The Think Tank Trying to Defund Public Sector Unions

Historians in the News
tags: labor history, public sector

Around February, Jakob Meils, an English teacher at East High School in Denver, received a postcard with a simple pitch: As food and gas prices skyrocketed, the best way for workers like Meils to get more money in their paychecks would be to opt out of union dues. The card included a link where he could fill out a form and have it mailed to his union at no cost, saving him upward of $950 per year.

“It sat on my couch for a couple of days,” he said, “but they kept coming, and by the summer I remember being surprised I was getting them so often.” Meils then looked more closely at the sender: a free-market think tank from Olympia, Washington, called the Freedom Foundation. He was skeptical of its motives and noted the pitch to opt out and save was even less convincing after the recent wins his union had brokered. “The difference was substantial enough that my wife and I were able to have a kid and start saving for a house,” he said of the deal his union reached after Denver teachers went on strike in 2019. “It would never occur to me to leave because of a mailer.”

The Freedom Foundation has been waging a campaign to encourage public-sector workers—from teachers to firefighters—to opt out of their unions since 2014. The group was founded by former teacher and private school advocate Lynn Harsh and Washington state legislator and budget hawk Bob Williams in 1991 after Williams’s failed gubernatorial run, but for years toiled out of the spotlight on small austerity campaigns to shrink state budgets. That changed dramatically in 2018 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which held that public-sector workers cannot be required to pay dues if they choose not to become members of their union. The decision overturned 41 years of precedent that argued nonmembers still benefited from union efforts and could therefore be required to pay fees. From before Janus to 2020, Freedom Foundation’s revenues ballooned by 38 percent, and it began its opt-out campaigns in earnest in Washington, Oregon, and California.


“This is a political effort,” said Lane Windham, a historian and associate director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. “They understand that union membership often buoys the Democratic Party,” she said, adding that Freedom Foundation campaigns and others like it have specifically targeted blue states.


To Windham, unions that have let new organizing take a back seat in recent years might leave their members more susceptible to Freedom Foundation’s messages. “When unions talk with their members about the impact the organization can have on their lives, that sways people,” she said. “The ones that have not had those conversations have been more susceptible to drops in their members because for many years they didn’t have to actually engage.”

Read entire article at The New Republic

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