Holly Lindsey, 52, 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.
“At the very beginning, the union went house to house to recruit us,” recalls Lindsey, who runs a home day care and preschool near Longview, Wash. 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 mailers and robocalls started, sometimes three a day. They’ve never stopped.
SEIU 925 is the target of an “opt-out campaign,” a new 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.
SPN got the Supreme Court ruling it wanted in Janus, which nationalized right-to-work conditions across 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.
SPN is now building on the Janus victory with opt-out 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.
But unions have also spent months preparing for this moment.
The state policy network
SPN is composed of 66 free-market think tanks across all 50 states. To enact their opt-out campaign, the network is relying on a mix of television and radio ads, social media, mailers, robocalls and door knockers.
“This is new,” says political economist Gordon Lafer, author of The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time. “Until now, the SPN has mostly been the place that produces so-called experts and policy papers in support of the corporate agenda. Now, they are playing a more active role in the attempt to devastate unions, through advertising and actual ground campaigns.”
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 Committee, 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. But the crowning success was Janus. In mid-June, President Donald Trump vowed to get Congress to pass a national right-to-work law to cover the rest of the private sector.
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.
The fourth is to eliminate the right of unions to exclusively represent workers, allowing individuals to opt out of collective bargaining and sign their own contracts. 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 7 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 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.
Meanwhile, the Mackinac Center, an SPN affiliate, publicly launched an opt-out hotline for union members across the country. 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 the 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.
Opt-out campaigns hinge on accurate lists of government employees’ contact information. SEIU 925 president Karen Hart was dismayed when the Freedom Foundation began contacting her 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 multiyear 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.
In These Times has identified at least 26 public records requests for the personal information of public-sector workers filed under state open records laws since September 2017, when the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus. The requests target union teachers and other public employees in seven states that would be affected by Janus: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.
Among their targets were Portland, Ore., city workers, represented by LIUNA Local 483, and the Connecticut Department of Transportation, represented by AFSCME and other unions. Three requests were filed by organizations with SPN ties: the Freedom Foundation and the Illinois Policy Institute-affiliated Prairie State Wire.
The remaining 23 requests, mostly for teachers’ information, were filed by two shadowy organizations – the Parents Foundation and Data Research Partners – using addresses in Austin, Texas, and Las Vegas. Neither has a functioning website or is registered with any state. In These Times was unable to find individuals corresponding to the names on the filing forms. Their motives are unclear, but given the big money behind the opt-out campaigns, public employees’ personal contact information may soon become a lucrative market.
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. “There is not a clear delineation of when information goes from public to private,” says JPat Brown, executive editor at MuckRock, an investigative news organization that specializes in open records requests. “It isn’t always determined by state law, but by the particular FOIA officer.”
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.
Other blue states, such as Hawaii, Massachusetts and Washington, are considering or have already passed similar pro-union laws.
“It’s critically important to inoculate members against these organizations,” says SEIU 925’s Karen Hart. “We made the mistake of talking about how great the union is and not talking about the Freedom Foundation, so folks got this information and didn’t understand who it was coming from.”
SEIU 32BJ in Pennsylvania, after learning of open records requests for the contact information of school employees, began having conversations with members about the Commonwealth Foundation, the state’s SPN affiliate, which shares staff with Americans for Fair Treatment. The union is handing out “Union Household – No Soliciting” window clings for front doors.
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.”
The Wisconsin model
The corporate Right has multiple reasons for disliking labor, but certainly one is the role of unions as a major source of funding for progressive causes and for Democrats. As the Freedom Foundation wrote in an October 2017 letter to donors about the potential of post-Janus opt-out campaigns, “Imagine tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars currently used to push damaging left-wing causes and candidates vanishing.”
“Big Government unions are the biggest sources of funding and political muscle for the Left,” wrote SPN president Tracie Sharp in a 2016 fundraising letter. “Which is why, to win the battle for freedom, we must take the fight to the unions, state by state, with key reforms.”
Two of the states with opt-out campaigns under way are traditional union bastions where the Right is making inroads. In Illinois, Republican multimillionaire Gov. Bruce Rauner’s anti-union agenda has been stymied by Democratic majorities in the state legislature. In Pennsylvania, where conservative Republicans now dominate the state legislature, their legislative goals could be blocked by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
But if SPN and its allies secure Republican domination of more state governments, they will be able to implement part three of the game plan: passing laws requiring union recertification elections.
In Wisconsin, for example, the Republican-controlled legislature in 2011 passed Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting behemoth, Act 10. Much of the reporting on Act 10 called it a right-to-work bill, but it also made collecting union dues more difficult, dramatically limited the scope of collective bargaining, and created a recertification requirement: Each year, Wisconsin unions must now hold an election and convince more than 50 percent of the bargaining unit to vote for representation. Under this system, anyone who doesn’t vote is effectively voting against the union. Simply getting enough members to participate in a vote to maintain the status quo became one of the biggest challenges.
SPN affiliates couldn’t be happier with the results. “In 2010, our Network united our intellectual resources, winning messaging and moral support behind Governor Scott Walker’s heroic efforts to bring historic government union collective bargaining and pension reform to Wisconsin,” Sharp wrote in the same letter. “Most Wisconsin public employee unions have lost between 30 percent and 60 percent of their members in the two years since Act 10 went into effect. And this decline has in turn cost organized labor tens of millions of dollars. Imagine the impact this will have when we achieve even more government union reforms across the nation this year!”
Indeed, Wisconsin AFSCME – which once represented almost every state, county and city employee across the state, close to 63,000 government workers – has now lost 90 percent of its membership.
