities. The direct linkage between politics and the pocketbook for government-sector labor unions is why the PSEA has moved away from professional development for teachers and embraced its evolution into a comprehensive political machine.

In addition to direct cash contributions to politicians from its political action committee, PSEA-preferred candidates for office are also provided with substantial support through phone banks, literature distribution, door-to-door canvassing, “get out the vote” efforts, and other incalculable donations to the union’s choices for office. The PSEA’s ability to mobilize union activists across the Commonwealth is virtually unmatched by any other special interest group in Pennsylvania.

Clearly, the PSEA is an influential force in statewide politics; however, the chart on the following page demonstrates how school employees’ labor unions have politicized education at the local level. By creating a cycle that is nearly impossible to penetrate without union permission, the PSEA has effectively marginalized parents, children, and even teachers in communities throughout Pennsylvania.

Increasing Taxes

Finally, the PSEA’s success is dependent in large part on its ability to secure increasingly larger sums of taxpayer money for the public schools and—ultimately—the union itself. The tipping point for the PSEA came in 1988 with the passage of Act 84, which enabled the union to dramatically increase its financial and political power.

Because the PSEA is indirectly funded through taxpayer dollars,5 the incentive to increase taxes for public schools is high. Lower revenues to the public schools equates to lower revenues for the labor union; so it is no surprise that taxes on Pennsylvanians have concomitantly increased with the growth of the PSEA’s political power to influence tax decisions.

Comprehensive data on total Pennsylvania public school tax revenues and expenditures for the years 1968-2000 show how effective the PSEA has been in influencing tax increases in the Commonwealth.6 In the years preceding Act 84 (1968-1987), the growth of public school revenue from state and local sources outpaced inflation by 9 and 13 percent, respectively. (See Chart 1, below.)

However, in the years following Act 84 (1988-2000), public school tax revenue growth from state sources outpaced inflation by 102 percent, and growth from local sources was 133 percent above the inflation rate. (See Chart 2, below.) These dramatic increases of more than double the rate of inflation are attributable in large part to the PSEA’s enhanced influence on the political process at both the state and local levels.

Although the union faces “competition” for taxpayer dollars at the state level, the PSEA has a virtual monopoly of influence over powerful local taxation units of government—school districts. Through contract negotiations with school districts—and the complicity of school board members—union demands at the bargaining table effectively drove up local property taxes by 110.5 percent during the 1988-2000 period (a rate 149 percent higher than the concurrent rate of inflation). Compared to the pre-Act 84 years of 1968-1987, property taxes grew at a rate a mere 12 percent higher than the 67.3 percent rate of inflation. (See Chart 3)

The PSEA’s success in bargaining for increasingly expensive contracts with school boards and effectively lobbying of state legislators have led to higher taxes on citizens. In part, higher taxes have provided Pennsylvania’s public school teachers with the highest salaries in the nation (when adjusted for the cost-of-living). According to a 2002 study from the American Federation of Teachers—the national affiliate of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers—“the average teacher in Pennsylvania had the highest purchasing power” in the nation of $52,832 (adjusted by the AFT interstate cost-of-living index).7

Even given the generous average salaries that Pennsylvania teachers receive, it is nevertheless clear that our public schools’ best teachers are underpaid as a result of rigid union salary schedules that prohibit merit-based increases for high-performing educators. But salaries for high-performing teachers would most certainly rise if school board directors refused to accept union-negotiated salary schedules that compensate teachers equally by unfairly taking money from excellent educators and distributing it to union-protected mediocre and poor-performing teachers. Regardless, average teacher salaries of $49,528 for nine months of work remain highly attractive when compared to the average Pennsylvania worker, who earned $33,999 for 12 months of work in 2000.8

But are teachers the real beneficiaries of the PSEA’s wealth?

The PSEA’s website claims that “Membership Doesn’t Cost—It Pays!” An analysis of information gathered by the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that PSEA membership truly does pay—particularly if you are a PSEA employee or official.

Membership Has Its Privileges

Many unions, organizations, companies, and individuals profit from Pennsylvania’s $17.4 billion government school industry, but the employees of the PSEA are clearly some of the greatest beneficiaries of taxpayer money.9 According to the labor union’s 2000-01 LM-2 report, the PSEA collected $66,401,259 from various sources, much of which came from compulsory membership dues ($482 per teacher for PSEA/NEA dues in 2000-01), interest and dividends, rent, the sale of investments and fixed assets, and reimbursement from its national affiliate (the NEA) for services provided.10

More than one-third of the PSEA’s revenue makes its way into the pockets of hundreds of PSEA employees. In 2000-01, the average PSEA employee salary was $73,388, or 48 percent more than the average teacher salary and 116 percent more than the average worker in Pennsylvania. Additional average benefits of $17,771 include membership dues for other organizations, tuition reimbursement, relocation reimbursement, pensions, hospitalization, and auto, health, dental, vision, and life insurance.

Eighty-four PSEA employees received salaries of more than $100,000—almost double the number of union employees receiving more than $100,000 in FY 1999-2000.11 With nearly 1 out of every 3 union employees receiving a six-figure income—a level that few, if any, teachers will ever reach—vacancies on the PSEA staff are likely not difficult to fill.

It also appears that PSEA employee salaries are not constrained by the same types of union-imposed salary structures that prohibit meritorious compensation increases for teachers. One apparently high-performing PSEA employee experienced a more than 80 percent increase in his paycheck in one year, from $115,177 in 1999-2000 to $210,377 in 2000-01. Of course, the individual may very well have deserved the handsome salary increase; however, there is not a single union contract in the state of Pennsylvania that would permit a superintendent or principal to likewise compensate a worthy teacher.

