BACKGROUND: The Freedom Foundation’s Failure to Change the Political Landscape in Oregon, California and Washington

The Freedom Foundation’s mission is to take out unions in order to win elections for right wing candidates (In violation of their non-profit tax-exempt status). They have set their eyes on turning the “blue states” of Washington, Oregon and California “red”, and have spent tens of millions of dollars and years of staff time trying to do it. And what do they have to show for it?  Following the 2018 mid-term elections, all three states have pro-union Democrats in the governor’s mansion and increased majorities in the state legislature, including supermajorities in the legislatures in Oregon and California. We think it’s fair to say things are not going well.

Despite what the Freedom Foundation’s CEO Tom McCabe and the rest of their leadership might want you to believe, this notion of taking out unions for right-wing gains was not his idea. In 2014, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) hosted a panel with a who’s who of right-wing activists including Grover Norquist, Reince Priebus and the head of American’s for Prosperity, the Koch brothers grassroots outreach organization. The topic of the panel was how to turn “blue states” into “red states.” The consensus was that the first step for any state is to attack and weaken labor unions who the right-wing view as a major funder of progressive candidates and causes.

CPAC Conference: On Turning Blue States Red

The Freedom Foundation is trying (and failing) to follow this blueprint along the West Coast. And while the Freedom Foundation misrepresents their mission to union members, McCabe didn’t hide his true intentions when he said: “[a]nother reason we have to take [Labor Unions] on is because we as conservatives want certain things–we want education reform and we want pension reform and we want less taxes and we want smaller government and you’re never going to get those things with unions standing in the way,” adding that “[w]hat Scott (Former Freedom Foundation Vice President) and I and the staff at the Freedom Foundation want to do is limit their sphere of influence and reduce their sphere of influence down to something that’s proportionate to their size and allow the conservative voice to be heard so we have a plan to do that.”

In 2014 in the wake of the Harris v. Quinn supreme court decision, national right-wing donors including the Bradley Foundation devised a plan to convince home healthcare providers in Washington State to quit paying union dues to their union, and decided to use the Freedom Foundation as the vehicle. The Harris decision allowed these providers to quit paying any dues or fees to their union and still reap the benefits of the union negotiated contract. In the fall of 2015, nearly a year and a half after the Harris decision they moved into Oregon. After only persuading a small number of individual providers (IPs) and failing to do any noticeable damage to any union, the campaign failed. Nevertheless, they set out to implement a similar effort in the wake of 2018’s Janus v. AFSCME decision which applied the same principal in the Harris decision to all public sector union members including educators, state workers, and county and city workers. On January 7, 2019, Aaron Withe, the Freedom Foundation’s Oregon Director described their mission to a small group of activists: “…our goal is to remove government unions influence on politics. One of the ways that we do that, is by telling people that they can leave their union.” Withe previously wrote that they estimated 20-30% of union members would stop paying dues in the first year following Janus.

Below are just a few more examples of how the staff and leadership of the Freedom Foundation have crossed the legal line of using their tax-exempt dollars to push a political agenda on behalf of right-wing candidates and causes.

Freedom Foundation CEO, Tom McCabe discussed the need to reduce the power of unions as a means to counter the fact that unions have made Washington the “bluest” state in the country.

On January 6, 2015, McCabe explained the organization’s rationale for attacking labor unions to a group of attendees at the Freedom Foundation’s Free Washington Tour event in Shelton, Washington. According to those in attendance he told the audience that taking down unions would be a blow to the Democratic Party and a boon for Republicans: “When I got to the Freedom Foundation – it was about 13 months ago – I told my staff, ‘we need to fight unions.’ Because unions have corrupted our state, they have ensured that we’re the bluest state in the country. And I told my staff, all these things we’re fighting for, whether it’s property rights, whether it’s lower taxes, whether it’s less government spending, whether it’s agencies that are duplicating efforts – all of that stuff cannot be accomplished until the power of unions has been dissipated, until we reduce that power of the union, until frankly we defund it.”

Scott Roberts, former Vice President of the Freedom Foundation laid bare the Freedom Foundation’s mission at one of their Freedom Academies, a series of events they hosted to train potential Republican candidates for office.

Among many of Roberts partisan statements at this event, the most telling was when he said the following: “The Freedom Foundation has decided that in order to advance anything that we want on the conservative side we first have to undo this undue influence cycle, the cycle of public sector unions giving money to politicians, politicians being elected and then giving the unions more monopoly power.”

