By Dahlia Bazzaz / The Seattle Times
When Seattle teacher Alice Lippitt checked the mail last week, she was puzzled by a flyer she found.
“What the heck?” she said she remembers thinking. “How did they find my address?”
At first glance, the flyer, sent to thousands of Washington teachers over the holidays, looks like a last-chance sale advertisement from a department store.
It was actually an invitation from a conservative think tank to “save up to $1,200” by opting out of paying membership dues to the Washington Education Association (WEA), the statewide teacher’s union.
“Give yourself a raise this Christmas and every Christmas to come!” it reads.
The mailers are part of a wider and litigious political battle between the state’s labor unions and the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based conservative think tank, whose website says the group is “working to reverse the stranglehold government unions have” on state and local policy. Using information gleaned from public records requests, the Foundation has also knocked on doors and sent emails to public employees notifying them of their right to opt out of paying dues under a 2018 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME.
Reached by phone last week, Jami Lund, the Foundation’s senior policy analyst, said the communications are intended to place a check on the power of unions, keep them accountable and prevent them from “overcharging” their members. He added that some public employees, including those who are conservative, don’t want to fund union activities they don’t agree with and feel pressured to be “in lockstep.”
WEA, a formidable lobbying force with close to 100,000 members, has been aware of the group’s efforts for years. A post on the union’s blog advises members to ignore the Foundation’s “annoying tactics.”
“We see it as nothing but an attempt to harass and intimidate school employees,” said Rich Wood, a WEA spokesman.
The Foundation is a nonprofit and member of the State Policy Network, an alliance of conservative think tanks, some of which are engaged in similar anti-union marketing campaigns, The Guardian and The Intercept reported.
One mailer from the Foundation obtained by The Guardian said, “The consequences of a favorable ruling [in the Janus case] are huge. Imagine tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars currently used to push damaging leftwing causes and candidates … vanishing.”
Unions have traditionally been a reliable funding source for Democrats, and WEA, with close to 100,000 members, has the largest political action committee in the state.
Union members pay a combination of dues that fund local, state, regional and national union associations. WEA’s dues this year are $511 for full-time certificated teachers. The D.C.-based National Education Association’s dues this year are $196. Local dues are different for each district.
“It does make sense to have access to an advocate,” Lund said. But do you have to send money to Washington, D.C., “when the actual work is going to be done by local folks?”
It’s unclear how effective the Foundation’s outreach has been with teachers. Lund said it’s hard to get an accurate estimate, and WEA declined to reveal comparisons of its membership numbers before and after the Janus ruling.
Anti-union messaging can be a hard sell in Washington state — especially among teachers, many of whom belong to unions that secured double-digit raises for their members in the years following a court-ordered state education funding overhaul in 2017. Nearly 20% of the working population here are union members, the third-highest rate in the country after New York and Hawaii, according to USA Today.
“I just throw their stuff away,” said Sarah Ard, a teacher in the Kennewick School District who said she’s been receiving the Foundation’s messages to her personal email and mailing address for years.
“The great part about unions is solidarity and that you stand with each other,” said Shraddha Shirude, a math teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle. “It becomes a very individualistic thing to say, ‘I’m gonna pull my money.’ “
Shirude, a second-year teacher, said the flyer appeared to be targeted at those who may be concerned about making ends meet. She said the dues could be adjusted to ease those concerns for beginner teachers, but, “I’m not going to give up on the union because of that. You join the union so you can communicate your needs.”