By Don McIntosh
You’ve heard of union organizers — union staff who recruit workers to join a union. And you’ve heard of union busters— high-paid consultants that employers deploy to talk workers out of a union. Now, there’s a third force: foundation-funded “anti-union organizers” who send mailings and knock on doors trying to get workers to drop their union membership. They’re employees of a group called the Freedom Foundation, which operates in Washington, Oregon, and California.
Freedom Foundation uses public records requests and legal action to get public employee union membership lists, and then follows up with mailings, phone calls, and in-person visits to union members’ homes, all with one message: Drop the union, and save some money.
The group began in the state of Washington in 1991 as the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. For its first two decades, it functioned as a “think tank” — part of a national network of organizations funded by far-right millionaires and billionaires that seek to influence public policy by producing research papers and generating op-eds. But in 2013, the group hired a new director, Tom McCabe, and turned to a more exclusive focus on opposing unions.
McCabe had for two decades led an anti-union construction lobby group, the Building Industry Association of Washington, which spent considerable money on Republican candidates for governor and state legislature. BIAW also succeeded in a ballot measure campaign that repealed a state ergonomics rule that aimed to protect workers from repetitive motion injuries. And it flirted with the idea of placing an anti-union “right to work” initiative on the Washington state ballot.
Under McCabe’s direction, the Freedom Foundation became an all-purpose anti-union shop:
- In sync with groups around the country, it encouraged anti-union county commissioners in Washington to pass local “right-to-work” ordinances making dues voluntary. [Facing legal and political challenges, each of those efforts failed.]
- It also began to act like a local version of the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, helping anti-union workers campaign to decertify unions in their workplace, or vote to make dues optional. [The group has campaigned, so far without success, to turn Polk County workers against AFSCME, City of Portland workers against Laborers Local 483, and Washington childcare workers against SEIU Local 925.]
- It set up a full-time anti-union media operation, with videos, TV ads, podcast/radio spots, and a blog providing a daily barrage of anti-union venom. [There too, the operation is well-funded but it’s not clear it’s been a big hit. Its YouTube channel has just 1,300 subscribers, and its slickly produced two-minute antiunion rants typically get 350 views. But its messaging has earned placements in right-wing media outlets.]
- It hired a crew of attorneys, who keep busy (and tie up union resources) with public records requests, lawsuits, and campaign finance complaints for even minor rule violations.
- And it hired canvassers and set up a mail operation directly targeting public employee union members, trying to get them to drop their union membership.
At first, the pitch was for union-represented public employees to become “fair share” payers — nonmembers who don’t pay union dues but instead pay a reduced amount to the union to cover costs of negotiating and enforcing the contract. That “convert-to-fair share” message continues for regular public employees the group targets.
But a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision opened a new frontier for the Freedom Foundation: In Harris v Quinn, a 5-4 Republican-appointed court majority said that state-paid home care workers had too tenuous a relationship to the state to count as public employees, and that therefore it violated First Amendment rights for them to be obligated to pay anything at all to the union that represents them. In theory, that should make Freedom Foundation’s sales pitch stronger: Drop your union membership, and instead of paying a discounted “fair share” rate, you pay nothing at all to the union.
They hate our agenda and what we’re fighting for.” — homecare worker Rebecca Sandoval
“Is it the public’s right to know where a public employee lives? I don’t think so,” says Oregon AFSCME spokesperson Ross Grami. “Even though they’re a public employee, that seems like an unreasonable amount of information to have to give.”
Luckily for the labor movement, it’s not clear the Freedom Foundation’s “dump the union” message is working.
Freedom Foundation says on its blog that it has caused 20,000 workers to drop their union membership, at enormous cost to the union treasuries. But union officials say that number is fiction. Certainly some workers have dropped membership, spurred by Freedom Foundation mailings. But official filings from Oregon’s biggest public employee union, SEIU Local 503, show no such losses. In fact, the union grew 1,458 members in the most recent LM-2 form it filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, which covers the year ending Sept. 30, 2017. [The LM-2 is a sworn statement unions must file annually detailing membership and finances.]
Grami, the Oregon AFSCME spokesperson, says the Freedom Foundation is more parasite than predator: “I don’t know that they’re the existential threat they think they are. Where they are troublesome is they do eat up time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.”
If Freedom Foundation appeals fail to persuade, it may be because union-represented workers are looking at them with healthy skepticism: Who are these paid canvassers showing up to my door to suggest that I save money by dumping my union? Why are they so interested in stopping me from paying union dues? Who’s paying for these mailers?
To obtain and publicize answers to questions like that, public sector unions set up their own non-profit, the Northwest Accountability Project.
Northwest Accountability Project combed through IRS nonprofit disclosure forms to find out who’s funding the Freedom Foundation. It publishes its findings at nwaccountabilityproject.com. It found that Freedom Foundation funders include an array of politically active right-wing foundations associated with billionaires and millionaires or their heirs, such as the Walton Family Foundation, Sarah Scaife Foundation, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Gilder Foundation.
In its communication with public employees, Freedom Foundation casts itself as their defender: “We’re fighting to free thousands of workers from the tyranny and immorality of forced unionization,” says one blog post, in a typical example of the group’s rhetoric.
Yet the only workers’ right that Freedom Foundation works to defend is the right to not pay dues. Meanwhile, the rest of the group’s agenda is diametrically opposed to the interests of public employees. At legislatures and in opinion pieces and research papers, Freedom Foundation staff have argued against public employee pensions, flexible schedules, paid sick leave mandates, and minimum wage increases.
“They hate our agenda and what we’re fighting for,” says Rebecca Sandoval, home care worker and president of Local 503’s home care sub-local. “Our agenda is that we are trying to push for a healthy society that works for all people.”
Ironically, home care workers — the group the Freedom Foundation has most focused its “drop the union” message on — is arguably the greatest union success story in recent years. When Oregon’s SEIU Local 503 began its campaign among home care workers, they made minimum wage, had no employer-provided benefits of any kind, and weren’t even considered eligible for workers compensation if they were injured on the job. Today, after union negotiations and persistent legislative lobbying, they make $14.65 an hour, are eligible for overtime pay, and have not only workers comp but access to health benefits and training.
“Every year the home care budget is on the chopping block,” Sandoval said. “But when we walk into the Capitol with the union, our voices are heard.”