The Freedom Foundation sent a letter to individuals in Oregon soliciting contributions and discussing the motivations of the Freedom Foundation as defeating “left-wing radicals.”

On August 31, 2015, the Freedom Foundation sent out a fundraising email signed by McCabe who described the current environment in the Northwest as under “one-party rule.”

The letter began by explaining who the “enemy” is: “Are you tired of the Pacific Northwest being dominated by left-wing radicals?” He continues: “Freedom Foundation is leading the most aggressive push in twenty years to take back the Pacific Northwest.”

He continued: “…the takeover of the Pacific Northwest by the Left took a lot of money and sophistication, as well as the raw determination to co-opt the region’s political machinery.” Once again Mr. McCabe clearly identifies an “enemy,” Democrats who must be defeated. He then goes onto tell readers that his organization is doing everything it can to attack this enemy: “The Freedom Foundation is the only group working on a region-wide basis to mount such a response.” Mr. McCabe reinforces that idea by invoking the partisan battle in Wisconsin: “If this goal seems a little too ambitious or farfetched to you, just consider what’s happened in Wisconsin – another “blue” state, that is, until it suddenly wasn’t – where men and women of courage stepped up and took bold actions.”

“To put it simply, the union bosses bankroll the left-wing establishment in our region…” Here, Mr. McCabe shows the real reason for attacking labor unions, to undermine the Democratic Party and provide an advantage to Republicans.

Aaron Withe, the current Oregon Director for the Freedom Foundation has revealed their true, partisan agenda on a number of occasions when talking to right wing activists.

In July of 2018, as he was thanking the activists for the Oregon Executive Club, he said of the Freedom Foundation’s tactics: “…and how we’re going to implement our plan in Oregon to remove the unions, government unions, political influence.”

On January 7, 2019, Withe said to a group of activists in Hillsboro, OR: “It’s no secret to us that our goal is to remove government unions influence from politics. One of the ways we do that is by telling people that they can leave their union and remove their funding at the source.”

The Results

After more than four years, and tens of millions of dollars spent, The Freedom Foundation and their funders simply have not had the impact they wanted. Oregon, California and Washington remain strong labor states. Working families keep winning well-deserved compensation increases like the recent Los Angeles teachers strike, pro-worker policies keep passing and pro-worker candidates keep winning.

The 2018 election was perhaps the best indicator of the Freedom Foundation’s failures. Not only did pro-labor candidates win races up and down the ballot along the West Coast, but unions played a major role in influencing the outcome. In no uncertain terms, pro-labor Democrats won everything they needed to in Oregon and increased their power in the state.  The most important race was between pro-labor Governor Kate Brown who signed historic minimum wage and paid scheduling legislation into law and Representative Knute Buehler who said he would balance the state budget on the backs of union members and their retirement benefits. Governor Kate Brown won reelection by more votes than her predecessor in the 2014 election, the Democrats now have super majorities in the legislature and the four destructive ballot measures were soundly defeated. One lost by an astounding 31 points.

In Washington state, pro-labor candidates also won big. While there wasn’t a statewide Gubernatorial race, pro-labor Democrats increased their seats in the legislature and now have comfortable majorities in the legislature and control of the Governorship. Additionally, pro-labor candidate Kim Schrier flipped CD 8, a longtime Republican held district, beating Freedom Foundation ally Dino Rossi by four points.

In California, Gavin Newsom, a progressive, pro-labor candidate, easily won his election, the Democrats won supermajorities in the state legislature and Orange County, a Republican bastion, and the county in California where the Freedom Foundation has spent the most time, went all blue for congressional races for the first time.

In the last four years, California, Oregon and Washington have led the nation in progressive, pro-labor policies. In that timespan these states have passed historic minimum wages increases, fair scheduling laws and paid sick leave for all while protecting the retirement security of public workers. In Oregon in January of 2018, labor and community allies soundly defeated an attempt to undermine Medicaid expansion funding. In Washington in 2018, educators across the state fought for and won – sometimes going on strike – significant pay increases and increased education funding.

The Freedom Foundation’s mission is to manipulate public workers into dropping their union membership to try to take away power from unions for purely partisan, political gain. This cynical attack on working class families has not worked as unions and their members have beat back every attempt and remain a powerful voice for the interests of working people.