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How A Fight Over Unions Could Change The Direction Of Oregon Politics

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network

When the U.S. Supreme Court obliterated mandatory union dues in late June, the Freedom Foundation was ready.

For years, leaders of the conservative, Olympia-based nonprofit dreamed of a tool to kneecap the public-sector unions that champion Democratic candidates and liberal causes in Oregon. Suddenly it had arrived.

Five days after the ruling in the case of Janus vs. AFSCME, the organization sent pamphleteers to hand out candy and literature near government buildings in Salem. A small contingent of canvassers, wielding a phone app loaded with the addresses of public employees, began knocking on doors around the state. The foundation e-mailed thousands of government workers.

"The Janus decision marks the start of the end of the reign of government unions' political influence,” Aaron Withe, the Freedom Foundation’s Oregon director, said at a press conference in early July. “But more importantly than that, it means that public employees now have the ability to go out and give themselves a raise by ceasing to pay union dues.”

So began the latest battle to control the direction of Oregon politics.

Public-sector unions have long enjoyed huge influence in the state, dumping millions of dollars into campaigns and lobbying efforts, and rallying their members around laws that increased the minimum wage and mandated paid sick leave for workers, among other things.

The Janus decision threatens to slow that momentum. Citing First Amendment protections, the Supreme Court outlawed “fair share” fees unions in Oregon and 21 other states have been able to collect from workers who refuse to become union members, but still benefit from union representation.

That’s an automatic hit to union revenues, but the Freedom Foundation is pushing a different message: that workers can now opt out of union membership, pay nothing and still reap benefits.

“Opt-out today,” read pamphlets the group has been leaving on doorsteps around the state. “Your money. Your choice.”

The state’s largest public unions say they’re not too worried. Like the Freedom Foundation, unions have had years to prepare for an adverse court decision. In that time, they’ve been pressing their case to members and focusing on reaching new employees about the benefits of organized labor.

“I don’t expect our membership to slip,” said Stacy Chamberlain, executive director of AFSCME Council 75, the state’s second-largest public employee union. “Union members in Oregon, not just in AFSCME, understand the value of coming together and having a collective voice.”

It’s true that Oregon has long been a union stronghold. Federal statistics suggest the state ranked eighth nationally for the rate of public union membership in 2017. But it’s also true that most public employees haven’t worked under these new rules before, and it’s impossible to say what exactly will happen.

"Clearly there’s going to be a hit to our union,” said Melissa Unger, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 503, Oregon's largest public union. “But what we’ve seen in the past and what we continue to see is: We don’t know.”

The Freedom Foundation’s Oregon arm operates out of a small beige office complex in northeast Salem. The complex is mostly filled with medical professionals: a chiropractor, a place that sells prosthetics, the Oregon Board of Massage Therapists.

The foundation itself shares its space with a massage parlor called Joy of Massage. Walk in the front door and turn right to get a therapeutic rub down. Head straight to talk about the ills of public employee unions.

Adorning the walls in one room of the headquarters are two enormous novelty checks — the kind you might get for winning a golf tournament. The checks are made out in the amounts of $5,000 and $6,869, and appear as though they were made out to the Freedom Foundation from SEIU Local 503.

The SEIU didn’t hand the Freedom Foundation these big checks, of course. The foundation had them made up after winning legal fees from the SEIU in two court cases.

“We like to have some reminders of what we’re doing,” says Ben Straka, a policy analyst at the foundation.

The checks are an apt symbol of the Freedom Foundation’s activity in Oregon to date.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court gave home health care workers the ability to opt out of mandatory union fees, just as it did for a far wider swath of workers with the recent Janus decision. The following year, the Freedom Foundation set up shop in Oregon. It began contacting home health care workers — most of whom are represented by the SEIU — telling them they don’t need to pay union dues.

As they do on most topics, the foundation and labor unions dispute the effects of that effort. Withe, of the Freedom Foundation, claimed in July that more than 40 percent of home health care workers have decided not to be union members. The SEIU told OPB that the ranks of home health care workers it represents have grown by around 8,000 since 2014.

What’s not in dispute are the Freedom Foundation’s motivations.

While the 27-year-old organization often says it wants to make sure public workers understand their rights under the law, it’s been more candid in years past that the goal is to shrink — or outright dismantle — public unions.

“The Freedom Foundation has a proven plan for bankrupting and defeating government unions through education, litigation, legislation and community activation,” Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe wrote in a 2015 fundraising letter. “This has already produced great results in Washington—and because of that, we’re moving fast to apply our strategy in Oregon, too.”

