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Nothing new about today’s union busters

Like the Pinkertons, the so-called ‘Freedom Foundation’ are just the wealthy elite’s hired guns, aiming to keep the workers down. 



(Aug. 13, 2019) — The business of union busting has a long, sordid history in the United States, its actors remembered as failed villains who schemed and broke the law to undercut the American Dream for working families, but ultimately ended up in the dustbin of history. Long ago groups like the Pinkerton Detective Agency and Labor Relations Associates used techniques, some violent, to try and gut unions.

Today, the union busting business has different names and different structures, but their goal and results remain the same. As do their funders — the wealthy elite in our country, many of whom represent large corporations and billionaires. Enter the State Policy Network (SPN), a multi-state consortium of Koch brothers-funded right-wing think tanks that is trying to “defund and defang” unions. This insidious network has an outpost right here in the Pacific Northwest that ironically calls itself the Freedom Foundation (aka Opt Out Today), and they are borrowing heavily from the playbook of their union-busting ancestors.

For as long as there have been workers, there have been “owners” trying to undercut their collective power. At a Pittsburgh steel plant in 1892, 300 Pinkerton Detective agents were hired by Carnegie Steel to break a strike by iron and steel workers, an action that eventually led to 10 deaths. A Pinkerton Detective agent was later hired to infiltrate the Western Federation of Miners, a union of coal workers, tasked with bankrupting the union by spending its treasury.

Pinkerton guards escort strikebreakers in Buchtel, Ohio, 1884.

A few decades later, a group called Labor Relations Associates (LRA) was formed in Chicago in 1935 with $10,000 from Sears, Roebuck & Co. They were hired to discourage department store and manufacturing plant employees from joining unions.

Separate federal commissions later investigated both Pinkerton and LRA, and the results shocked the nation. Pinkerton had embedded operatives “in practically every union in the country.” Labor Relations Associates had committed multiple violations of the National Labor Relations Act, including manipulating union elections through bribery and coercion, threatening to revoke workers’ benefits if they organized and rewarding employees who worked against the union.

Nowadays, the State Policy Network (SPN), the multi-state network of so-called ”think tanks,” all of which are doing pretty much the same as the Freedom Foundation, is trying to pick up the mantle of the Pinkertons and the LRA but have nowhere near the tenacity and scope as their thuggish predecessors. The thing they do share in common is that they are experiencing a similarly ill fate.

Their new strategy? Badger and harass union members about their membership and file frivolous lawsuits that seek to erode worker’s right and collective bargaining laws while forcing unions to spend dues money on defending the lawsuits.

In the Northwest, Freedom Foundation boss, Tom McCabe, has made his desires clear:  “… my goal at this stage in my career at the Freedom Foundation, and the reason I turned the organization to do this one thing, is to bankrupt the unions…”

Like their forebears in union busting who were hired to infiltrate and destabilize labor unions, the Freedom Foundation is dealing in lies, manipulation and deceptive propaganda. While masquerading behind upbeat slogans and glossy mailers, their goal was revealed when they co-authored a sinister step-by-step manual on how to privatize (eliminate) civil service jobs and decimate public worker pay, retirement and benefits. Recently, their desperation made them stoop so low, they put the name of the union in the signatory line of one of their emails as a way to presumably confuse union members.

They also share with their predecessors an utter disdain for the law. The wealthy extremists funding front groups like the Freedom Foundation have a political plan at work: to turn the “blue” states of Washington, California and Oregon “red.” They believe that if they can chop away at worker power, they can more easily elect extreme, right wing politicians that will codify anti-union measures into law, a strategy they stole from Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. This is in direct violation of their non-profit, tax exempt status.

The Freedom Foundation is mired in an old business. They share the legacy of strikebreakers, goons and ginks and company finks hired by the greedy to do their dirty work. And much to the chagrin of their ultra-wealthy funders, the Freedom Foundation has been grievously unsuccessful. Union membership on the West Coast remains strong, new sectors like fast food are organizing, union popularity is at a 14-year high and working families are winning on the issues that matter most like wage increases, better healthcare and paid family leave.

When the Freedom Foundation eventually goes away, if they are remembered at all it will be with once sentence: “Just another union busting outfit, hired by the rich to strip worker of their rights, that failed at the hands of working families.”

Peter Starzynski is Director of the Northwest Accountability Project, a union-backed non-profit that aims to expose moneyed special interests that are trying to bring an anti-union agenda to Washington and Oregon.

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