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Dark money, unflattering photos: Battle over unions rages in Washington

A flyer from the Northwest Accountability Project carries this awkward photo of Tom McCabe, CEO of the Freedom Foundation, which does work to undermine unions.
Flyer from Northwest Accountablity Project
A flyer from the Northwest Accountability Project carries this awkward photo of Tom McCabe, CEO of the Freedom Foundation, which does work to undermine unions.

Late last year, some Washington residents received a flyer that looked leftover from election season.

It featured unflattering photos of someone named Tom McCabe and accused him of embracing “right-wing extremism.” But he wasn’t running for office.

McCabe heads an anti-union effort at the conservative group The Freedom Foundation. And the flyer shines a light on Washington’s battle over labor unions, and the lack of transparency on both sides.

It said it was paid for by the Northwest Accountability Project. The address was in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood – it turned out to be a post office box at a UPS Store.

Kevin Hamilton specializes in elections law at the firm Perkins Coie. He said the flyers are “pretty classic ‘issue’ ads.” Beyond the mailing address, there’s “not a lot” the public can learn about the group sending them.

“A 501(c)(4) is a tax-exempt organization that can engage in political activity, as long as it’s not their primary purpose,” Hamilton said.

These advocacy groups have sprung up on both ends of the political spectrum in recent years. This group’s target, the Freedom Foundation, is a nonprofit that also doesn’t have to disclose its donors. The Freedom Foundation’s director of labor policy, Maxford Nelsen, said the attack ads were actually kind of “energizing.”

“We were upset they were taking a personal attack against our CEO. That doesn’t really have any relevance to the work we’re doing,” Nelsen said. “But you know – it was a unifier for the folks in the office here.”

Nelsen took it for granted that the flyer was paid for by labor groups, because the Freedom Foundation has been contacting home care and family childcare providers who receive state subsidies, to let them know they can opt out of paying union dues.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Tom McCabe", "fid": "125816", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201604/tom_mccabe_-_small.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of the Freedom Foundation"}]]“I think the purpose of the Northwest Accountability Project is simply to harass the Freedom Foundation and intimidate our staff and our supporters, and try to get us to stop doing the work we’re doing to let public employees and home care workers and childcare providers know about their Constitutional rights when it comes to union membership,” he said.

Their campaign has taken the form of mailings, robo-calls, and knocking on at least 15,000 doors in Washington and Oregon so far. Nelsen said a majority of home childcare providers have opted out of the dues, but the Service Employees International Union 925 disputes that. They said nearly 90 percent of licensed family childcare providers are union members.

One of them is Shawna Murphy. She cares for six children at her home in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood. Murphy said she hasn’t necessarily had a lot of tangible results from being a union member. But Murphy said she appreciates the union’s advocacy on her behalf as the state rolls out new standards and ratings for childcare providers. What she didn’t appreciate was the canvasser from the Freedom Foundation who knocked on her door one day at naptime.

The man carried a briefcase and had “this very official air,” she said. When she realized who he represented, she told him she supports the union, and he left without a problem.

But under state licensing rules, Murphy can’t lock her door with kids there. She said she feels angry and exposed having people on her doorstep. “I am here all day long alone with six children, and the state publishes my address, everyone knows I’m here. So – I am kind of out there,” she said.

These visits are in addition to the Freedom Foundation mailings and phone calls. “I’m obviously not interested, they don’t need to send someone to my house,” Murphy said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The home of the Northwest Accountability Project in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood.", "fid": "125819", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201604/20160425-labor-mailbox.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW photo/Amy Radil"}]]Heather Weiner is the spokesperson for the Northwest Accountability Project, the group that sent the mailing attacking the Freedom Foundation. She said her group’s purpose is “to monitor and share information on right-wing organizations” and to fight “fire with fire.”

Weiner said even she doesn’t know who funds her group. She said, “I haven’t asked and I haven’t looked. I do not know who they are they are. But I think it is accurate to say that we are labor-backed.”

But her employer is not like the disembodied voice of the boss in Charlie’s Angels. Weiner said she knows who it is, but that person doesn’t want to be publicly identified.

The secrecy around these groups is what led State Senator Andy Billig, a Democrat from Spokane, to push for a law requiring more disclosure. Billig said his efforts began years ago after a conversation with two political strategists.

“I said, ‘If you wanted to hide money in elections, what would you do?’ And they said, ‘Oh that’s easy.’ I talked to two of them, they both gave me the same answer.”

They said they’d funnel donations through nonprofit groups rather than political action committees, because those nonprofits don’t have to disclose their donors.

Billig said the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision found campaign spending limits unconstitutional, so election reformers are focused on better disclosure instead.

“If there aren’t going to be strong limits in all cases, then there should at least be strong transparency so people can follow the flow of money and see who is influencing or attempting to influence our elections,” Billig said.

Disclosing donors is constitutional – it’s just politically unpopular. Billig’s measure requiring nonprofits to disclose their biggest donors came close to passing the state Legislature, only to “die a fiery death,” as he put it, at the last minute.

Year started with KUOW: 2005