Jamie Keiser didn’t recognize the phone number, so she let it go to voicemail. It was late March, a time when she was focused on weathering the coronavirus outbreak.
The message on her phone, she later found, fashioned itself as a survival tip. A conservative think tank said she should consider quitting paying her union dues and bank the money instead.
“Have you considered opting out of your union during these times of uncertainty?” the caller asked. “This is a surefire way to increase your take-home pay and keep more of your money in your pocket, where it belongs.”
The message came from the Freedom Foundation, a group founded in Washington state to urge people to opt out of public sector unions. It has recently taken fire for apparently leveraging the pandemic against public sector unions.
Leaders of the foundation said they are only trying to inform dues-paying union members of other options. They said they don’t oppose organized labor, on principle, but do oppose union tactics to increase membership and use the dues to influence politics.
The organization has continued to send emails and mailers, and make phone calls during the pandemic. The outbreak has changed one tactic, however: They no longer go door-to-door.
“We exist to provide workers with all their options and let them know they can opt out of their unions if they choose to do so,” said Aaron Withe, the foundation’s national director.
Teachers unions are feeling the Freedom Foundation’s focus. Teachers report receiving emails and mailers and cold calls in March and April, trying to convince employees like Keiser to withdraw membership.
Keiser, a photography teacher at Columbia River High School in Vancouver, hears these kinds of messages from the foundation regularly and said she disregards them. But she found it offensive during the outbreak.
“I was shocked. It seemed kind of in poor taste to be sending this message out,” she said.
Public sector workers, like teachers, firefighters and city hall staff, have not yet felt the pandemic’s significant economic tremors like private sector workers. But taxes are teetering, making those workers’ jobs more vulnerable.
Those cuts have mostly impacted workers without unions. Dues-paying teachers in Vancouver and Longview alike have not faced reductions.
An email circulating among teachers in Longview portends that may not last long.
“With great uncertainty in the economy, one thing we can all do is look at what memberships and automatic deductions we have set up,” the Freedom Foundation wrote in one email to members of the Longview Teachers Union.
“How much are you paying in union dues? Could you use the extra money right now as an emergency cushion?” the email continued. “Remember, you can always rejoin later when things get back to normal.”
Firefighters in Washington told OPB they’re also fielding calls.
In mid-April, a voicemail appeared at a bar owned by two Thurston County firefighters with a similar message. It was the same message sent to Keiser, the teacher in Vancouver, encouraging them to stop paying union dues in case the economy stalls and they need the money.
The firefighters weren’t sure why the Freedom Foundation called the business instead of their homes. But they concluded they were the targets of the message, because no other public employee’s phone number would be associated with the bar.
Co-owner Casey Sobol said after working long shifts during the pandemic and worrying about the brewery’s future, he felt the message was “in bad taste.”
“There’s a lot of people that are working day and night, whether it’s firefighters, police officers, people in health care, state workers,” he said. “It definitely didn’t hit very well, the message they were putting out there.”
Statewide leaders of the firefighters union have slammed “multiple” efforts by the Freedom Foundation to reach out to firefighters.
“To me, that’s really taking advantage of a situation,” said Dennis Lawson, president of the Washington State Council of Firefighters. “We need to figure out how we can fight this thing together. I just thought it was not good timing.”
Withe, of the Freedom Foundation, disputes the firefighters’ claims. He said the foundation doesn’t contact first responders because those unions aren’t overtly political, unlike the unions representing local government workers and teachers.
“We do not outreach to firefighters,” Withe said. “I believe they’re being dishonest about we’re contacting firefighters, because we’ve never done it.”
After Sobol provided a copy of the voicemail to OPB, Withe said it was not intentional. "They are not purposely on our list, but occasionally when you do a campaign on the scale we do, we get incorrect information from our vendors or governments."
But the pandemic has been an opportunity. Withe said the Freedom Foundation is hearing from dissatisfied workers from its outposts in Washington, Oregon, California, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“We’ve seen hundreds every week of people opting out of their unions and that hasn’t changed,” he said. “I think in the midst of this coronavirus, people are more concerned about their finances and they’re not going into their offices, they’re not interacting as much with their unions, which has resulted in an uptick in opt-outs.”
The Freedom Foundation claims to have assisted 70,000 public sector workers drop their unions since 2018. That year, in June, the U.S. Supreme Court made it illegal for public unions to collect dues from workers who benefit from union bargaining but aren’t in the union.
Unions and pro-union groups repudiate the Freedom Foundation. The foundation is part of the State Policy Network, which unions and pro-union groups say aggressively tries to destroy unions and weaken the working class’s collective bargaining power.
“There’s a lot of fear right now over not just the state of the economy, but folks are worried about their health and the health of the folks they love,” said April Sims, secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, an umbrella group representing unions throughout the state.
“Any attempts to take advantage of that, and attempt to weaken workers’ voices in the workplace, I think is particularly heinous,” Sims added. “But not surprising considering the characters we’re used to dealing with and the tactics they’ve deployed.”
Withe shrugged off those claims, arguing that unions’ strength stems from the fact that, up until the Supreme Court’s decision, a number of people who paid dues had no choice.
“A lot of them that we speak to, they’re not informed, and that’s why they opt out in droves,” Withe said.
Withe argued public sector unions aren't morally superior, either. He pointed to a handful of lawsuits his group recently filed in West Coast states, including two in Oregon, that allege unions forged workers' signatures to collect dues.
"They're taking money from these people at a time when they need it," he said. "This is money they worked for, this is money they went out and got."
Gordon Lafer, a professor and labor researcher at the University of Oregon, said it’s hard to tell how union membership has been impacted in recent years. He said around 5% of members across the country stopped paying dues since the court ruling.
“It’s hard to know. It may well have a bigger effect over time than it does right away, but so far the fall off in union membership has been pretty modest,” he said.
But tumultuous times, like a pandemic and an economic downturn, tend to draw people closer to unions, he said. As public sector employers start talking furloughs, insurance scale-backs and pension cuts, workers tend to become more interested in organizing.
“I don’t know that this will happen, but assuming there are budget cuts coming in most states of the country, those tend to strengthen people’s participation and interest in their unions,” he said.