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House Democrats Vote to Continue Funding Controversial Labor Center

In a straight, party-line vote, House Democrats last week voted unanimously to continue funding the beleaguered Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) at South Seattle Community College, despite a Republican effort to strip LERC’s funding from the budget.

A Freedom Foundation investigation revealed that LERC essentially functions as a taxpayer-funded extension of the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC). One project untaken by LERC was to develop anti-right-to-work messaging and training materials for the WSLC and to train union workers around the state in how to fight adoption of a right-to-work law in Washington.

Additionally, following Freedom Foundation complaints, LERC is currently under investigation by the Public Disclosure Commission for failing to properly report its lobbying activity targeted at getting the Legislature to boost its funding. LERC is also being investigated by the Executive Ethics Board and State Auditor’s Office for using public funds and resources for political purposes. In one case, LERC staff bused people to attend a pro-$15 minimum wage rally in SeaTac in 2013.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposed increasing LERC’s state funding from about $160,000 per year to $500,000 per year for the 2015-2017 biennium.

House Democrats included Inslee’s extra $1 million for LERC in their operating budget.

When the time came to debate the budget on the House floor, minority Republicans proposed a slew of amendments, including one from Rep. Matt Manweller (R-Ellensburg) to strip LERC’s funding out of the budget.

In his floor speech, Manweller urged support of the amendment, stating:

“We have ideological, partisan think tanks in Washington and the country. However, none of them are funded through taxpayer dollars, right? And what we have here is a partisan and ideological think tank that is funded by taxpayer dollars… This organization is already under investigation by the PDC. It’s under investigation by the Executive Ethics Board, because, possibly, they are taking taxpayer money and using it for partisan, ideological and political purposes… From a broader perspective, we have to ask ourselves: Can you ask the taxpayer for new money, for new taxes, for additional taxes when we’re still funding things like this?”

Watch Manweller’s comments below:

Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-Spokane) gave the Democrats’ response to Manweller’s amendment, arguing:

“They (LERC) are a repository for information, lest we completely eliminate the idea of the important role that labor played in the development of this country… The Labor Center reminds us about the cultural identity of when workers got together and demanded better treatment… This is about maintaining a minor vestige of information within our institutions, a repository of the great tradition that working people have brought to this country, lest we completely wipe out the stamp that they have had on our cultural identity.”

Watch Ormsby’s comments here:

This is all well and good, except that this is not actually what LERC does. Ormsby appears to have confused LERC with the Labor Archives of Washington (LAW) located at the University of Washington. According to its website,

“The Labor Archives of Washington (LAW) was founded to preserve the records of working people and their unions and to serve as a center for historical research, ensuring that new generations have access to the rich labor history of the region.”

It also receives funds from the state, separately from LERC. Rep. Manweller’s amendment did not alter LAW’s funding in any way.

According to its website, LERC’s stated mission is to:

“…deliver high-quality education and training programs for the working women and men of Washington State. Our curriculum builds the skills, confidence and knowledge they need to improve their work lives and their communities, and promote a just economy through collective action.”

In practice, this means taking on “strategic research projects for the WSLC” and producing shoddy research about right-to-work.

In the end, Manweller’s amendment was narrowly rejected, with the 47 House Republicans voting in favor of eliminating LERC’s state funding and all 51 Democrats voting against.

By contrast, the budget approved by the Senate this week did not include any funding for LERC. Whether LERC’s funding will be increased, eliminated or unchanged will now be settled in the ongoing budget negotiations between the two houses.