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Penny wise and pound foolish

The campaign to make members quit paying union dues

Holly Lindsey, has been a licensed home child-care provider for 22 years and a union member for 12. She joined SEIU 925 when the local formed in 2006.

Who’s knocking at your door?

“At the very beginning, the union went house–to–house to recruit us,” recalls Lindsey, who runs a home daycare and preschool near Longview, WA. In time, the union began holding regular meetings. Working from home can be isolating, so Lindsey is thankful for SEIU 925’s large network of childcare providers. “It’s been huge for us to collaborate and communicate as a group,” she says. “The union just opened all these doors for us.”

But the union isn’t the only one trying to open doors these days.

One day in 2017, Lindsey heard a knock on her sliding glass door. A casually dressed man in his 20s stood outside, clipboard in hand. He was with the Freedom Foundation.

“He told me I pay a lot of money to the union for nothing,” Lindsey says. “He tried to give me pamphlets showing how much money I would save if I opted out”—as much as $500 a year in dues, he claimed. Lindsey felt threatened by the experience. “Most times when people try to bust a union, they do it in the workplace,” she says. “They don’t go to union members’ homes. They don’t bother them and their families like this.”

Soon, Lindsey’s phone was lighting up with calls from others in her local who had been visited by traveling union busters. Then the anti-union mailers and robocalls started, sometimes three a day. They’ve never stopped.

SEIU 925 was the target of an “opt-out campaign,” an anti-union initiative by the State Policy Network (SPN), the web of billionaire-backed right-wing groups that helped fund the Janus v. AFSCME lawsuit. The Washington-based Freedom Foundation is a star member.

The Freedom Foundation calls Janus “the opportunity of a lifetime” to starve unions.

Eliminate union participation in election finance

SPN got the Supreme Court ruling it wanted in Janus, which turned right-to-work conditions into national policy for the public sector. All public sector workers now have the option of receiving union benefits without paying for them. If enough workers choose to stop paying dues, union budgets and power will be greatly diminished. That’s the goal of SPN.

SPN is now building on its Janus victory with campaigns to contact government employees in union-dense states and encourage them to drop their membership. Their targets include blue states such as California, Illinois, New York, Oregon and Washington that have resisted passing anti-union legislation. The plan is simple: Gut unions of members and money so they have less influence on state elections. Once sympathetic politicians are in office, corporate interests can pass state laws to torch what remains of organized labor.

SPN is composed of 66 free-market think tanks across all 50 states. To enact their opt-out campaign, the network embarked on a mix of television and radio ads, social media, mailers, robocalls and door knockers. In These Times has reported on internal SPN documents that describe a four-part strategy to “defund and defang” the labor movement.

Leave the union—or stay but don’t pay

The first part is to continue advancing so-called right-to-work laws to starve union budgets. For 15 years, SPN has collaborated with forces like the American Legislative Exchange Council, the National Right to Work Committee and the Koch brothers to get six states to pass right-to-work laws, as well as municipalities in blue states such as Illinois and New Mexico. The crowning success was Janus.

The second part is developing its opt-out campaigns to erode union membership, pioneered in Washington state by the SPN-affiliated Freedom Foundation.

The third part is to require unions to recertify more often with periodic votes, as Wisconsin’s Act 10 did in 2011. Such mandates saddle unions with regular battles for survival.

Who needs a union? Negotiate your own contract

The fourth is to eliminate the right of unions to exclusively represent workers, allowing an individual to opt out of collective bargaining and sign their own contract. This legislation, which SPN has not yet succeeded in getting a state to pass, splinters and weakens unions while creating an opportunity for the employer to sow discord. For example, employers could offer nonunion workers a bonus or slightly higher hourly rate to discourage participation.

“Taken individually, they are each bad,” Lafer says. “In combination, this represents a concerted effort to do away with public-sector unions.”

Only a small fraction of workers in the private sector—less than seven percent—belong to unions, down from 35 percent at their peak in 1954. The public sector, on the other hand, has enjoyed a Canadian level of union density, with one in three workers a member of a union. According to the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, Janus could prompt a drop in public-sector membership as large as 8 percent—a loss of 726,000 members—in the coming years.

