With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger expected to call a November special election, the state's largest teachers union took preemptive action Saturday, increasing membership dues to raise millions to fight his initiative-based proposals.
The California Teachers Assn.'s 800-member governing body overwhelmingly approved a temporary annual assessment of $60 per member in a voice vote during a meeting at the Los Angeles Airport Hilton. The assessment, for up to three years, will raise about $50 million from the 335,000 members, the union said.
"It's basically to make sure that we have the money to fight the governor if he calls a special election -- to fight his proposals that will not help education at all and will not help teachers," said Barbara E. Kerr, the union's president, who called the governor "a bully against teachers."
Monday is the last day Schwarzenegger can call a special election for this fall, and he has scheduled a 5 p.m. televised news conference.
The Republican governor is backing initiatives to make teachers wait longer to get tenure and to put a constitutional limit on government spending that could alter state payments to schools. He has yet to say whether he will support a so-called paycheck protection initiative, which is also of particular concern to union leaders and Democratic lawmakers who traditionally draw their support. The initiative would require that public employee unions get permission from members before using dues in political campaigns.
Kerr said the measure, which she calls "paycheck deception," is designed not just to squeeze the unions financially but to bog them down, making it impossible for them to mount political campaigns quickly.
She said she was operating under the assumption that the governor would back the measure.
"The people who are supporting him are supporting it," she said. "So I'm taking it that he is. I can't afford to do anything else."
Todd Harris, a spokesman for the governor, said Saturday that the union president was wise to be nervous.
"No hardworking teacher in California has anything to be concerned about in terms of the governor's agenda, but for the union bosses who are supportive of higher taxes and who are opposed to budget reform, they have a lot to be concerned about because the governor is going to put them out of business," he said.
Harris labeled the dues increase "a tax on every single public school teacher in the state." That also was the message behind www.stoptheteachertax.com, a website created by the state Republican Party to oppose the dues increase.
"Many teachers personally buy classroom supplies for their students. And now those teachers are being told by the powerful union lobby to pay even more for a political agenda that they may not even agree with," reads a statement on the website's home page.
With the new assessment, which does not need rank-and-file approval, an active full-time member of the teachers union would pay dues of $570 a year, Kerr said.
Teachers were willing to accept the increase, she said, because they feel betrayed by the governor. When Schwarzenegger came into office last year, he persuaded them not to fight a $2-billion cut in education spending, which he pledged to restore. But Kerr said the governor didn't restore the money this year, and he didn't like being called on it.
She said the governor also embittered many teachers and other state employees when he proposed an overhaul of their pension system.
He backed off the proposal when it looked like it might endanger benefits paid to relatives of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
The morning tally was overwhelmingly in favor, with only a handful of the hundreds present voting against the increase, several teachers said later.
Those interviewed Saturday outside the meeting all said the higher dues were necessary. And several said they felt betrayed by the governor's proposed budget for education and his negative comments about teachers and other public employees.
"The governor is attacking our profession specifically, and very personally," said Don Steinruck, who teaches accelerated learning classes for seventh- and eighth-graders in Crescent City, near the Oregon border.
He and others said they hoped that the assessment would help them level the political playing field with a governor capable of significant fundraising. Several said the paycheck initiative seems designed to quell the political efforts of teachers and other publicemployee unions.
"We don't have the same clout he and his friends do," said Mitch Olson, a high school English teacher from Bakersfield. "We're just teachers. The only way we can fight that kind of power and money is to unite, and that's what we're doing."
Charlie Young, who teaches 12th-grade government and economics classes in Modesto, said he felt the vote had invigorated those present. "Now, it's like, 'OK, bring it on.' "