The Door-To-Door Union Killers
Above photo: From IWW.org.uk
Rightwing Foundation Takes Labor Fight to the Streets
The Freedom Foundation says its goal is to offer choices, but union leaders say it’s part of a conservative effort to flip Washington and Oregon from blue to red.
Seattle, WA – For several months, Shawna Murphy, a home-based childcare provider in Seattle, had received a stream of emails, letters and robocalls – some two dozen of them – telling her she had the right to stop paying union dues.
Then early one afternoon, while the six children in her charge were napping, a man with a briefcase knocked on her door. At first Murphy thought he was a lawyer, but then she realized he might be a state inspector of childcare providers. So she opened the door.
“He said there’s this supreme court case that will impact me, and he pulled out this leaflet and told me that I don’t have to be part of the union and don’t have to pay union dues,” said Murphy, a member of the Service Employees International Union. “I told him, ‘I’m a proud supporter of the union, and you can leave now.’”
The man was one of the many foot soldiers in a highly unusual offensive against public-sector unions in the US north-west. A conservative group, the Freedom Foundation, has dispatched activists to visit the homes of more than 10,000 childcare and home-care workers in Washington and Oregon to advise them that under a two-year-old supreme court decision, they can opt out of paying union dues.
Tom McCabe, chief executive officer of the fast-growing foundation, funded by a web of conservative groups, said: “My goal is to provide freedom to union members and to give them a choice about whether or not they want to belong to a union.”
But labor leaders and their progressive allies say the group’s goals go far beyond that. Washington state in particular has passed union-backed progressive legislation recently, enacting a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a law that will allow Uber drivers to unionize. They say the Freedom Foundation’s unorthodox tactics are part of a grand plan to weaken unions and their treasuries, sap their political influence and ultimately flip Washington and Oregon from Democratic to Republican.
“The Freedom Foundation says they care about workers, but what they’re really about is defunding unions and defunding the left in our state,” said Aaron Ostrom, executive director of Fuse Washington, a statewide coalition of progressives. “They see this as the best tactic to turn Washington from a blue state to a red state.”
Labor leaders say never before have they seen a foundation undertake such an aggressive, multi-pronged campaign against unions; nor have they ever seen such canvassing to advise workers about quitting their unions. Labor leaders predict that if the foundation succeeds in weakening public-sector unions in Washington and Oregon, conservatives will roll out similar campaigns in Illinois and Pennsylvania. Labor officials say the foundation is part of a nationwide conservative, dark money network, with the Koch-backed State Policy Network, a 50-state free-market group, helping to finance the foundation.
The foundation’s tactics go well beyond door-knocking. It has made public records requests to numerous counties to obtain the names and addresses of home-care and childcare aides. It does podcasts that rail against unions and sponsors a website, optouttoday.com, telling public-sector workers they can quit their unions.
Last December, the foundation sent activists dressed as Santa Claus to stand outside government buildings, where they told workers they could give themselves a holiday gift by exercising their right not to pay that portion of union dues that goes to political activity. The foundation has also filed myriad lawsuits and complaints against public-sector unions, challenging everything from their ability to speak to newly hired government employees to their failure to file all required political spending reports.
“I have to give them credit, they’re pretty nimble,” said Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (Afscme). “They get to attack all day long. They don’t have to be for anything. It’s fun for them to go after SEIU [Service Employees International Union], the Washington Education Association [a teachers’ union] and Afscme. We’re three of the major political players in the state, and they get to attack 24/7, 365 days a year.”
Unions are so concerned about the foundation’s efforts that they have created a new organization, the Northwest Accountability Project, that seeks to expose and discredit the foundation. It, too, has made hard-hitting videos, and it has gone house to house in Tom McCabe’s neighborhood to distribute flyers attacking him as an extremist. The Accountability Project has also made disparaging robocalls to McCabe’s neighbors and church congregants.
McCabe says the foundation is misunderstood – and wrongly vilified. “The focus that we have is on helping union members, informing union members that they have a constitutional right to leave their union if they wish,” he said. McCabe was referring to a 2014 supreme court decision, Harris v Quinn, which ruled that it violates the first amendment to require partial public employees, like home-care aides and home-based childcare workers, to pay union dues.
McCabe decried Washington and Oregon laws that require government workers to pay so-called fair-share fees to the unions that represent them even when they refuse to join the union. “They’ve gotten the legislature to require that if you’re a union member, the government takes money out of your check every month and sends it to the union, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said.
McCabe denied that the foundation’s goal was to defund the left. “Personally and professionally, that’s not a priority to me.” He said defunding the left might be “an ancillary benefit” of the foundation’s campaign to educate workers about their rights.
But in a fundraising letter last August, McCabe indicated that his foundation’s goal was indeed to defund and defeat public-sector unions – in part to undo Democratic control in the north-west.
“Labor bosses are the single greatest threat to freedom and opportunity in America today,” he wrote. “By taking money from hard-working, dues-paying Americans, they’re funding a broken political culture in states like Oregon and Washington.”
His fundraising letter added: “The Freedom Foundation has a proven plan for bankrupting and defeating government unions through education, litigation, legislation and community activation.”
