Documents expose right-wing effort to destroy public worker unions
The virulently anti-union Freedom Foundation is funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. | AP

Several months ago, Maxford Nelson, executive director of a right-wing think tank, the Freedom Foundation, showed up at a Washington state legislative committee hearing to oppose a bill to make dues checkoff easier for the state’s public workers.

The lawmakers jumped on him, questioning what he was even doing there, since the foundation is supposed to be — and advertises itself as — non-profit and non-partisan. Federal and state tax rules bar such groups from overt political lobbying.

What the lawmakers didn’t know, and what newly revealed documents now show, is the Freedom Foundation, run by anti-union multimillionaire Tom McCabe, is part of a 50-state right-wing corporate State Policy Network with – among other items on its agenda – destruction of public worker unions.

And that network, funded by the Koch brothers, the Walton and Scaife foundations, and other right-wing multimillionaires, came up with a new way of doing so in their “toolkit”: Trying to get union members to quit while still taking union benefits.

SPN’s “get-them-to-drop-out” drive is part of the right wing’s larger effort to defund unions in general — “de-fund the left,” as right-wing leaders put it — and grease the skids for their pro-corporate agenda. That agenda includes massive deregulation, smashing unions and workers, and tax cuts for firms and the rich.

Internal SPN documents obtained by the British newspaper The Guardian and published May 15 shed light on the aims and details of the network. Unionists and residents of the Pacific Northwest, however, know the drill already.

SPN’s aims, goals and methods mimic those of the Freedom Foundation for the last four years. Ever since McCabe took over in 2013, it’s stepped up its efforts in Oregon, Washington and California. Now it’s expanding to other states. Getting workers to dump their union memberships has been one method.

“Well-run opt-out campaigns can cause public-sector unions to experience 5 (percent) to 20 percent declines in membership, costing hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in dues money. This can affect the resources and attention available for union leaders to devote to political action campaigns,” the key SPN internal memo says.

To fund such campaigns, the Koch Brothers and other right-wingers have budgeted approximately $80 million for 66 so-called think tanks nationwide, specifically for their campaign to get public union members to quit.

Their method, the Guardian reported, was to use the legal system to get lists of public union members and then hire paid operatives to go door to door, using phony arguments to convince those unionists to drop their memberships — and quit paying either union dues or “agency fees.”

“Access to lists of union members is essential to this project. The most common means of obtaining lists is through requests made under state public records laws,” SPN’s internal memo to its member think-tanks says.

“To get employees to opt-out of their union, they first need to know they have a choice. A direct marketing campaign to union represented public employees that combines mail and digital outreach helps raise awareness and raise opt-out rates.”

Where they succeeded in convincing public worker unionists to drop out, the right-wingers believed, unions would lose members and money, but still have to spend themselves into the red to both bargain collectively and enforce contracts. The eventual goal: Bankrupt the unions.

In the Pacific Northwest, the right-wingers claimed they cost a big Service Employees local $8 million to defend itself, and 10,000 members. The local told the Northwest Labor Press it’s actually added 1,500 members since 2013. Unions there also fought back by establishing the non-profit Northwest Accountability Project, specifically to expose the Freedom Foundation and other anti-union forces.

“This reckless abuse of public records laws put union members and their families at risk of identity theft and possible harassment,” the Northwest Accountability Project said. That’s the method the SPN is exporting nationwide to its allied groups, including the one in the Pacific Northwest.

SPN, the Freedom Foundation and the other 65 groups may have fertile ground to plow, too. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue, within weeks, its ruling on Janus v AFSCME District Council 31, and to rule for the right wingers who brought and financed the case.

That case involves anti-union worker Mark Janus in Illinois who is represented by the AFSCME council there. The long-established anti-worker National Right to Work Committee and its “legal defense foundation” is paying his way and providing his lawyers. The Guardian reported Janus spoke at SPN’s convention last year.

The five GOP-named justices are expected to use Janus to make every state and local government worker in the country a “free rider,” able to use union services without paying one red cent for them. State and local governments nationwide would all become so-called “right to work” sites.

Before the SPN got off the ground, McCabe and his Freedom Foundation ran a “free rider” drive in the Pacific Northwest, along with funding anti-worker ballot initiatives. But unions and the Accountability Project found the foundation flagrantly broke many Oregon campaign finance laws. McCabe was fined millions of dollars and his group’s initiatives were tossed off ballots. SPN also pushes the anti-worker legislation and initiatives, the Guardian said.

“The attacks on working people are real as they always have been. Unionized workers have long faced the wrath of the richest few. The Freedom Foundation’s attacks are similar to attacks on unions throughout all of American history — it just seems they are far worse at union busting than their predecessors,” the Northwest Accountability Project’s report adds.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.