Today, the Freedom Foundation operates in Oregon, Washington and California. It’s helped public workers file suit against their labor union and battled with cities like Portland over access to information about government employees. It’s also knocked on a lot of doors, and established a website,, aimed at helping workers decamp from their union.

Labor groups are concerned enough about the Freedom Foundation’s activities that they’ve helped create an organization called the Northwest Accountability Project. The tiny nonprofit exists solely to parry the foundation’s messaging.

“They put out this message that says they’re on the side of workers,” says Peter Starzynski, one of the organization’s two employees. “It’s so far from the truth. They are on the side of the billionaire class.”

To make that case, Starzynski points to donations that the Freedom Foundation has received from well-heeled national groups that have worked to destabilize unions.

As a 501(c)3 organization, the foundation doesn’t need to reveal the sources of its funding, but opponents have cobbled together a picture using tax disclosures from organizations that donate. They include the State Policy Network, a conservative group that has been linked to coordinated efforts aimed at reducing the size of government around the country.

Unions also say the Freedom Foundation’s political bias runs afoul of federal regulations. In 2015, 18 groups signed onto a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service, arguing that the foundation’s status as a tax-exempt organization should be stripped because, among other things, it “is directly intervening in political campaigns,” which is not allowed.

According to Starzynski, the IRS has yet to respond.

Oregon’s public sector unions are entering the post-Janus era from a place of strength. As the labor movement has flagged around the country in recent decades, Oregon’s unions are still robust.

The SEIU, for instance, had more than 58,000 members in 2017, according to figures it submits to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s the largest it’s ever been.

Statewide, more than 53 percent of public employees were union members in 2017, according to federal estimates. That’s a decrease from the more than 60 percent of public employees who were members in 1995, but a higher proportion than most states.

So far, unions that OPB spoke with say they haven’t seen a mass exodus of members. Without giving specifics, the SEIU’s Unger told OPB her union had signed up more members than it has lost since the Janus decision.

And it’s not just labor leaders who are bullish. Bob Bussel, director of the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, believes unions’ robust outreach to members in anticipation of the Janus ruling should be enough to maintain their historic strength.

“People here have been on the cutting edge of the types of things that unions need to do to be effective,” said Bussel, a union member himself. “I have some real confidence in our resiliency here in this state.”

But there are more concrete indications of what Oregon’s future might be. As conservatives have succeeded in killing mandatory union dues in states around the country via “right-to-work” laws in recent years, a growing body of research suggests such changes have definite effects.

One 2018 study concluded the shares of votes to Democratic candidates decrease in states where unions have been weakened by right-to-work laws. A 2017 paper suggested workers in these states made less money than those in states with mandatory union dues and were less likely to be union members.

The Freedom Foundation anticipates a steep decrease in union membership in Oregon.

“I don’t think that 20 percent, since you mentioned it, is pie in the sky,” said Straka, the group’s Oregon policy analyst. “I think that’s a reasonable estimation over time.”

On a recent sweltering Thursday afternoon, Straka tooled around a hilly neighborhood in West Salem, looking for teachers.

A canvassing app on his cellphone pointed the direction to the homes of members of the Oregon Education Association, who’d be off work for the summer. Straka planned to give them the news about the Janus decision in person.

“When we do have a good face-to-face contact with a person, there’s a pretty good chance, we’ve found,” he said. “It works, and it’s a pretty good way to get information to folks.”

The Freedom Foundation says it has more than a dozen workers canvassing neighborhoods around the state and plans to hire dozens more. But on the day OPB accompanied Straka, substantive face-to-face conversations were hard to come by.

At many homes, no one answered the door. At others, a spouse or family member agreed to take literature, then rushed back indoors. Twice, when a union member did answer the door, they appeared either disinterested in Straka’s message, or quietly hostile to it.

Finally, toward the end of his canvass, Straka found a man willing to talk. His name was David Maghinay. He said he’d been dubious about unions in the past but has since come around.

“I was one of those guys that said, ‘We don’t need unions,’” Maghinay said. “But after a while, when you started seeing people get into trouble, they had no representation. When you go into the office and you sit down and you’re by yourself, who’s going to represent you, you know?”

Maghinay seemed like an unlikely convert to Straka’s way of thinking. As it turned out, he was an ineligible one.

The list of union employees on Straka’s phone was out of date. Maghinay had retired as a prison guard six years ago.

“It’s good that we know that,” Straka said as he departed the home. “Could be an anomaly. That would be my bet.”

And with that, he moved on to the next house.

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.