Despite its insistence that the welfare of the family childcare providers it represents is its only concern, a Spokane couple is learning just how far State Employees International Union 925 is willing to go in order to protect its own interests.
This past week, the union filed a lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court against the state's Department of Early Learning (DEL) and Shannon Benn, seeking an injunction to prevent the agency from releasing contact information about the state's other family childcare providers – information the couple has been routinely obtaining since 2012.
What makes the request more difficult now is the involvement of the Freedom Foundation.
Shannon Benn, along with her husband Tim, who own and operate Little Precious Ones Daycare from their home, have long believed the state's Department of Early Learning was far too heavy-handed in its regulations, and they know other daycare operators who share their concern that the agency is trying to legislate home-based operations out of business in favor of larger commercial franchises.
In order to communicate with other like-minded owner-operators, the Benns in 2011 began publishing a newsletter for family childcare providers that included legislative updates, articles about prospective regulatory changes and advice on running their business. And to make sure it was being mailed to the right people, they requested from DEL a comprehensive list of the 10,000 or so providers in the state.
Since the names were public information, DEL happily complied.
Last summer, however, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Harris v. Quinn ruling, in essence declaring that contractors like the Benns cannot be considered full-fledged state employees and, thus, cannot be required to pay union dues.
In the months since, the unions representing not only daycare workers but home healthcare workers, too, have done little or nothing to advise their dues-payers of their newly affirmed right to opt out. Conspiring with the governor's staff, they have actively sought ways to avoid complying with the law.
In the meantime, the Freedom Foundation has filed several Public Records Act requests for precisely the sort of information the Benns had been receiving. Requests to the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and DEL for their list of names were challenged in court by unions, resulting in still-unresolved lawsuits between the Freedom Foundation, DSHS and DEL and the unions.
DEL initially complied with the Freedom Foundation's request and turned over the names, but when SEIU 925 got wind of it, the union sued to prevent the records from being used. In a similar case, SEIU Healthcare 775NW sued DSHS and the Freedom Foundation to prevent disclosure of the names of nearly 33,000 individual providers. A Thurston County judge subsequently ruled against the union on every point, but the appeals court stayed the Superior Court's decision until an appeal can be heard.
The Benns, who have opted out of paying dues to SEIU 925 but are still forced by law to be represented by the union, in January made their standard request to DEL for an updated mailing list. This time, the union that represents them, SEIU 925, sued them to prevent disclosure.
Even more improperly, DEL notified SEIU 925 of the request and gave the union detailed instructions on how to sue the agency and the Benns to prevent disclosure.
"The union is citing all sorts of calamities that could happen if the names are released," said James Abernathy, the Freedom Foundation's general counsel, "In the legal world we call it a 'parade of horribles.' Mostly, they're claiming it would put kids who stay at these daycare centers at risk of being kidnapped or abused if it were possible for the average citizen to find out who owns the facility.
"First of all, the unions have not found a single example of when the Public Records Act was used to kidnap or abuse a child cared for by a family childcare provider," he said. "But more importantly, the union is being entirely hypocritical about its motives. They didn't care about releasing those names until the Freedom Foundation started contacting them to inform them of their constitutional right to not pay compulsory fees to the union. But now all of a sudden it's become a question of safety."
More pointedly, the union requested – and was given – the very same information in 2006 when it sought to unionize the care providers in the first place. And having been certified by the state, it now has access to even greater detail about the providers than either the Benns or the Freedom Foundation is seeking.
"If it's all right for the union to have this information – even before it was representing these people – why is it not all right for anyone else?" Abernathy asked. "Why are their motives more pure than ours?"
The union couldn't care less about the health and safety of the daycare clients, Abernathy said, nor does it care about the well-being of its clients. In fact, the Benns allege SEIU 925 regularly supports regulations that make it harder for providers to get and stay in the daycare business.
"All the union leaders care about is keeping the dues money flowing in," Abernathy said. "Family childcare providers are an $8 million-a-year goldmine for the union, and they're not going to give it up without a fight."
A preliminary injunction hearing will likely be held in early March and, assuming the court once again rules against the union, it could still appeal and conceivably keep the names bottled up for months or years while the case is appealed.
"This is just another example of what the unions' true objectives are and how ruthless they can be when someone stands in the way of their achieving them," Abernathy said. "Not only is SEIU 925 fighting tooth and nail to keep the truth from those it represents, but now it's even reached the point where the union is suing the very people it claims to represent.
"They only care about their own self-interest," he said. "If this case doesn't demonstrate that, I don't know what would."