Law & the Courts

A Free-Market Think Tank Sues Washington State over Union Bullying

(Photo: Winterling/Dreamstime)
The Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit against the State of Washington to stay the enforcement of a ballot-initiative that bars the release of public-record union-membership lists.

On November 8, voters in the State of Washington approved Ballot Initiative 1501, the Seniors and Vulnerable Individuals’ Safety and Financial Crimes Prevention Act. At the time, the measure’s advocates argued that the measure would increase criminal penalties for targeting seniors and vulnerable individuals in acts of identity theft and consumer fraud, and prohibit the release of any public records that may facilitate such crimes. I-1501 passed by a large margin: Most Washingtonians did not oppose what seemed to be an honest effort by I-1501 proponents to close loopholes allowing identity theft.

As previously reported at National Review, however, I-1501 did not in fact seek to protect vulnerable individuals. Rather, it was a last-ditch effort by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to block the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank, from obtaining its membership list of home-care providers. In other words, I-1501 was a Trojan horse that relied on the ignorance of voters to amend the Public Records Act, and it worked.

On Wednesday, the Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit against the State of Washington and requested a temporary restraining order to prevent I-1501 from being enforced until a judge decides whether I-1501 is constitutional.

The feud between the SEIU and the Freedom Foundation began when the Freedom Foundation strategically informed thousands of state-employed care-providers of their constitutional right — outlined in Harris v. Quinn, a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case — to leave their union. First, the Freedom Foundation made public-records requests to obtain membership lists from union chapters. Then, it simply notified union members who had been left in the dark and explained that they could opt out of paying into a union. This basic formula resulted in SEIU 925, the local SEIU chapter representing family child-care providers, losing over 60 percent of its members.

“Providers often express gratitude to the Foundation for these communications,” the Freedom Foundation explained in its court filing, “because they learn, for the first time, that they have unwittingly paid Union dues for years.”

To avoid a similar fate, SEIU 775, the local SEIU chapter representing home-care providers, battled ruthlessly in court for over two years in order to prohibit the Freedom Foundation from obtaining its updated membership list. After the Freedom Foundation prevailed in court, the SEIU chose a different path to accomplish its objective: to help create and finance I-1501, a deceptive ballot initiative that amends the Public Records Act. The Freedom Foundation’s court filing revealed that SEIU 775 paid the law firm that wrote I-1501. And, as David Dewhirst, Freedom Foundation’s litigation counsel, tells National Review, “SEIU [chapters 775 and 925] financed 1501 at the tune of nearly $1.9 million.” A mere $50 of the $1.9 million was donated from a person or organization unaffiliated with the SEIU.

“If this law stands,” Dewhirst says, “thousands of providers will never learn their rights, never have the opportunity to democratically replace their unions, and free speech will become markedly less free in Washington State.”

“It was clearly an abuse of the ballot-initiative process,” Dewhirst adds. But rather than sue the SEIU for its wrongdoing, the Freedom Foundation is suing the State of Washington for enforcing a law that is unconstitutional.

The Freedom Foundation is arguing that I-1501 violates the First Amendment because it both constitutes viewpoint discrimination and is unconstitutionally broad. Per the organization, the initiative also violates the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment because it treats “similarly situated groups differently” and “interferes with plaintiffs’ fundamental rights.”

This lattermost point is key. In its motion for a temporary restraining order, the Freedom Foundation argues that since I-1501 treats union members and non-union members differently, it is nearly impossible for any non-union member to decertify and replace a union in power. In order to trigger an election that could decertify any union chapter in Washington, 30 percent of the providers in the state must call for an election. Indeed, two providers have attempted to decertify the SEIU, both of whom have joined the Freedom Foundation’s lawsuit, but they could not feasibly contact union members without a membership list. (Homecare providers are spread across the state and move frequently, so an updated membership list is the only way to contact union members.)

“One of the things that you hear from unions is that they are the embodiment of democratic principles,” Dewhirst says, highlighting the hypocrisy of the SEIU. “Government unions shouldn’t be allowed to buy laws that strengthen their monopoly power.”

It’s been nearly three years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris v. Quinn, and yet states are still allowing unions to bully those who challenge their monopoly. If these same unions spent their time and money to adequately represent members rather than attempting to keep members ill-informed, it is likely that they wouldn’t have to bully the Freedom Foundation — or any group for that matter — at all.

— Austin Yack is a National Review Institute William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.

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Austin YackAustin Yack is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute and a University of California, Santa Barbara alumnus.

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