A just-released investigation (see full report with documentation here) into South Seattle Community College's Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) reveals the program is little more than a tax-supported gift to organized labor whose leaders have used the funds to plot strategies for keeping right-to-work laws out of Washington state, misused public resources for political campaigns and improperly lobbied for still more public money.
Early last year, the Freedom Foundation documented how LERC had partnered with the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO (WSLC), to host a series of workshops around the state to educate union members in how to campaign against adoption of a right-to-work (RTW) law in Washington.
Based at South Seattle Community College's Georgetown Campus, LERC currently receives about $160,000 in state funding each year, which is supplemented by union contributions and various grants. Gov. Jay Inslee's proposed budget would increase LERC's funding to $500,000 per year.
Following the anti-RTW workshops, the Freedom Foundation filed two public records requests for LERC documents.
Records obtained by the Freedom Foundation indicate that LERC's director, Sarah Laslett, regularly lobbied state legislators and the governor's office for dramatically increased state funding, despite never registering as a lobbyist with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
The Freedom Foundation filed a formal complaint against Laslett for unregistered lobbying with the Public Disclosure Commission on Wednesday.
Other records indicate that LERC's ideological advocacy regularly bumped up against and sometimes crossed the line into explicit political activism.
For instance, when LERC hosted the 2013 Summer Institute for Union Women, part of the program involved "participants [learning] about the labor struggles at Sea-Tac airport and how to engage in direct action by participating in a march and rally with airport workers and our partner, Working Washington."
At the time of the rally, SeaTac's Proposition 1 $15 minimum wage ballot initiative had already qualified for the ballot.
The Freedom Foundation also filed a formal complaint against Laslett on Wednesday with the Executive Ethics Board, which investigates allegations of state employees using public resources for political activity.
"Overall, the documents show that LERC functions as little more than a state-subsidized extension of the WSLC," said Maxford Nelsen, the Freedom Foundation's labor policy analyst, who conducted the probe.
In a meeting of LERC's advisory committee, for example, WSLC Secretary-Treasurer Lynne Dodson noted that "the Labor Center is a key part of the WSLC's agenda and forthcoming strategic plans."
For her part, LERC director Sarah Laslett states in several emails that, "It makes sense for the Labor Center to take on strategic research projects for the WSLC," and notes that LERC is "in the position of wanting to best serve unions."
The anti-RTW training program appears to be one of the projects undertaken by LERC on the WSLC's behalf. Emails indicate that WSLC's Cummings asked Laslett to develop the training curriculum in September 2013. Further documents and communication indicate the curriculum and messaging was developed primarily by LERC staff, with input from the WSLC.
In one email to WSLC staff, Laslett observed that, "I think all we're expecting from the WSLC is to take the lead on registration" for the workshops.
LERC's ideological program and close ties to the WSLC formed the basis of a complaint to the State Auditor's Office submitted by the Freedom Foundation on Wednesday.
"It is unacceptable that an organization funded with taxpayer dollars would engage in such a blatant misuse of public funds," Nelsen said. "No public agency, including LERC, should be producing material for use in political campaigns. LERC's focus on fighting right-to-work, a policy which both expands workers' choice and enhances economic growth, reflects not only poor judgment, but betrays its devotion to placing the narrow self-interests of the Washington State Labor Council above the well-being of the state as a whole."
This is not the first time LERC's activities have drawn scrutiny. In 2010, LERC lost half of its state funding and moved from The Evergreen State College to its current location after an internal Evergreen audit found the taxpayer-funded group had engaged in questionable activity.
A full copy of the Freedom Foundation's investigation into LERC and copies of the original documents obtained in the public records requests are available here.
The Olympia-based Freedom Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think and action tank that promotes free markets and smaller, more transparent government.