SEIU 775 hiding its political activity

SEIU 775 hiding its political activity

SEIU 775 hiding its political activity

When addressing a room full of union supporters, SEIU 775 President David Rolf can’t resist bragging about his organization’s political clout.

At the union’s 2014 annual convention, for example, Rolf regaled attendees with stories about how SEIU 775 “put 400 professional union organizers’ doorbelling in eight-hour shifts, for six days, in support of a local initiative.”  Rolf vowed that that if elected officials don’t want to negotiate a fair contract, “We’ll just write the union contract into the city law.”

A year earlier, Rolf reported the union had made nearly half a million phone calls, knocked on tens of thousands of doors and delivered hundreds of thousands of votes, doing more than any other union in the state to elect Jay Inslee governor and hold other politicians accountable.

In a puff piece dated Oct. 8, 2016, the Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner wrote:

“The influential union, pivotal in the push for Seattle’s $15 minimum wage…has poured more than $1 million into Democrats’ campaign committees…It’s another measure of clout for SEIU 775, which has turned the combined dues of thousands of lower-wage workers into a political powerhouse in state politics over the past 15 years.”

After the 2016 election, Rolf boasted about key local race results in an email to SEIU members, saying he was proud of SEIU’s successes, SEIU elected candidates who fight for SEIU members, and in the next few months he would be asking SEIU members to contact elected officials to support funding from the state to SEIU members.

But when the questions become official, SEIU’s response typically amounts to, “Politics? What politics?”

The discrepancy prompted the Freedom Foundation to ask Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the Thurston County prosecuting attorney to investigate whether SEIU 775 is a political committee which should have filed reports as do all the others who engage in that amount of political activity.

SEIU’s response basically was that political activity wasn’t one of the “primary purposes” of the union, and therefore it didn’t have to disclose anything.

Ferguson, as usual, did not do anything.

So the Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit on Jan. 19, on behalf of the State of Washington, asking the court to agree SEIU 775 is a political committee that owes to Washington voters the reporting disclosure requirements expected of political committees.

Well over half of SEIU members are home caregivers, who have been paid with Medicaid funds to take care of individuals.  The amount of money they receive basically is determined by elected officials, so electing receptive officials is a key objective of the union.

SEIU does have to file reports with the U.S. Department of Labor each year, from which some information can be ascertained.

In 2016, for example, we eventually found out that SEIU spent $6 million – on political activities and lobbying.  It spent $1.6 alone on its Initiative 1501, which Rolf described as “protecting caregivers from the Freedom Foundation.”

In 2015, Rolf spent 62 percent of his time on politics and lobbying.  In 2014, the union’s secretary-treasurer spent 61 percent of his time on politics and lobbying.  This year, members can get a 43 percent reduction of their dues, because those are not related to collective bargaining (that’s why Rolf wants to “protect” his members from the Freedom Foundation – we are letting members know they have a constitutional right to keep that extra money for themselves).

Can you imagine Amazon telling us that “political activity” is not one of its primary purposes, so it gets to spend from its $136 billion in 2016 on politics and not report it?

Even only 1 percent of that is more than $1 billion, which would swamp all other spending in Washington combined.  Or Exxon, with its $197 billion in revenue?

Chief Litigation Counsel
Eric Stahlfeld has practiced law in Washington State for 25 years, after graduating from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. He previously worked in the administration of President Ronald Reagan. He lives outside Seattle with his wife Susan. They have two children, Marta and Karl.