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Washington state employees’ emails become a political battleground

The emails of Washington’s state employees have become a political battlefield as a conservative group attempts to get workers to opt out of paying union dues, and union supporters vehemently counter their message.

“Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that folks have a First Amendment right to make their own decision about whether or not to fund a labor organization, we are letting folks know about that and the unions are not happy,” said Jami Lund, a senior policy analyst with the Freedom Foundation, a conservative organization.

The foundation’s latest effort is a mass email campaign sent to government workers in Washington state. The emails inform employees they can opt out of paying union dues.

“We did send a message to state employees and those who are members of the Federation of State Employees, which is an AFSCME affiliate for Washington state,” Lund said.

Freedom Foundation sent its latest round of opt out emails earlier this month, promoting three points: people have the right to end deduction of union dues from wages; dues money is used for more than negotiations such as funding political candidates; and a union cannot require a worker to sign anything. The emails forward recipients to a special website.

The opt out email campaign is the result of an action the foundation took in 2016, when it made a public records request for the personal information of state employees, specifically email addresses. The foundation said at the time it was building a database of state employees for opt out campaigns. It has made good on that statement with a series of email campaigns throughout 2018. But the foundation also sought employees’ birth dates in 2016, causing union concerns about privacy.

While the foundation has done similar campaigns in the past, the recent Janus decision prompted a more recent email effort. In short, the ruling stated that unions cannot collect dues from non-union state employees. The opt out campaign also goes beyond email with canvasing and door-to-door operations, Lund said.

Counter messaging

It didn’t take long for a group called the Northwest Accountability Project to send counter emails to state employees. The emails asked if they “received emails at work badgering you about your union membership?” NAP writes that the Freedom Foundation is anti-government and is funded by ultra-wealthy operatives who aim to privatize government functions, and that their plan is to get unions “out of the way.”

The NAP email calls the opt out messaging ‘propaganda’ and is signed by Peter Starzynski, executive director. When MyNorthwest contacted the Northwest Accountability Project for a comment about the email issue, Starzynski sent this statement:

The Freedom Foundation/Opt-Out Today’s campaign has been a failure with no real impact on the strength of unions which are as vibrant as ever in the Northwest. The Freedom Foundation/Opt Out Today regularly lies to union members who see right through their charade and the Northwest Accountability Project helps educate the public about these lies. By hiring racist and misogynistic staff with violent pasts, they have further alienated the very people they are trying to influence. If I’m one of their billionaire donors, I’m asking for a refund.

Starzynski did not respond to further requests for information about NAP, who funds and supports it, or other background. Lund spoke at length, however, on the issue claiming that NAP is funded by unions in an attempt to smear the Freedom Foundation. Lund has countered the counter message, stating that the campaign has convinced 11,250 government employees to opt out of the union dues across Washington, Oregon, and California. He argues that workers are responding to their emails on a “daily basis.”

Opt Out vs the Northwest Accountability Project

The Northwest Accountability Project describes itself as a “social welfare organization dedicated to educating the public on the issues that enhance the well-being of middle-class families and workers while shining a light on extremism and the moneyed special interests that attempt to bring an agenda of hate and division to Washington and Oregon.”

“How in the world is letting public employees know about their constitutional rights line the pockets of corporations?” Lund said. “They are not private sector employees. It’s not like somehow that’s going to increase dividends for stock holders or something like that. It’s a bizarre and unconnected claim … I don’t know how telling people this changes profits for evil corporations.”

It further alleges alleges that the Freedom Foundation is connected to hate groups via its sources of funding. It uses its website to monitor the foundation’s members. Its website also states that the foundation “poses as a non-partisan think tank, but in reality, they are members of a national network of ultra-conservative millionaires and billionaires including the Koch brothers …. They also work closely with white supremacist organizations and groups that seek to undermine LGBTQ rights.”

“Rather than come up with a business model which sets the price correctly and limits activities to things their members actually care about, they are demonizing us and attacking the messenger, I guess,” Lund said, noting that AFSCME has also warned its members about the foundation.

“The real dirty work is being done by Northwest Accountability Project where they are more aggressively attempting to smear people’s character, and doing mailing and protests at our board members’ places of businesses,” he said. “But the unions themselves are also very alarmed because their business model has always been to lean on coercion and bullying and pressure tactics, and now they are in this world where folks are actually customers they have to earn and they haven’t adapted quickly enough.”

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