(Seattle, Wash.) – In a ruling likely to have a ripple effect with public-employee unions all over the United States, a Seattle judge on Friday dismissed the central claim in a lawsuit filed by SEIU 775 against the Freedom Foundation, which seeks to inform thousands of their legal right to pay no dues or fees to the union.
The suit accused the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based free-market think tank, of tortious interference with the union’s business expectancy in obtaining the dues of workers. But Seattle Superior Court Judge Steve Rosen ruled the organization outreach efforts to the caregivers were a legitimate expression of free speech and that its First Amendment rights – and those of the workers opting out of SEIU 775 – trumped any claims by the union. (See attachment.)
“The First Amendment won and SEIU lost,” said Freedom Foundation attorney James Abernathy, who argued the case. “It took a long time getting to this point, but we’re gratified by the outcome.”
Abernathy originally filed the summary judgment motion in February. The claim thrown out by Rosen on Friday was just one of several made in SEIU’s lawsuit, but it was by far the most important.
“The ‘tortious interference’ claim was the heart of their case,” Abernathy said. “The other allegations are even less credible, and we plan to file further motions to have them dismissed, too.” Until 2014, millions of home-based healthcare and childcare providers being compensated by Medicaid in the U.S. were considered full-fledged public employees and, in states like Washington that lack right-to-work protections, they were compelled to pay either union dues or a reduced agency fee.
But when a U.S. Supreme Court case (Harris v. Quinn) made dues and fees optional for these workers, the Freedom Foundation undertook a series of outreach programs to inform them of their rights – information the unions desperately wanted to suppress.
Lawsuits are among the unions’ favored strategies to keeping workers in the dark.
“The Freedom Foundation has prevailed on the merits every time a judge has considered them in this lawsuit,” said David Dewhirst, the Freedom Foundation’s chief litigation counsel. “But for the unions, this case isn’t about the merits. It’s about inflicting maximum damage against the Freedom Foundation through the discovery process. And it’s also about stalling for time because with every day that goes by, more dues money comes out of the paychecks of people who may not even know they’re in a union, let alone share its values.”
The Seattle ruling has implications beyond Washington because the U.S. Supreme Court in September agreed to hear a case (Janus v. AFSCME) that has the potential to hand all public-sector employees the right to decide whether or not to affiliate with a labor union without fear of losing their jobs if they decline.
“We’ve been on the front lines of this battle for three years,” said Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe. “No other policy organization in the country has gone to the mat for these workers the way we have, and none has been the object of so much abuse by the unions.”
Based on the experiences of the Freedom Foundation in the aftermath of the Harris ruling, McCabe predicted that unions in the 23 other states without right-to-work laws would almost certainly adopt the same strategy of delay, deny and litigate rather than risk the potential loss of billions in confiscated dues revenue.
But Friday’s ruling short-circuits at least one possible union argument.
What’s more, it puts the unions back on defense – where they belong.
“Now we can turn our full attention,” Dewhirst said, “to the prosecution of our counter-claim against SEIU for abuse of process.”