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Right-Wing Group Hosts Summit to Teach Educators How to Undercut Their Unions

The union-busting summit follows fresh wins by the Freedom Foundation in its campaign to take down teachers’ unions.

Karmen Kirtley, who has been a teacher for 18 years, pickets outside South High School on February 11, 2019, in Denver, Colorado.

A right-wing group is expecting to bring together hundreds of public school teachers from across the country this week to teach them how to decertify their unions and keep “the socialist dogma of their leadership [out of] our children’s classrooms.” The Teacher Freedom Summit, held in Denver, is the second annual gathering designed to provide public school teachers with “intensive leadership training” and workshops on how to undercut their unions.

The convention is hosted by the Freedom Foundation, a right-wing operation based in Washington state that is providing attendees with free room and board. It focuses on attacking unions and claims that its 77 “teacher ambassadors” are “spreading our message to local school districts across the nation.”

Teachers apply to attend the conference but have to be selected to participate. A number of homeschooling moms are also apparently attending.

The Freedom Foundation describes its mission as taking on the “entrenched power of left-wing government union bosses,” which they accuse of lobbying for “bigger government, higher taxes, and radical social agendas.”

The foundation fights against unions by running promotional campaigns, lobbying, and filing anti-union litigation. In 2017, it won an award from the State Policy Network (SPN), a right-wing network of state think tanks, for running an “opt-out” campaign that blitzed workers with information on how to leave their unions.

Anti-Union Track Record

The union-busting summit comes on the heels of fresh wins by the Freedom Foundation in its campaign to take down teachers’ unions.

Last year, the Freedom Foundation touted what it called its first legislative victory: the “Teacher Paycheck Protection” bill in Arkansas, which prohibits union dues from being automatically deducted from public school teachers’ salaries.

It scored other political victories in 2023 as well, including passage of a major bill in Florida that placed onerous burdens on unions and led to more than 50,000 public-sector workers losing union representation. The Freedom Foundation claims that it “worked tirelessly with Florida lawmakers” to enact the law.

“The end goal, always, is to clear away a serious obstacle to making their state less democratic, more corporate-friendly and more right wing,” notes labor advocate and writer Hamilton Nolan.

Since last December, when the teachers’ union in Miami-Dade County was mandated to hold a recertification vote after failing to meet the new membership audit required by the law, the Freedom Foundation has worked to siphon teachers away from the union, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Freedom Foundation developed a new association called the Miami-Dade Education Coalition (MDEC), and is actively working to organize teachers around it. In a promotional video, CEO Aaron Withe calls the Freedom Foundation’s approach a “massive ground campaign.” He took to the pages of the Miami-Herald in February with an op-ed entitled “Miami-Dade’s teacher union has failed in its mission. Here’s how we want to replace it.”

“The Freedom Foundation stands with local teachers and their commitment to serving students and against UTD [United Teachers of Dade] and its radical political agenda,” Withe wrote. The teachers’ union has countered by denouncing the Freedom Foundation’s efforts as a “fake union” backed by anti-union groups and bankrolled by right-wing megadonors.

An investigation by CBS suggests that the idea for a fake alternative union was proposed by the Freedom Foundation at last year’s summit, with the foundation “providing all-expense paid trips for several Miami Dade teachers to attend the conference where it pitched them on the idea of creating a group to take down UTD.” The CBS reporting also found that the Freedom Foundation was paying for MDEC’s website and all of their legal expenses.

The vote is scheduled to take place via mail from August 13 through September 24.

The Freedom Foundation also engages in anti-union litigation and recently filed two new petitions with the Supreme Court “in defense of workers’ rights.”

Far-Right Funding Sources

Support for the Freedom Foundation has been growing rapidly, with the group more than doubling the funding it raked in between 2018 and 2022 — from $5.9 million to $12.4 million, according to tax filings.

Beyond generic donor advised funds, which obscure the names of donors and are often operated through banks, one of the foundation’s largest known funders is the Bradley Impact Fund. Although it is also a donor advised fund, it is directly related to the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, one of the country’s largest right-wing foundations. The fund is a major supporter of far-right litigation groups, policy and advocacy organizations, media, and youth groups.

Another major donor is the National Christian Charitable Foundation, which funds right-wing advocacy groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the NRA Foundation, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).

And in those four years, almost $1 million came from The 85 Fund, the Leonard Leo-connected project aimed at pushing the federal judiciary to the far right.

Other significant funders include the National Philanthropic Trust, Oregon Pathfinder, the Seattle Foundation, and Citizens to Protect Pennsylvania Jobs.

Unlikely Donor

One of the Freedom Foundation’s largest known funders is the Seattle Foundation, which has donated $336,000 in the past five years. The foundation has contributed a total of $563,500 since it began giving in 2014 (through 2022, the year of its most recent tax filings).

This funding source is unusual given that the Seattle Foundation’s mission includes “advancing racial and economic equity,” according to the organization’s website. In 2021, the watchdog group Accountable Northwest launched an open letter to the Seattle Foundation urging them to cease funding the Freedom Foundation.

Although Washington — where both the Freedom Foundation and the Seattle Foundation are headquartered — is one of the most heavily unionized states, over the past few years the share of the workforce that is unionized has been dropping, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Unions are widely recognized for promoting racial equity and reaping outsized benefits for Black workers.

The Freedom Foundation claims that 1,300 workers in Washington have opted out of their unions as a result of the organization’s campaigning in the first quarter of 2024.

The Seattle Foundation’s contributions to the Freedom Foundation peaked at $126,000 in 2018, the same year the Supreme Court ruled that public-sector employees could refuse to pay fees associated with union representation — expanding the “free rider” problem and decimating the finances of public unions. That decision, Janus v. AFSCME, was a boon to right-wing activists who had long seen the goal of kneecapping public-sector unions as essential to defanging the Democratic Party.

“Break the teachers unions and you break the organizational power that exists in and around the Democratic Party at the state and local level,” Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol told Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) at the time.

The Seattle Foundation did not respond to a CMD request for comment.

Union Gains

Despite legal assaults from the Freedom Foundation and others, teachers unions have made some significant gains in recent years. Last month, 27,000 public school employees in Fairfax County, Virginia voted to unionize — a move that represents the largest union win in recent memory.

The Red for Ed campaign — which started a few months before the Janus decision but continued well after — resulted in a wave of significant wage increases and teacher militancy in states across the country. Teachers’ unions have also won major victories after labor action in Los Angeles and Chicago, and some local unions are fighting for a broader “common good” agenda.

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