A Washington state union has spent nearly $2 million to pass a ballot initiative that would alter public records laws to make it harder for home health care workers to halt union dues payments.
Initiative 1501, billed as the Washington Increased Penalties for Crimes Against Vulnerable Individuals measure, would make it a felony to steal the personal information of a senior citizen. However, the measure would also change public records law to prevent the release of identifying information about home health care workers caring for elderly patients. That information has been used by labor watchdogs to inform workers of their right to opt out of paying union dues.
Maxford Nelsen, a labor expert at the conservative Freedom Foundation, said that the ballot initiative pushed by Service Employees International Union Local 775 may sound benign, but is really a "smokescreen" to prevent workers and patients from learning their rights.
"Initiative 1501 is being promoted as a way to protect seniors and the vulnerable from identity theft and scams. The great irony is that I-1501 is itself a scam," Nelsen told the Washington Free Beacon. "SEIU is backing I-1501 as a last-ditch effort to prevent state-paid caregivers from learning of their constitutional right to stop the union from withholding dues from their pay."
The union did not respond to a request for comment.
The initiative arose after the union waged a legal battle to prevent the release of contact information for certain home health aides. The employees in question had been forced to pay union dues as a result of their classification as public employees. The Supreme Court struck down a similar forced dues system in Illinois in 2014, prompting Washington and 10 other states to end dues withholding systems for home health aides in the face of lawsuits.
The Freedom Foundation has moved beyond the courtroom to educate workers about their right to refuse dues withholding. One tool that has helped the organization's outreach is the Public Records Act, which has given it access to the names of providers. The SEIU unsuccessfully tried to block the release of that information.
"If I-1501 passes, not only would it hinder the Freedom Foundation’s efforts to inform caregivers of their constitutional rights, but caregivers would be prevented from communicating with each other," Nelsen said. "Essentially, I-1501 seeks to give SEIU complete control over the flow of information to caregivers."
The Campaign to Prevent Fraud and Protect Seniors, a group that supports the ballot initiative, has raised $1.8 million to campaign for votes. Nearly all of that money has been supplied by SEIU 775, according to Washington's Public Disclosure Commission.
Nelsen said that the union's expenditures illustrate its vested financial interest in shielding information from public view.
"At the end of the day, I-1501 is nothing less than an attempt by a wealthy special interest group to manipulate our state’s government transparency laws for its own benefit, at the expense of low-income caregivers," he said.