Seattle OWLS challenges anti-union Freedom Foundation

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Washington state is quickly becoming a hot spot in labor’s war against “Right to Work” laws. Emboldened by court rulings and legislative victories in the Midwest, wealthy groups and individuals are bankrolling the Freedom Foundation (Foundation), a right-wing “think tank” whose stated goal is to “defund and bankrupt public employee unions.” Unionists and labor activists are not taking the attack lightly. In Puget Sound, Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS) is mobilizing to confront the Foundation and educate unsuspecting union members and the broader public about its lies and reactionary agenda.

Targeting unions. Attacks on labor are nothing new in Washington. The Evergreen Freedom Foundation (now the Freedom Foundation) for years smeared public school teachers and advanced proposals to ban the closed shop, where everyone at a job site pays dues to the union once it is voted in. States with closed shop laws have better wages and conditions for all workers. This is why big business wants to roll back the closed shop by spreading “Right to Work” laws to the U.S. West Coast. Under this “open shop” law, workers can “opt out” of a union and enjoy union benefits without paying dues. Wherever these laws exist, business interests fund and drive opt-out campaigns. Wages and a whole range of rights deteriorate as union membership falls.

In 2014, anti-labor forces nationwide got a boost with the lawsuit Harris v. Quinn. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that home healthcare workers were “public-private” employees, undeserving of closed shop protections. In 2015, the Foundation applied the ruling in Washington state, with money from Donors Trust, State Policy Network, and other foundations with ties to the Koch brothers, the Walton family, and the John Birch Society.

Quickly capitalizing on Harris, the wealth tank got names and addresses of 35,000 home healthcare workers in Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Armed with lies, and operating below the radar with little resistance from labor officials, the Foundation aired TV ads and went door-knocking in suburbs of Puget Sound, such as Auburn, Wash., to convince SEIU members to “opt out” of their union.

Fast fightback. The Foundation’s sleazy stratagems came to the attention of OWLS when news got out about the Foundation’s demand for the names, addresses and birth dates of all Washington state public employee union members. Several unions mounted a legal challenge to stop the Foundation. OWLS members voted to pack the court at a hearing on the issue and kicked organizing for it into high gear. They made a flurry of phone calls, notified the press, and distributed flyers to a convention of the Washington State Labor Council and among unions and community groups from Seattle to Tacoma and Olympia.

Getting word out through official union channels was an uphill effort. But on July 29, union carpenters, teachers, transit workers, retirees, and state workers of every stripe filled the Olympia courtroom. The judge issued a bad decision, which upheld the Foundation’s quest for private information on union members. She claimed her hands were tied and that no irreparable harm would be done, even as she acknowledged the Foundation’s goal was to smash labor unions! It was a powerful civics lesson on why labor can’t rely on capitalist courts or laws.

A lively protest ensued outside the courthouse after the decision. One union lawyer thanked protesters for being there in support. TV coverage, with signs denouncing the “Fascist Freedom Foundation,” aired on Seattle-area TV news throughout the evening.

Deadbeat officials. The one union that organized to get members there was Washington Public Employees Association. A WPEA Chief Steward and electrician at the rally, Bill E. Garner, came all the way from Clark County Community College in Vancouver, Wash. He said members of his union “were glad to be in the union. They want to stay in the union, and are concerned about the release of their information.”

WPEA turned out members because it publicized the event on union websites. This wasn’t the case for many of the other unions under attack. And clearly, a pressing task for OWLS is breaking through the silence of conservative union officials who are reluctant to mobilize members. Teamsters 117 members, for example, were told “not to worry.”

What’s next? At the rally in Olympia everyone agreed that picketing the Foundation’s September fundraiser in Bellevue, Wash. is a must. Days after the court decision, the Foundation canvassed SEIU members in Auburn. A news reporter called the union to get a pro-labor view. Unable to find a member to quote, the reporter called OWLS for assistance. On the evening news, Freedom Socialist Party leader Guerry Hoddersen, an SEIU and OWLS member, pulled no punches about the Foundation, telling thousands of TV viewers, “They are about busting unions and creating a cheap workforce in the United States.”

The Freedom Socialist Party helped found OWLS and has played an influential role, including helping draft its Points of Solidarity. Key in OWLS platform is the idea that the labor movement must break with the Democrats, and rank and filers must champion democracy in their unions.

In August, OWLS voted to build the picket against the Foundation in Bellevue and reach out to unions and labor groups for help. Plans are underway for spreading the word and getting media coverage. Organizing for the picket will also be an opportunity to spark honest discussion around urgent issues raised by the Foundation’s campaign. One is that union officials don’t listen to their members. Another is that these mis-leaders throw money at capitalist politicians without members knowing about it or voting on it.

The OWLS platform provides powerful answers and arguments to the Freedom Foundation’s attacks, and is an antidote to union members who are tired of being on the losing end of every labor battle.

The Foundation wants unionists to dump their unions in frustration. The OWLS model of multi-union solidarity in action helps members take back their unions from business models. And make them once again fighting instruments for the entire working class.

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