NOT LONG AGO, sleek flyers showed up in common areas at Multnomah County headquarters, bearing annoying news for members of the county’s largest labor union.
“In June, the 'Freedom’ Foundation, a billionaire-funded anti-worker organization, submitted information requests to several counties and municipalities, requesting the names and personal information of employees within the employer’s bargaining unit,” read a message from American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 75. “Due to public information laws, they are able to do so.”
The concerns were obvious: Armed with union members’ names, the right-wing Freedom Foundation has routinely made phone calls and knocked on doors, hoping to convince them to stop paying full union dues. It’s an attempt to destabilize labor and reduce unions’ ability to fund campaigns and influence policy.
Multnomah County’s AFSCME employees weren’t alone. The Olympia-based Freedom Foundation made the same request of the City of Portland, and got the same information.
That’s odd, because just two months later, the City’s going to court to argue union members’ names can’t be released to the public.
Following a unanimous vote by Portland City Council last week, city attorneys have filed a complaint in state circuit court. They’re attempting to skirt an order to release the names of members of another public- employee union, Laborers’ Local 483. It’s a case that could hamper access to records that have typically been considered public, and decide to what extent contracts with labor unions dictate what’s released.
Ben Straka, a policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation, first asked for the Local 483 names on August 14, and initially seemed likely to get them. On September 11, a Bureau of Human Resources employee informed union members that the data would be released, saying, “This information is considered public under the ORS 192 (the Oregon Public Records Act), and must be provided.”
Two weeks later, the City’s perspective had shifted. In a September 27 email, Deputy City Attorney Heidi Brown said the names of union members were exempt from disclosure and wouldn’t be released.
Straka appealed to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office, which ordered the city to release the records. In a civil complaint filed last Thursday, the city is fighting that order.
According to Brown, the inconsistent city responses have to do with who handled the requests. She says the person who fielded the AFSCME request “didn’t fully understand the scope of protection of that information.”
“Once the Laborers’ request came in, the mistake was realized,” Brown says. “We certainly weren’t going to compound it.”
More importantly, Local 483 had gotten its attorneys involved. On September 14, union lawyer David Rosenfeld sent a letter arguing that releasing member names wasn’t allowed, saying it violated their privacy and could affect “the working conditions of the Union’s members.” The union threatened to file a formal complaint with state labor officials if the names were released.
“They’re an anti-union, anti-worker group,” says Local 483 Business Manager Farrell Reichartz. “We’re interested in protecting the rights and privacy of our members.”
The union’s urgency is due at least in part to a unique circumstance: The Freedom Foundation has allies among Local 483’s ranks.
A group of wastewater workers unhappy with the union’s representation called in the foundation for help earlier this year, a development first reported by Willamette Week. The employees are hoping to gather enough signatures to force a vote on whether workers can cease paying dues to Local 483 altogether (under the current contract, even unwilling employees pay “fair-share” dues to fund union bargaining efforts on their behalf). A list of names could make that process easier.
“There is no legitimate public interest to releasing this information to the Freedom Foundation,” Local 483 representative Ted Bryan told city council last week. “The values of this organization are not in line with the values of the citizens of the City of Portland.”
Brown tells the Mercury the city’s refusal to release the names comes down to the fact that some union-represented employees don’t want to be identified as such.
“We felt that that decision to choose to engage in [a union] or choose to not engage is a private decision that somebody makes,” she says.
Portland’s not the first jurisdiction to make such claims. Earlier this year, both the City of Medford and Josephine County denied Freedom Foundation requests for AFSCME members’ names, citing personal privacy. In both cases, the governments were ordered by district attorneys to release the lists.
What’s particularly confusing about the city’s response to Straka’s request is that it doesn’t address what he’s asking for. Straka requested “the names of all employees who are represented by Laborers’ Local 483” (excluding seasonal workers). That doesn’t distinguish between “members” who pay full dues and “fair-share” employees who pay only enough to be represented, he says.
Brown states in her denial that the city won’t release the names of employees who are full-on members of the union. She says she’d be happy to release all the names of employees the union represents. Straka says that’s what he’s asking for, anyway.
Further complicating matters, the Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit of its own on Monday, asking a judge to compel Portland to produce the records.
“Less than two months ago the City properly applied the law and disclosed virtually identical records,” Straka contended in an October 25 letter to Portland City Council. “Now it appears the City is ignoring its own precedent.”