by Sarah Laslett
The Washington State Labor Education and Research Center (WA LERC) started drawing the ire and attention of the right-wing Freedom Foundation back in 2014. It all started because the Freedom Foundation didn’t think it was appropriate for the Labor Center to contract with the Washington State Labor Council to provide education on Right to Work legislation. The Freedom Foundation began to submit FOIA requests, and then sent a spy in to one of the trainings to acquire the curriculum. Freedom Foundation staff wrote blog posts decrying this work as a misuse of public funding and continued to request documentation about who the LERC served, how we spent our money, and about our relationships with Washington State legislators. Being a program of an institution of public education, South Seattle College, LERC responded with all the transparency we could, knowing that, although we had done nothing wrong, we were in for a long road of explaining how our activities working with labor organizations and community partners fulfilled the mandate of our mission without breaking the law or violating any Washington State ethics standards.
Two years later, we are exonerated. After the multiple information requests, the Freedom Foundation filed two official complaints, one with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (which oversees political lobbying) and the other with the Executive Ethics Board (which oversees public employees compliance with state ethics standards). Tellingly, neither of the complaints focused on the Right to Work program the Freedom Foundation had originally expressed interest in. When they took aim at the WA LERC and its former Director, Sarah Laslett, they focused on lobbying reporting and an allegation about the 2013 Summer Institute for Union Women.
The Public Disclosure Commission complaint was resolved in December of 2015 with a finding that the Seattle College District had, in fact, failed to file lobbying forms in a timely way. This was an unfortunate oversight but nothing of huge significance happened because of that lobbying activity. No additional funding for the Labor Center was forthcoming because of the unreported activity. No unethical or irresponsible interactions were had with public officials. We're talking about a few hours' worth of conversations that should have been reported and weren't. That's it. The $150 fine levied against the College District was suspended on the condition that no further violations are committed within a four year period. There was no fault found against the Labor Center itself.
The Executive Ethics Board complaint was dismissed on Sept 9, 2016 as "obviously unfounded or frivolous.” The story of this complaint is more substantive that the PDC complaint and more instructive, especially for higher education programs that host the Women’s Institutes across the country. In 2013 the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center took its turn in the regional rotation as the host for the Western Regional Summer Institute for Union Women. The summer institutes have been running for decades as annual, multi-day, residential leadership development programs. In the Western Region, the institute rotates among host organizations in CA, OR, WA, B.C., and Hawaii. It is a project of the United Association for Labor Education, the national professional organization for labor educators in higher education, unions, and community groups. One of the long-standing educational traditions of this institute is to offer participants the opportunity to take part in a direct action as part of a current and local labor struggle. Hosting institutions partner with unions or community organizations that are leading these struggles. It is an opportunity for Institute participants to learn about a local labor struggle, to learn about the organizations leading those struggles, and to see and experience, often for the first time, a direct action.
In 2013, Working Washington had been organizing workers at Sea-Tac airport around a number of issues for more than a year. Those campaigns focused on health and safety problems for baggage handlers and union recognition drives. This largely immigrant workforce bore the brunt of dangerous and low wage jobs, and were consistently stonewalled by employers when they sought redress to their issues. They had been attempting to get recognition for their unions through the democratic processes outlined under the law for some time prior to the 2013 SIUW. When ~150 women participating in the Institute when to SeaTac to participate in Working Washington’s direct action, the focus was on these issues.
When union formation and pressure on employers failed to achieve results for these workers, Working Washington added a new strategy - legislating a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage and other labor standards that the workers had originally sought through union contracts. This became Proposition 1 in the City of SeaTac and was the first legislative action of its kind in the U.S. As we now know, that has spawned a nation-wide movement seeking to address deep-seeded economic inequality, especially for low-wage workers in service industries. However, when participants of the Summer Institute for Union Women went to SeaTac airport in June of 2013, the ballot initiative had not yet been certified, let alone any campaign in support of it having been publicly initiated. Working Washington’s action, which the SIUW participated in, focused on workplace issues and unionization efforts, and yet the Freedom Foundation’s complaint explicitly claimed that the Labor Center had “violated the Ethics in Public Service Act by using public resources for political campaigns.”
The timing of the action and the initiative certification was clear and obvious to anyone who bothered to look. Clearly the Freedom Foundation was willing to ignore the timeline. They didn't care that the Labor Center was carrying on a long educational tradition within the SIUW by participating in the Working Washington action. They didn't believe that the public employees that ran the Labor Center were well aware of and committed to complying with the laws and ethics standards that protect tax payers from corruption and inappropriate behavior. The Freedom Foundation’s sole purpose was to malign this unique and important educational program, and waste vital public resources that could have been much better spent serving the working woman and men of Washington State. And in this, they succeeded.
The investigator for the Executive Ethics Board did a thorough investigation. He looked at emails and financial information from the Labor Center. He investigated Working Washington. He looked at the invoices detailing the hiring of the buses that carried SIUW participants to and from SeaTac on that day. And he saw two essential things. First, that the Labor Center providing this opportunity for SIUW ". . . participants to gain firsthand knowledge about how and why community organizations engage in this kind of activity . . . was . . . consistent with WSLERC's curriculum to educate people on labor issues and participation in this type of activity furthers that goal." Second, that there "is no evidence to support the [Freedom Foundation's] allegations." The bottom line is that the Freedom Foundation was engaging in political harassment, and they were wasting the time of publicly funded professionals to do it.
The good news is how dismally the Freedom Foundation has failed to interfere with the $15 per-hour minimum wage movement. According to their website, they are still seeking to undermine Seattle’s minimum wage initiative. But their failure in this struggle is clear. Not only did Proposition 1 pass in SeaTac, and then faced a lengthy court battle from which it emerged intact, but the movement has spread throughout the country. We have a more robust debate about economic inequality in this country today than has been seen in a very long time, with an appropriate focus on the experience of low-wage workers. Organizations like the Freedom Foundation, with their cynical, right-wing funded, anti-worker, anti-equity agenda cannot stop this movement, any more than they could make any of the allegations against the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center stick. They accuse public sector unions of political corruption, and yet they abuse public resources to try and move their right-wing agenda. It’s clear that they have nothing constructive to contribute to ongoing efforts to solve our common problems. If only the many public employees who, under the law, were required to respond to and investigate the Freedom Foundation’s unfounded and frivolous complaint could recover the hours and hours we spent, but we can't. The best thing we can do is celebrate the clearing of our names and move forward with our work, because we have a lot of work to do.