The PSEA’s top ten highest paid employees received average salaries of $146,210, or 195 percent more than the average teacher and 330 percent more than the average Pennsylvania worker. (See Table 1) PSEA President Patsy Tallarico was paid $140,516 in 2000-01, but Mr. Tallarico may be due for a big pay raise in his third year as president if his predecessor’s experience is indicative. Former PSEA President David Gondak jumped from $137,575 in his second year as union leader in 1997-98 to $234,013 in 1998-99. Gondak’s one-year compensation increase of 70 percent certainly gives new meaning to the PSEA’s motto: membership doesn’t cost—it pays!

 

Table 1
Pennsylvania State Education Association's "$100K Club"

Top 10 (out of 84) Union Employee Salaries Over $100,000 in 2000-2001

The Union’s Best Interests

Every Pennsylvanian should be concerned about the financial incentives and political agenda that drive the Pennsylvania State Education Association. It is the only labor union that holds inordinate sway over both Pennsylvanians’ paychecks and children. Not only does the union profit from the taxpayers’ annual expenditure of $17.4 billion on public education, but it heavily influences public policy in Pennsylvania, as well as the system of schools that are supposed to educate our children and help prepare them for responsible citizenship and productive lives.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association works hard to convince citizens that it represents the best interests of teachers, children, and public education. However, the evidence reveals that the labor union’s top priorities are (1) organizing employees into collective bargaining units and securing compulsory dues agreements from school boards; (2) influencing legislation by financially supporting, electing, and lobbying elected officials at every level of government; and (3) securing increasingly larger amounts of taxpayer money for the public schools and—ultimately—the union itself.

One would hope that the education of children would be the number one priority of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. Unfortunately, the organization’s emphasis on its own best interests—at the expense of taxpayers, parents, children, and even teachers—will continue to prevent it from truly serving the very people it purports to represent.

* Matthew J. Brouillette is president and Ann C. Thomson, J.D., is a former policy analyst at The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA. This is Commonwealth Policy Brief, Volume 2002, No. 9 (September 2002), republished herein by permission.Back to Text

Authors’ Note

The Commonwealth Foundation supports and defends workers’ First Amendment rights to voluntarily associate with any legal organization, including labor unions. The Commonwealth Foundation does not object to labor union efforts to organize employees nor does it deny the right of union officials to legitimately lobby policymakers. The Commonwealth Foundation does oppose, however, the current practice of compelling payments from employees as a condition of employment and the use of members’ collective bargaining dues for political activities without their expressed written consent.

ENDNOTES

1 Pennsylvania State Education Association web site, at http://www.psea.org.

2 Testimony of James Weaver, Vice President of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, on HB 2099, Pennsylvania State House of Representatives, Labor Relations Committee, 22 August 2002.

3 Testimony of Randy Hoffman of the Keystone Teachers Association on HB 2099, Pennsylvania State House of Representatives, Labor Relations Committee, 22 August 2002.

4 Pennsylvanians for Right to Work, at http://www.PaRightToWork.org; Pennsylvania State Education Association, at http://www.psea.org; and Pennsylvania School Boards Association, at http://www.psba.org.

5 The PSEA is indirectly funded by taxpayer money because after tax dollars are collected by school districts, union dues and fees are automatically deducted from teachers’ paychecks and sent directly to the labor union by the school district at taxpayers’ expense. 

6 Grant R. Gulibon and Matthew J. Brouillette, “Dispelling the Myth of Pennsylvania’s Under-Funded Public Schools,” Policy Brief 02-03, July 2002, at http://www.CommonwealthFoundation.org.

7 Survey & Analysis of Teacher Salary Trends 2001, The Research & Information Services Department, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, 2002 , p. 8, at http://www.aft.org/research/salary01/SalarySurvey2001.pdf.

8 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Labor, at http://www.bls.gov.

9 National Education Association, Rankings & Estimates: Rankings of the States 2001 and Estimates of School Statistics 2002, Washington, D.C.: The Association, 2002. Data compiled from Summary Table I, p. 93; Summary Table G, p. 91; and Summary Table D, p. 89, at http://www.nea.org/publiced/edstats/rankings/02rankings.pdf.

10 While many of the NEA’s state affiliates do not have to file LM-2 forms with the U.S. Department of Labor, the PSEA is required to submit an LM-2 form under the federal Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act because the organization has organized some private-sector employees. Neither federal nor Pennsylvania state law requires government-sector unions to fully disclose union finances and/or activities. U.S. Department of Labor, Form LM-2, reporting period: September 1, 2000 – August 31, 2001.

11 For a listing of all PSEA employees who received $100,000 or more in salary in 2000-2001, see www.CommonwealthFoundation.org/education/PSEA2001salaries.shtml.

Total public school tax revenue growth from state and local sources increased at a rate a little more than 4 percent faster than inflation between 1974-1987, the thirteen years prior to the passage of Act 84 in 1988. In the following thirteen years (1988-2000), total tax revenue growth increased at a rate more than 123 percent faster than inflation. In other words, the growth rate of tax revenue to the public schools increased 2,975 percent faster in the thirteen years following the passage of Act 84 in 1988, in comparison to the preceding thirteen years.

Act 84 granted the Pennsylvania State Education Association the power to compel dues or fees from employees as a condition of employment. As a result, PSEA “membership” grew from 80,000 in the 1980s to over 160,000 today. The union’s annual income of more than $66 million provides it the financial and political power to organize employees, compel payments from members and non-members as a condition of employment, influence legislation and lobby politicians, and secure larger amounts of taxpayer money for the public schools and the union itself.