Politics & Government

Freedom Foundation has unions in its sights

Standing on the steps of the Temple of Justice in Olympia on March 5, Freedom Foundation litigation counsel David Dewhirst announces a lawsuit challenging the practice of making one union the sole representative of a category of workers. He is joined by Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe, left, foundation general counsel James Abernathy and Milton Chappell of the National Right to Work Committee, right.
Standing on the steps of the Temple of Justice in Olympia on March 5, Freedom Foundation litigation counsel David Dewhirst announces a lawsuit challenging the practice of making one union the sole representative of a category of workers. He is joined by Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe, left, foundation general counsel James Abernathy and Milton Chappell of the National Right to Work Committee, right. Staff photographer

Employees of unionized workplaces in Washington currently have few options if, like home care worker Mary Jane Aurdal-Olson, they don’t want to contribute money to a labor union.

Workers must pay a share of the cost of bargaining, since every worker is supposed to benefit from the improvements a union secures.

But that principle is under fire. The U.S. Supreme Court cracked the door last year for some employees to withhold their money, and the court term that starts Monday might swing the door wide open. At least one union branch in Washington has taken a financial hit in the wake of the 2014 decision.

An Olympia-based conservative group is trying to ensure that the rulings hit home. The Freedom Foundation helped Aurdal-Olson, for one, stop her paycheck deduction and has campaigned via phone, mail, airwaves and doorsteps to encourage other dissenters.

It’s part of a strategy targeting unions — especially SEIU, one of the largest spenders in Washington elections — on multiple fronts. The foundation has seen sporadic success, including a recent decision by the state’s Democratic attorney general to sue one SEIU branch and a finding made public Friday by campaign-finance investigators that could lead to pursuit of a second branch.

Foundation CEO Tom McCabe took the helm nearly two years ago and brought an aggressive mentality from a previous job leading attacks on Democrats at the big-spending state home builders’ association.

“Together, we have diminished government union power while providing union members a shelter from union bullies,” McCabe said in an e-mail to supporters last year that was cited by a union attorney in one of the lawsuits. “We have implemented a plan to bankrupt SEIU, our state’s largest union.”

McCabe has told supporters he wants to force unions to spend money playing defense, saying he has focused the group on unions because they bankroll liberal causes and Democratic candidates like Gov. Jay Inslee. He added that unions also push for government expansion, all using money from workers who don’t universally support those aims.

That means workers such as Aurdal-Olson, who spends about 20 hours a month taking care of her autistic grandson. She said she has no interest in fighting for more pay and benefits from government.

“It makes no sense for me to be part of a union. I’m his grandmother, No. 1,” she said. “No. 2, I’m retired. I don’t expect a career in caregiving.”

Home care workers organized in 2002 as Service Employees International Union local 775. The union says it has roughly doubled their average publicly paid wage since then, to more than $14 an hour as part of a contract that runs through 2017.

For childcare providers in SEIU local 925, next year’s subsidy rates are a median 36 percent higher than they were in 2006 when providers organized. That’s according to Marie Keller, president of 925’s family child-care chapter. In the region that includes much of the South Sound, Keller said, subsidies for infant care are up 55 percent, to $799 a month.

Keller, who with employees watches 12 children at a time at her Everett day care, used some of the extra money in her subsidy check to upgrade to a more precise kitchen scale for the kids to use.

“We went to a place and picked apples, and now we’re making applesauce and apple pie and baked apples,” she said. “The kids were weighing them to measure the difference in size and using a measuring tape to measure the circumference and the height, and counting the bumps on the bottom.”

UNION FUNDING AT RISK?

SEIU 775 and 925 are among those affected by the Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn.

In states like Washington that don’t forbid union-only shops through “right to work” laws, public-sector unions can charge fees to nonmembers in lieu of dues. They are known as representation fees, fair-share fees or agency fees, and they are mandatory only to pay for bargaining and related activities. Public employees can refuse to pay a share of political spending such as lobbying.

But the court ruled June 30, 2014, that Illinois home care workers don’t have to pay representation fees. A court divided 5-4 said it violates First Amendment speech protections to charge the fees to workers who don’t want to support the union.

The scope of the decision was limited to those considered public employees for the purposes of pay but who don’t report to the state.

