The Lead

West coast conservative group attempts to sway public workers to leave unions

By: - January 28, 2020 1:33 pm

(Capital-Star file)

Another conservative group has announced it’s coming to Pennsylvania to fight “union bullies.” 

At a quick Capitol press conference on Tuesday, the Freedom Foundation, part of the Koch-funded State Policy Network, announced it would begin knocking on doors, phone banking and mass-texting public sector union employees encouraging them to leave their unions.

“For too long” unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Service Employees International Union “have had their power unchecked” in Pennsylvania, Aaron Withe, national director of the foundation, said.

The group — which Withe described as a “battle tank,” not a think tank — is based in Olympia, Wash.. Pennsylvania is the fifth state the Freedom Foundation has entered, and the second in the Rust Belt.

The anti-public sector union campaign follows a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found mandatory payments by public employees to their workplace’s union unconstitutional. This effectively forces workers to either be full union members, or leave the bargaining unit.

Public sector unions face legal threats, but they’re on a ‘winning streak’

The foundation’s impact is hard to gauge. 

In 2019, for example, union membership in Oregon rose despite the foundation’s efforts. At the time, the foundation pointed to decreased union dues and political spending in the off year as proof of declining power. 

The foundation’s entrance into Pennsylvania was met with jeers from union-aligned PA Spotlight, a progressive advocacy group.

“The Freedom Foundation is a billionaire-funded front group trying and failing to destroy labor unions,” Spotlight Executive Director Eric Rosso said in a statement. “Much like Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation, they are simply not a credible organization to workers and their efforts to get workers to drop their unions have largely failed in their other states. Pennsylvania will be no different.”

Washington’s attorney general sued the group last year for failing to report campaign expenses for its work against a ballot question authorizing a progressive income tax to fund college tuition for city residents. The measure failed in 2016.

The anti-union work will be “run … like a political campaign,” Withe said. To find personal information on public employees, they will file public record requests for addresses to ensure person to person contact.

The work will also not target first responder unions, such as the Fraternal Order of Police or the International Association of Fire Fighters.

“This is a political agenda for them,” Rosso added. “They are trying to protect more conservative unions because they think it’ll propel more conservative candidates into office.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.