Labor spotlight

As Janus verdict looms, Albany group aims to attack union membership

The Albany-based Empire Center is following the tactics used by the Freedom FounPhoto Courtesy of Philip E. Lindquist and Anthony Thompson, IUPAT, DC5The Albany-based Empire Center is following the tactics used by the Freedom Foundation, here the object of protests by members of District Council 5 of the International Union of Painters and Trades in the streets of Bellevue, Washington. With a U.S. Supreme Court decision due before the end of June in the anti-union Janus v. AFSCME case, UFT members should brace for a campaign by right-wing forces looking to degrade the value of union membership, UFT President Michael Mulgrew recently told union delegates.

The Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-based think tank and one of the major anti-labor players in the state, has raised $6 million to mount a campaign to attack public sector unions in the state after distributing a report on the case to right-wing funders, Mulgrew said.

The center was founded in 2005 by E.J. McMahon as a project of the Manhattan Institute. In 2013, it was spun off as an independent organization with a focus on taxes, spending, debt and “costly public-sector collective bargaining mandates.”

The template for the Empire Center’s attack comes from the Freedom Foundation, which sought to dismantle public-sector unions in Washington state, California and Oregon.

“Contrary to what their moniker suggests, the Freedom Foundation is an anti-union organization whose primary agenda is to eradicate organized labor and swindle the working class,” said Philip E. Lindquist of District Council 5, the International Union of Painters and Trades, in Washington state.

The Freedom Foundation is funded by a coalition of conservative groups, some of which also back the Empire Center. Both are 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations that are not required to disclose donors. But when the money is traced back, there are funding ties to benefactors like the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers.

According to the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation may also support the Empire Center, which Bradley Foundation staff said “has the stomach for implementing the overall strategies and confrontational tactics of the Freedom Foundation.”

While the group has existed in the state for a quarter of a century, Rich Wood of the Washington Education Association said it has had a renewed focus in recent years “in trying to weaken our ability to stand together.”

The Freedom Foundation pounced after the Supreme Court in 2014 ruled in Harris v. Quinn that quasi-public employees did not have to pay agency fees or union dues to the labor organizations representing them. The court ruled that workers paid by Medicaid should not be treated the same way as public school teachers or police officers who work directly for the government.

After that court decision, an estimated 10,000 child care and home-care workers in Washington and Oregon were visited by Freedom Foundation activists going door to door. In Oregon and California, the Freedom Foundation also paid for video and TV ads featuring testimonials by workers encouraging other members to opt out. Emails, robocalls, podcasts and a website are also part of its arsenal.

The Freedom Foundation claimed 55 percent of the home-based child care providers in Washington stopped paying union dues in response to the group’s campaign, but SEIU Local 925, which represents the providers, said that number was actually less than 10 percent.

Wood said the group began contacting his union’s members about three years ago. “Oftentimes they use deceptive language and inaccurate information,” he said. “In some cases, they mislead people into thinking the information is from the union itself. They are also deceptive about the fact that getting this refund requires members to surrender their union membership.”

The Northwest Accountability Project is a nonprofit watchdog group formed by union supporters in 2015 to spread awareness about the Freedom Foundation and the wealthy special interests behind it.

Executive Director Peter Starzynski said in addition to door-to-door canvasses, the Freedom Foundation spends “money on mailings and every Christmas they dress up as Santa Claus and stand outside a couple of worksites.” The Santas tell workers to give themselves a gift and drop the union.

Lawsuits against unions are “their big thing now,” Starzynski said, but none of their substantial legal actions has panned out.

The Freedom Foundation also has requested the names, birthdates and emails of public employees so it can do direct outreach.

So far, the Empire Center has focused on writing policy papers and an amicus brief (legal documents filed by nonlitigants) in the Janus case, said Mia Korinke, a fellow at the American Federation of Teachers. The organization has also contributed to online journals and placed surrogates on conservative TV shows, she said.

Starzynski says unions in the Pacific Northwest “have done a good job of educating members” so “the Freedom Foundation hasn’t made a dent in any of the unions they have gone after.”

Being forewarned may help New Yorkers fend off impending attacks as well.

This is “a great opportunity to demonstrate who we’re up against as a labor movement,” Starzynski said. “The same folks that are trying to attack unions at the state level are attacking them in the courts and at the federal level. It’s all part of the same network, tied back to the Koch brothers. The Freedom Foundation has spent years opposing everything workers stand for.”

And, says Wood, the foundation has “been very clear about its intent. It said recently in a fundraiser that its goal is to drive a stake through the heart of public sector unions.”

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