OLYMPIA, Wash. – Service Employees International Union Leadership Council 14 on Tuesday became the latest Washington state labor organization to face a lawsuit for campaign finance violations when the state Attorney General’s office (AGO) filed charges alleging Council 14 failed to register and report as a political committee to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
The action was the result of an investigation and formal complaint lodged by the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation and marks the seventh time in less than two years Freedom Foundation complaints have led to legal action and/or penalties against government unions or their allies for violating state campaign finance laws.
“When you do the wrong thing once, maybe twice, you can claim it was an honest mistake,” said Freedom Foundation Labor Policy Director Max Nelsen. “But seven times? This is a serial behavior, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The state’s labor leaders have shown a pattern of contempt for its public disclosure laws and these offenses need to be looked at in that context, not as isolated incidents.”
Washington’s campaign finance laws require entities whose primary purpose is to engage in electoral political activity to register with the PDC as a political committee and report all of the contributions they receive and expenditures they make.
While SEIU has six locals operating in Washington State—Locals 6, 49, 925, 775, 1199 and 1948—SEIU Council 14 is the union’s statewide affiliate. Under SEIU bylaws, each local pays a certain amount of the dues they collect from members to Council 14, which describes its mission as “(coordinating) the joint political and legislative work of SEIU Locals in Washington state.”
At least one officer from each local sits on Council 14’s board.
Council 14 employs only two people and does not engage in collective bargaining or provide any workplace representation services to SEIU members. Its sole purpose is to oversee the expenditure of $1 million to $3 million on SEIU’s political agenda each year.
Nonetheless, Council 14 never registered as a political committee with the PDC, meaning much of its activity was unreported and its influence hidden from view.
“The unions have two reasons for wanting to remain in the shadows,” Nelsen said. “They obviously don’t want voters to know how pervasive their influence is over the political process. But they also don’t want their members to know how much of their dues money is being spent on things that have little or nothing to do with the workplace.”
Using federal records and other materials, the Freedom Foundation documented how SEIU Council 14 is first and foremost a political entity. On April 24, the Freedom Foundation sent a citizen action notice to the AGO explaining Council 14’s violations in detail. The notice was accompanied by nearly 1,000 pages of supporting documentation.
Under state law, if the AGO does not act on such a notice within 55 days, the party filing the notice can bring their own litigation to enforce the law.
The AGO’s suit alleges Council 14 operated as a political committee in 2014 and 2016 — both election years — and failed to report at least $4 million in receipts and nearly $4.7 million in expenditures.
Nelsen explained, “SEIU’s political influence in Washington is not only outsized due to its ability under state law to force union-represented workers to fund its activity, but it has repeatedly demonstrated its complete indifference to playing by the rules and operating transparently.”
The Freedom Foundation’s similar complaints against other government unions and their allies include:
- Dec. 16, 2016: The AGO filed a lawsuit against the Washington State Budget and Policy Center for opposing I-1366, an anti-tax initiative in 2015, without reporting its activity to the PDC.
- Sept. 23, 2016: The AGO fined the Washington State Labor Council nearly $26,000.
- July 15, 2016: The AGO fined the Washington Association for Justice over $9,000.
- Feb. 8, 2016: The AGO fined SEIU 925 and its political committee nearly $45,000.
- Jan. 29, 2016: The AGO fined SEIU 775 and its political committee nearly $52,000.
- Dec. 15, 2015: The PDC fined the Labor Education and Research Center for engaging in unreported lobbying.
No hearing date has been set for the latest lawsuit against Council 14.