As the quality of American political discourse continues its downward spiral, it has become axiomatic that most political discussions on the internet, if continued long enough, will eventually result in one party comparing the other to Hitler. There's even a name for this phenomenon: "Godwin's Law," for the attorney who first made the observation in the 1990s.
At the recent Washington State Labor Council (WSLC) annual convention, it took one speaker just a few minutes to compare conservatives to Nazis.
Kelly Coogan-Gehr is the head of the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC), a small, taxpayer-subsidized outfit headquartered at South Seattle College.
LERC first appeared on the Freedom Foundation's radar back in 2014 when it came to our attention that the organization, which receives $164,000 per year from state taxpayers, was hosting a series of workshops around the state training union activists in how best to oppose right-to-work (RTW) laws, which prevent employees from being forced to join and financially support a labor union as a condition of employment (Washington is not a right-to-work state).
A follow-up public records investigation revealed that LERC was working in close conjunction with the WSLC and developing its anti-RTW messaging and curriculum. It also found that LERC staff were involved in supporting the $15 minimum wage initiative in SeaTac in 2013 and engaged in unregistered lobbying to try and get the state Legislature to increase LERC's funding.
Following the investigation, the Freedom Foundation filed several formal complaints against LERC. The Public Disclosure Commission eventually fined LERC staff for violating lobbying laws. However, the state Executive Ethics Board let LERC off the hook for using tax dollars for political activity on the grounds that such activity was part of the "normal and regular conduct" of the agency.
While Gov. Jay Inslee and Democrats in the state Legislature have tried unsuccessfully for years to substantially increase LERC's funding, the Freedom Foundation has opposed these efforts and encouraged legislators to eliminate taxpayer funding for the organization altogether.
LERC's previous director, Sarah Laslett, left the organization for a position at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center during the investigations.
However, Coogan-Gehr's recent speech to the WSLC confirms that, despite the change in leadership, LERC remains fully committed to acting as a taxpayer-subsidized extension of the WSLC and adds to the growing list of reasons for the entity to lose its state funding.
Coogan-Gehr began her remarks by railing against "our neoconservative opponents" who:
"…have effectively used education as a mechanism to reframe our dominant cultural narrative around unions such that, when many Americans hear the word union, they immediately think of corrupt organizations that stifle workers' freedom of choice and protect bad workers. This has allowed neocons to meticulously lay the groundwork for widespread public support of RTW."
Unions, particularly in government, have needed little help in shaping such a perception, but at least she admits that most Americans correctly believe in letting workers make their own choices about union membership.
Coogan-Gehr then contends that unions need to "take back the narrative, and education is a primary mechanism through which we can accomplish that taking back."
As an advocate for organized labor in higher education, Coogan-Gehr pitched LERC as the natural champion for "taking back the narrative" through education and made it quite clear that LERC was ready to continue working as an arm of the WSLC and opponent of RTW:
"Labor education could be a powerful movement building force. It is my hope that the labor movement in Washington State, rich in its history of progressive unionism, will help the Labor Education and Research Center implement this movement-building aspiration… Imagine a Center with enough money to fund a full-time Research Analyst who could work with unions across the State in a deliberate and coordinated fashion to compile research for a state-wide strategic campaign, fighting for any number of issues that build union power and fighting against any project that weakens working people.
Imagine a Center with enough money to fund two full-time Labor Educators who could write and implement curriculum in a coordinated effort throughout the state to teach tens of thousands of rank and filers how to mobilize and operationalize a strategic campaign vision within a matter of months…
We asked for an increase in our annual state allocation of $162K to $389K. Unfortunately, we did not receive the increase.
At last year's Convention you generously passed Resolution 5 to fundraise $100,000 for our Labor Center. We have not raised that money. If we had that money today—not next year but right now—we would be able to hire a Labor Educator who could help us develop and roll out a robust educational program on RTW across the State…
Our annual Emerging Leaders Conference, on the evening of Friday, October 13th, and all day Saturday, October 14th, will do some of this educational work. This year's theme is Social Justice Unionism in the Face of RTW."
But the closing was the kicker, with Coogan-Gehr painting "neoconservatives" as anti-intellectual "enemies" going after educators just like Adolf Hitler:
"As a notorious dictator once said, 'What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.' That dictator killed off educators and intellectuals early in his dictatorship because of the threat they posed to his regime. That dictator was Adolf Hitler. Our enemies understand the capacity of education to quickly light a fire under working people. They wouldn't invest so much time, energy, and resources in trying to dismantle us if, despite our small size, we weren't preparing workers to claim what is rightfully ours. May the labor movement come to appreciate our potential as our opponents do so that we can authentically harness the muscle of education to speak truth to all forms of oppressive power."
For the record, quality education (for everyone) is important and valuable for a host of reasons. But politicized institutions that exist to serve a single special interest group simply should not receive taxpayer funding. The fact that the institution is located within the apparatus of higher education does not mean that one is anti-intellectual or anti-education for opposing its taxpayer subsidies. If the WSLC wants to fund an anti-RTW program to defend its monopoly power to force workers to pay union dues against their will, let it pony up the funds to keep LERC operating. Just leave taxpayers out of it.
The list of reasons for LERC to be defunded did not need to be any longer but, thanks to the likes of Coogan-Gehr, its getting tough to keep track.