Will members of the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) ever know what happened to Leanne Kunze?
Unfortunately, probably not.
In August 2022, the Freedom Foundation broke the news that Kunze, WFSE’s executive director, had been notified by the union’s executive board on June 24 that she would be let go in 180 days. While the original plan was for Kunze to remain at her post until the end of that period, the Freedom Foundation reported that WFSE’s director of advocacy, Kurt Spiegel, was designated interim executive director by the executive board in July 2022.
The Freedom Foundation also reported that a number of senior WFSE staff followed Kunze out the door.
Two months after Kunze’s 180 days’ notice of separation and eight days after the Freedom Foundation published its report, WFSE posted an article on its website publicly announcing Spiegel’s elevation to interim executive director. The article made no mention of Kunze or the reasons for her termination.
Despite WFSE’s status as the largest state employees’ union in Washington, the turmoil went relatively unnoticed by outside observers and, to this day, WFSE has offered no explanation for Kunze’s departure, describing it in an email to state labor officials only as being “without cause.”
However, some additional details can be gleaned from WFSE’s annual LM-2 financial disclosure, recently-filed with the U.S. Department of Labor covering July 2022 through June 2023.
According to the filing, Kunze — whose annual salary the preceding year was just shy of $171,000 — was paid only $10,884 in “gross salary” during the reporting period, confirming she didn’t remain on the job for half a year as originally planned.
However, the report also indicates that Kunze received $475,000 in “other disbursements” from the union, likely either a severance package or legal settlement.
Kunze’s wasn’t the only employment separation-related payout made by WFSE last year. Two other former employees reportedly were paid sizeable settlements by the union.
According to the filing, WFSE paid $51,000 to the Vanguard Law Office in March 2023, describing the payment as a “legal settlement for Darby Frye.” WFSE’s past LM-2 filings indicate Frye was hired in 2017 and, at the time of her separation from the union this year, served as WFSE’s director of labor education.
Court filings also show that Frye filed civil tort litigation against WFSE in November 2022 in King County Superior Court but that the matter was resolved in July 2023. No further details are available.
The union disclosed an additional payment of $68,000 to the Paul Woods Law Firm in May 2023, describing it as a “legal settlement for Justin Lee.” According to the union’s filings, Lee was hired in 2018 and worked as WFSE’s director of communications.
Notably, both payments were categorized on WFSE’s LM-2 as “representational activities,” as though the settlement payouts to former employees somehow improved its members working conditions. But they were far from the only expenses incurred by the union that might raise members’ eyebrows. Among other things, WFSE spent nearly $700,000 on political activities and lobbying, more than $500,000 on legal bills (not counting the settlements), nearly $500,000 on contributions to groups like the Young Democrats of Washington and the strike fund for a union in Pennsylvania, and nearly $50,000 on t-shirts.
While Lee and Frye’s litigious departures may not have any direct connection to Kunze’s separation, it does align with the rumors of internal turmoil at the time.
In the year since Kunze’s removal, Spiegel has apparently secured the position of executive director on a permanent basis—at least both WFSE’s website and latest LM-2 have dropped the “interim” from his title. But one thing that hasn’t changed amid the union’s personnel drama is the steady decline of its membership.
Government unions like WFSE suffered a significant setback in 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws like Washington’s forcing public employees to pay union dues as unconstitutional under the First Amendment. For the first time in Washington, state workers had a choice about whether to join a union and pay dues.
On one hand, Democrat majorities in the Washington state legislature have done everything possible to help WFSE weather the ruling, from unionizing as many new groups of public employees as possible—such as assistant attorneys general and administrative law judges, those epitomes of the exploited working classes—to turning over control of government payroll systems to unions so they can seize dues directly from employees’ paychecks and make the cancellation process arbitrarily onerous.
But on the other hand, the Freedom Foundation has worked tirelessly to educate state workers about their rights and assist them in both navigating and challenging unions’ labyrinthine membership cancellation rules.
According to state payroll data obtained by the Freedom Foundation, there were 32,530 WFSE-represented workers in state agencies in May 2018, the month before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME. Essentially all of them had dues deducted from their pay.
As of August 2023, the number of state agency workers represented by WFSE—its pool of potential members—had increased to 38,872, but its dues-paying membership had still shrunk to 23,303, leaving it with a membership rate of only 58 percent.
Unless WFSE embraces values like transparency and customer service instead of secrecy and partisan politics, it should expect more of the same no matter who sits atop the organization.