Opportunity of a lifetime

The Freedom Foundation calls Janus “the opportunity of a lifetime” to starve unions. It ramped up its opt-out campaign with an email drive in May 2018 targeting more than 100,000 public employees in Oregon, California and Alaska. According to Bloomberg News’ Josh Eidelson, the group also had 80 canvassers trained and ready to start knocking on doors in California, Washington and Oregon the day the Janus decision came down. Their goal is to convince 127,000 public employees to opt out of union membership across the three states.

Heavily-funded national tentacles

Meanwhile, the Mackinac Center, an SPN affiliate, publicly launched an opt-out hotline for union members. The California Policy Center, another affiliate, sent a fundraising email to 8,000 union social service workers in Los Angeles County with the stated goal of reducing union dues “by $300 million in the next three years.” The Pennsylvania-based Americans for Fair Treatment—an organization formed in 2014 whose four board members are SPN-affiliate employees—recently hired a former teacher and anti-union activist to lead an opt-out campaign targeting that state’s 330,000 public employees. SPN spokesperson Carrie Conko confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that the network is providing support to opt-out campaigns in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

All of these organizations are directly or indirectly funded by one of the largest right-wing grant-making institutions in the country, the Bradley Foundation, with $835 million in assets. Internal Bradley Foundation documents from 2015 praise the Freedom Foundation’s aggressive attacks on unions as “a national model.” Similar documents show the Bradley Foundation considered funding for SPN affiliates such as the Empire Center for Public Policy in New York, on the basis of their having “the stomach” to follow the Freedom Foundation’s example. In May, the Empire Center mailed New York state public employers warning them to “immediately stop withholding funds from nonmembers’ paychecks” after Janus.

Personal addresses of union members are “a vein of gold”

Opt-out campaigns hinge on the ability for these organizations to obtain government employees’ contact information. SEIU 925 president Karen Hart was dismayed when the Freedom Foundation began contacting members in 2014.

“We were caught totally off guard,” she says. “We had no idea they had obtained a list.” These lists are often obtained through public records requests. In one fundraising letter, the Freedom Foundation described obtaining the contact information of 300,000 public employees in Washington using open records requests as being “like a prospector locating a vein of gold.” The Freedom Foundation claims that its multi-year campaign cost SEIU 925 two-thirds of its members. The union confirms this loss rate, but attributes it to a high-attrition workforce, not the opt-out campaign.

Whether or not the government is obligated to release the personal home address of a high school librarian or a home healthcare worker is a murky legal area. Blocking SPN affiliates from obtaining private contact information is one way unions can nip opt-out campaigns in the bud—and several unions are pursuing state legislation to do just that.

After losing a court challenge to block the Freedom Foundation from receiving a contact list of its members, SEIU 925 teamed up with healthcare local SEIU 775 to pass a statewide initiative exempting the personal information of child-care and home healthcare workers from Washington’s open records law. Unions in California and New Jersey have similarly worked with Democrats to pass laws exempting the personal information of government employees from open records requests. The New Jersey law also frustrates opt-out campaigns by only allowing workers to opt out during the 10 days following the anniversary of their hire date.

Deepening member engagement

In many states, public-sector unions have preempted opt-out campaigns with “all-in” campaigns, asking members to sign “recommit” cards confirming their union membership. The American Federation of Teachers says that by the time of the Janus ruling, it had secured 530,000 recommit cards from its estimated 800,000 members nationwide who would be affected. Some locals, like the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), have used these campaigns as opportunities to deepen member engagement. To date, the union has had one-on-one conversations and collected cards from almost 25,000 members.

“We are making the case to our members that our all-in campaign and our contract campaign are inextricably linked,” says Jeff Good, UTLA executive director. “If you want good contracts with good working conditions, then you need a strong union, and we can’t have a strong union if people are choosing to sit out. So we are fighting for a good contract for community schools and building a fighting union that can win.”

Chris Brooks is a staff writer and labor educator at Labor Notes. This article is the first half of an article that appeared in the August 2018 issue of In These Times, published with permission. This story was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.


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