Noting that his group has expanded its efforts from Washington into Oregon, McCabe continued: “We have crossed the Columbia [river], and we won’t be satisfied with anything short of total victory against the government union thugs.”
In a January speech in Oregon to the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity, Anne Marie Gurney, the Freedom Foundation’s Oregon coordinator, declared: “Our No 1 stated focus is to defund the political left.”
Convinced that the Freedom Foundation is partisan, 18 labor unions and progressive groups have asked the Internal Revenue Service to strip the foundation of its tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status. “The Freedom Foundation is operated for the private benefit of the Republican Party and other conservative and libertarian groups,” the groups wrote. “The fact that the Freedom Foundation is a 501(c)(3) is ridiculous,” said Jaxon Ravens, chairman of the Washington state Democratic party. “McCabe is a Republican political operative.”
“They’re strong and they’re getting stronger,” Ravens added. “There’s a ton of money out there that rightwing groups can dump into these efforts.”
But Freedom Foundation officials deny that they are partisan or are flouting IRS regulations. “We didn’t violate any laws,” said James Abernathy, the foundation’s general counsel. “They take things out of context. They tell half-truths.
“Our goal is not to help a political party,” McCabe added. Then, referring to union members, he said, “Our goal is to help people who we believe are being held in bondage against their will.”
Before taking the foundation’s helm, McCabe headed the Building Industry Association of Washington, turning it into a political and lobbying powerhouse during his two decades there.
The Seattle Times wrote that under McCabe, the builders association “became virtually synonymous with GOP politics in the state, spending nearly $11m on conservative candidates and causes from 2002 through 2010”.
Under McCabe, the group described the former Washington governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, as a “heartless, power-hungry she-wolf”.
In 2008, the Washington attorney general sued the association for failing to report all political spending, and it ultimately paid $242,000 in fines. After tensions erupted over the association’s politicking, McCabe resigned, leaving with a $1.25m severance package
Just as unions abhor the Freedom Foundation, the foundation detests the labor-backed Northwest Accountability Project. “It’s been set up to harass us, intimidate us and stop us,” said Abernathy, the general counsel.
The flyers it distributed to McCabe’s neighbors decry his “record of failure” and “rightwing agenda”, accusing him of “campaign finance violations” and “wasting millions on extreme politics”. Its robocalls say McCabe’s foundation is funded by “out-of-state billionaires who want to keep wages low, eliminate paid sick leave” and slash education funding.
His wife, Susan, was so upset that she wrote a letter to neighbors defending her husband, slamming the Accountability Project’s “four-page page glossy hit piece” and saying: “It is disappointing to see unions resort to harassment and intimidation.”
The Accountability Project organized a protest at Wells Fargo bank in Seattle to protest that one of its executive vice-presidents, Jeffrey Grubb, is a trustee of the Murdock Charitable Trust, which has donated heavily to the Freedom Foundation.
“They attack our CEO and a board member,” Abernathy said. “They’re using traditional union intimidation.”
What especially galls some Freedom Foundation officials is that public-sector unions use members’ dues to help elect government officials, who, they say, become too generous in collective bargaining.
“You lose the adversarial nature of the negotiations when the government, the employer on one side of the table, supports and was supported by the union on the other side,” Abernathy said. “They’re a giant lovefest between each other.”
But Devereux, president of the state employees’ union, called that pure fiction. If negotiations are such a lovefest, he said, why did 110,000 state employees have to endure a seven-year pay freeze from 2008 to 2015?
The Freedom Foundation boasts that 55% of the home-based childcare providers in Washington have stopped paying union dues. But the union representing the state’s childcare providers, SEIU Local 925, said many providers were already not paying dues when the foundation began its campaign. Local 925 officials acknowledge that 600 of the 7,000 home-based providers represented by the local have stopped paying dues in response to the foundation’s campaign.
Kathy Miller, a childcare provider, said she opted out of paying dues “because I didn’t appreciate having the union strongly suggest whom I should vote for in every election.”
“To be fair,” Miller added, “in the beginning the union did help, but as time went on, it became crystal clear that they were all about collecting dues money to get more Democrats elected.”
Labor leaders point to an irony in the Freedom Foundation’s canvas – when labor organizers knock on workers’ doors as part of a unionization drive, company officials and conservatives frequently complain that “union thugs” are intimidating workers and violating their privacy.
Mary Kay Henry, the SEIU’s national president, says the Freedom Foundation is weakening workers and not just unions. “I look at this as an attack on workers who are trying to come together to improve their lives,” Henry said. “It’s a direct assault on childcare workers who have invested in an organization that has lifted them to a better life – from a sub-minimum wage to minimum wage and now to a salary above minimum wage with paid time off. And now they’re door-knocking and saying, ‘Do you want to save $30 a month to buy your kids’ shoes?’ That enrages me.”
Murphy, the Seattle childcare provider, acknowledged that she was sometimes frustrated that her union hasn’t achieved more for the workers. But rather than consider quitting, Murphy said: “We need, a bigger union because that will help us bargain better.”