SEIU 925 told state government to stop collecting representation fees starting in August 2014. That month, state records show the number of providers with deductions taken out of their paychecks dropped 36 percent to 4,212. The state collected $116,565 for the union in August, down more than 20 percent from July 2014.

The number and share of paying providers dwindled further through last spring.

It’s a blow to the union, but one it had prepared for, Keller said. The group tightened its belt, she said, and relied on its membership from fields outside child care to help cushion the impact. She’s confident workers will stick with the childcare unit.

The Freedom Foundation is testing that idea. It obtained contact information for child-care providers through a public records request and encouraged them to withdraw.

“When given the choice, people in general don’t choose unions. They don’t think it’s worth it,” said James Abernathy, general counsel for the Freedom Foundation.

The ranks of homecare workers in SEIU 775 appear to be steady.

Adam Glickman, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said members appreciate what the union has achieved.

“It’s hard to find other workers who aren’t CEOs who have seen their wages double,” Glickman said.

The foundation argues SEIU 775 members haven’t had a real choice because the union hasn’t done enough to inform members and, unlike SEIU 925, has adopted an “opt-out” approach that collects dues from workers unless they take action to refuse.

The foundation is fighting in court for much of the contact information for SEIU 775’s members that it already obtained for its sister organization.

POTENTIAL LANDMARK CASE

The foundation also has filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to strike down opt-out arrangements in an upcoming case known as Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

A ruling in the Friedrichs case could be a blockbuster. Apart from the opt-out question, the Supreme Court is being asked to expand last year’s ruling to bar representation fees for all public employees.

That would overturn precedent dating to 1977 and, the Freedom Foundation contends, effectively make the public sector “right to work” nationwide.

Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, said it’s unfair for certain workers to bear the costs for everyone.

“I can’t decide whether I’m going to pay sales tax on goods that I buy in downtown Olympia which go to support the services that I get from Olympia or county government,” Johnson said. “So — kind of analogously — personally I don’t think folks ought to be able to opt out of paying their fair share of representation.”

The Freedom Foundation sees a solution to that problem: Eliminate a union’s right to be the sole representative of a whole category of workers.

Without such exclusivity, the group argues, workers could represent themselves or form competing unions.

The foundation joined with a group called the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation this year to sue SEIU 925 in federal court seeking an end to exclusivity arrangements. The right-to-work group has made similar challenges in other states.

Unions are taking notice of the foundation’s attacks.

“They are being paid by out-of-state financing to just keep pummeling the unions in any way they can,” said Johnson, who said the group is being financed by a conservative coalition tied to the industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, two of the world’s richest men.

The foundation reported more than $2.1 million in revenue last year but does not have to report where the money came from. Abernathy said it’s largely from in-state donors and none of it comes from the Koch brothers.

Among the groups that reported giving money to the Freedom Foundation are the State Policy Network, which lists the Freedom Foundation as a member, and Donors Trust, which among its hundreds of grants also gives money to the policy network. A group partly led by Charles Koch, Knowledge and Progress Fund, helps fund Donors Trust.

“All of the people who give us money give it willingly and knowingly,” said David Dewhirst, the group’s litigation counsel — a contrast, he said, with unions.

The foundation and unions are facing off in other ways.

The foundation filed complaints alleging that SEIU 775 and SEIU 925 aren’t complying with laws on disclosure of lobbying and campaigning.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office investigated and accused SEIU 775 of failing to report contributions it made to its own political committee. Some of the transactions were reported on the receiving end and the union said it wasn’t trying to hide anything.

Staff of the Public Disclosure Commission raised similar questions about SEIU 925’s paperwork, which the commission could consider at a Monday meeting.

Meanwhile, a group formed by the labor council and the state SEIU council filed a complaint accusing the foundation of failing to report campaign spending by pushing proposed right-to-work ballot measures in local elections around the state. Ferguson’s office opened an investigation last March.

The local ballot measures and other foundation causes raise questions for critics of whether the foundation is more a political organization than a nonprofit.

The group’s tax-exempt status came under fire from one of the foundation’s foes, JZ Knight, the Yelm resident who says she channels the spirit of 35,000-year-old warrior Ramtha.

Abernathy said nonprofits are allowed to take positions on ideas and that the sphere of what is seen as political has grown as government’s reach has expanded.

“If someone brings politics to our lives, don’t blame us for being quote-unquote, political,” he said.

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