A Thurston County judge on Thursday brushed aside attempts by a state employees' union to prevent the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation from gaining access to the names of home healthcare providers who may not realize their funding of the union is no longer mandatory.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Erik Price denied a request by the State Employees International Union (SEIU) for both a preliminary and permanent injunction, ruling the Freedom Foundation was entitled under the state's Public Records Act to the names of all individual Washington home healthcare providers being paid by Medicaid.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that certain home healthcare workers in Illinois could not be considered full-fledged state employees and, thus, could not be forced to pay dues to a union.
This ruling applies to more than 30,000 Medicaid -funded home healthcare workers in Washington—many of them caring for disabled family members—and the Freedom Foundation in early July asked the Department of Social and Health Services to provide the names of the affected providers, intending to inform each about his or her rights under Harris.
In response, officials at DSHS notified the union of the request, and SEIU filed suit to prevent the names from being released. SEIU lawyers offered a variety of reasons for their action and insisted the Freedom Foundation—a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank—be forced to disclose the names of its own donors, among other conditions.
Price last week tossed out most of the union's demands and focused on whether the organization would be using the names for commercial purposes.
"Their lawyers wanted the judge to adopt a broad interpretation of the term ‘commercial purposes,' " said Freedom Foundation General Counsel James Abernathy. "Under that definition, almost every activity of an individual or organization, even those protected by the First Amendment, could be considered commercial. But the judge rightfully ruled that commercial means commercial, and a nonprofit organization exercising its First Amendment rights isn't engaged in commercial purposes under the PRA."
Abernathy said the Freedom Foundation merely intends to notify the healthcare workers of their constitutional right to not fund SEIU against their will. Depending on how many of the providers opt out, it could potentially cost the union millions in dues money.
Abernathy also said the Freedom Foundation has filed a related suit against DSHS, claiming it gave SEIU preferential treatment by encouraging the union to block the information request and by extending the deadline for the union to file its own lawsuit.
"This is a big victory for accountability in this state," Abernathy said. "If union participation is truly beneficial to its members, SEIU has nothing to fear from letting them know they can opt out. And if it's not, they have no right to keep the truth from them.
"In any case," he said, "it's inappropriate for the state to aid and abet the union in its efforts to thwart a legitimate information request, and we're gratified the court stepped in to put a stop to it."