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New Innovations in Union Busting

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Stephen Greenhouse on the new right-wing effort to crush unions: astroturf door-to-door campaigns.

For several months, Shawna Murphy, a home-based childcare provider in Seattle, had received a stream of emails, letters and robocalls – some two dozen of them – telling her she had the right to stop paying union dues.

Then early one afternoon, while the six children in her charge were napping, a man with a briefcase knocked on her door. At first Murphy thought he was a lawyer, but then she realized he might be a state inspector of childcare providers. So she opened the door.

“He said there’s this supreme court case that will impact me, and he pulled out this leaflet and told me that I don’t have to be part of the union and don’t have to pay union dues,” said Murphy, a member of the Service Employees International Union. “I told him, ‘I’m a proud supporter of the union, and you can leave now.’”

The man was one of the many foot soldiers in a highly unusual offensive against public-sector unions in the US north-west. A conservative group, the Freedom Foundation, has dispatched activists to visit the homes of more than 10,000 childcare and home-care workers in Washington and Oregon to advise them that under a two-year-old supreme court decision, they can opt out of paying union dues.

Tom McCabe, chief executive officer of the fast-growing foundation, funded by a web of conservative groups, said: “My goal is to provide freedom to union members and to give them a choice about whether or not they want to belong to a union.”

But labor leaders and their progressive allies say the group’s goals go far beyond that. Washington state in particular has passed union-backed progressive legislation recently, enacting a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a law that will allow Uber drivers to unionize. They say the Freedom Foundation’s unorthodox tactics are part of a grand plan to weaken unions and their treasuries, sap their political influence and ultimately flip Washington and Oregon from Democratic to Republican.

The idea that Washington and Oregon are going to turn Republican is laughable with or without unions, but when you have this kind of money behind you, why not try it? And it is a real threat to unions. The uphill battle the Koch Brothers face is that they have turned most of the easy states to right-to-work. Doing so in states where you have entrenched liberalism like Washington and Oregon is a real uphill battle. I’d say they have a somewhat better chance in a state like New Hampshire or Rhode Island or maybe even New York where you have Democratic legislators with very little commitment to Democratic Party values. In any case, with the money they have, they are a real threat and if you can overturn labor legislation in Wisconsin and Michigan, you can do it anywhere under the right circumstances.

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