“It decimated our ability to represent local and state government employees,” says Neil Rainford, a Wisconsin AFSCME staff member for 18 years. Union spokesperson Michael Horecki says that the losses were especially bad in rural areas, where “many counties have few, if any, remaining union members.”
After Act 10, Wisconsin AFSCME let its locals choose whether to keep fighting for recertification, and many stopped seeking official recognition by the state as the exclusive representative of government employees. Instead, they decided to fight for workers outside the official system of collective bargaining.
“We’ve developed this model we call the association model,” says Rainford. “It relies on politics and electing people at the local level, and then we negotiate the terms and conditions of employment annually through a meet and confer process. We have been able to place language from our previous contracts into the employee handbook. We don’t have dues, we have fees, which are taken out of member paychecks by local government. Since we operate outside the state system, none of it requires any oversight or involvement from the state.”
According to many in the Wisconsin labor movement, the shift in AFSCME’s approach was born of necessity. Decades of business-as-usual unionism had turned Wisconsin public-sector unions into highly legalistic organizations incapable of responding to the crisis. “The culture that people have known historically is the business model: professional staff taking care of problems, meeting the needs of members and doing the organizing,” says former Wisconsin AFSCME organizer Edward Sadlowski. “The fundamentals of organizing – mapping out the worksite, identifying leaders, building relationships on the shop floor, that kind of thing – were completely missing from most unions’ culture. Without a vision and no plan to move forward, union density plummeted. For too many working people, the union has no relevance.”
There is hope amidst the wreckage. In Milwaukee, seven out of every 10 teachers are members of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), which has won its recertification elections each year. “Most regions are losing members every single month, and every single month our union is holding steady or putting numbers up on the board,” says MTEA vice president Amy Mizialko.
After the Milwaukee school district proposed a 2019 budget that cut classroom spending by 5 percent per student, MTEA launched an aggressive campaign to restore funding. At rallies, MTEA members often chanted, “If we don’t get it, shut it down.” The threat was not idle. The union spent months organizing escalating actions, from town halls to walk-ins, at which teachers rallied outside schools to greet parents and students with signs and information.
At one raucous school board meeting, union members shouted down the board with chants while the union president delivered 3,000 petition signatures opposing the cuts. At another, more than 3,000 MTEA members and supporters picketed outside the central office, then marched into the boardroom behind a drumline. The union asked members to sign a pledge “to do what it takes” to stop the budget cuts, signaling their intent without using the word “strike.” In May, the superintendent announced that the district was restoring the funding by chopping from the top and making cuts to district management instead.
That same spirit is evident in Iowa, where, in 2016, Republicans scored a trifecta and seized the governorship and both chambers of the state government. The new legislature passed its own variation of Act 10. The law curtailed collective bargaining, capped wage increases unions could negotiate at the rate of inflation, outlawed the deduction of union dues from paychecks, and required a majority of all eligible voters – even those who are not union members, since Iowa is right-to-work – to vote to recertify the union during an annual two-week election.
Even though the law was largely the same as in Wisconsin, the result was very different: 99 percent of unions recertified.
“It really backfired on them,” says Ankeny High School history teacher Nick Covington. In Covington’s local, the Ankeny Education Association, stewards and activists had personal conversations with everyone in the bargaining unit – regardless of whether they were a member. “We had a color-coordinated system for following up with people who were on the fence. We were constantly communicating,” Covington says.
The Iowa activists had a simple message: Being a union member is an act of resistance to the state legislature that tried to take their bargaining rights. It worked.
Teachers in Florida shared a similar message in response to a new law requiring unions to annually prove they have 50 percent membership. Those that do not must organize a recertification election.
Florida teachers unions are tapping into rage over the fact that elected officials are making anti-union legislation a top priority in the weeks following the tragic school shooting in Parkland. “All three of the educators shot down were union members,” says Broward Teachers Union president Anna Fusco. “This legislation just proves that these legislators have no respect or value for educators. Their only concern is stripping down and privatizing our schools.”
A Petri dish for the nation
Writing in 2017, anti-tax crusader and conservative strategist Grover Norquist, head of the SPN affiliate Americans for Tax Reform, argued that Wisconsin should be a model for all Republican legislatures. He sees union-busting as a way to erode a Democratic fundraising, door-knocking and voting base. “If Act 10 is enacted in a dozen more states,” he said, “the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics.”
On this point, Norquist has wide agreement from labor activists.
“Wisconsin is the petri dish for the rest of the country,” says Dave Poklinkoski, president of IBEW 2304 in Madison. “This was an experiment. Billionaires and corporations are trying to figure out how they can maintain their rule. Spreading Act 10 on a national scale is their plan to do it.”
“The current onslaught against labor unions is the largest, the best funded and the most elaborately coordinated in U.S. history,” says Sarah Lawrence College historian Priscilla Murolo. “All unions are in the crosshairs.”
Is there hope for labor beyond merely surviving?
As the recent teacher uprising sweeping the nation has shown, workers are not apathetic. Pushed far enough, and when they see a way, they are willing to fight.
The challenge facing many public-employee unions, after decades of demobilization, is to learn how to break away from business-as-usual unionism and enlist their members and the community to resist. And they will have to do this with fewer staff and resources than before.
The unions that are building a fighting culture are the ones most likely to fare well in a right-to-work environment and to beat back legislative attacks. According to the MTEA’s Mizialko, the best fortification is a strong, member-run union that is constantly in action, building allies in the community and power in the workplace. “No one decides our fate but us,” she says.
This story was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.