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Chapter Twelve

COVID Denial Attacks on Workers and Unions


Chapter Twelve

COVID Denial Attacks on Workers and Unions

A common refrain in COVID denial Facebook groups is that their members are dedicated to defending workers’ rights in the face of workplace mask and vaccine mandates. Groups documented in this report have specifically claimed to speak for healthcare workers and staged protests alleging to do so.

However, these groups’ blatant disregard for the health of people who work in hospitals and schools, in the public and private sector alike, should lay this claim to rest. But the disregard for worker health and safety circulating through these Facebook forums does not stop there.

A troubling amount of content in these groups vigorously assails labor unions. Labor unions and worker’s organizations are critical in defending and building genuine democracy in the United States. Absent trade unions, and broader struggles for workers’ rights and democracy, working people have working conditions, pay, benefits, and safety and health standards imposed on them. An attack on trade unions is an attack on working people. Such attacks are troublingly common in Facebook COVID denial groups.

In the face of the pandemic, countless working people have sought to ensure their own safety in the workplace and that of others who enter their work environment. These struggles have been particularly acute in public schools, where COVID denialists and far-right politicians have pressed for the rapid opening of schools, thwarting even minimal safety measures, such as masks and social distancing, to protect the health and lives of children and education workers alike.

Participants in Facebook COVID denial groups frequently single out teachers and their unions with narrow-minded and vicious attacks. For instance, teachers’ unions have been attacked for attempting to protect themselves and children in schools from COVID-19 through the use of masks. A member of Unmask our kids Washington (6,935 members), for instance, proclaimed, “Masks were forced on kids from a demand of the teachers unions. Are you surprised?”[261] A post by a moderator of Let’s Get Back to Work! – (2,611 members) claimed, “Teachers Unions and politicians threw away at least a year of kids’ lives. Some are still doing it.”[262]

A post in Parents Choice March – Save Our Children (19,361 members) continued in this vein, alleging that teachers’ unions “in this country were given far too much power. They have become political and are using kids as pawns with their demands. It’s the teachers union who refused to return to school, it’s the teachers union pushing for masks.”[263] A moderator of UNMASK OUR CHILDREN! WNY (4,451 members) writes, sans evidence, “I would bet that the teachers unions and/or government are paying off NYSED [New York Stated Education Department] to enforce masks.”[264]

A member of Open Up Kansas! (11,316 members) offered that, “Teacher’s unions and government schools, especially in our large cities that have been run into the ground for decades by one-party rule are destroying equality of opportunity so they can justify the destruction of our system for the lie of equality of outcome.”[265]

Other COVID deniers advocate broad-scale assaults on teachers’ unions. In response to a proposed plan in the Estes Park, Colorado school district for safety measures such as masking, symptom monitoring, and testing, a member of NoCo Health Freedom Coalition (1,116 members) wrote, “I cannot believe I entrust my child to these insane people…The teachers unions and corrupt school boards must go.”[266] A member of Patriots for Delaware (11,666 members) wrote, “SO THERE IS NO NEED TO KEEP ANY SCHOOL CLOSED and if the Teacher’s Unions refuse to do their jobs then we the people should FIRE THEM and disband and defund every Teacher’s Union.”[267]

A member of Washington – Resist a 2nd Lockdown (7,123 members) wrote, “I’m planning on launching a national movement to hit these corrupt teachers’ unions”[268] A post in ReOpen DC (74 members) declared, “America wants communist teachers unions out of schools!”[269] A post circulated in UNMASK OUR CHILDREN! WNY (4,451 members) called for action: “KEEP PUSHING! THE TEACHERS UNIONS ARE ABOUT TO CRUMBLE! They are forcing teachers to not come to work if parents refuse to mask their children in 90-degree weather…FORCE THEIR HAND AND FINISH THEM! We are so close. Keep emailing, keep calling, keep OVERLOADING their phones with call after call after call!”[270]

Some COVID deniers mounted attacks on teachers’ unions as part of a broadside against public schools. For example, the administrator for UN-MASKED Home Schoolers of COLLIER (635 members) wrote that “Public education is funded by Leftists funded Teachers unions who hate the very foundation of America.”[271]

Vitriol directed broadly at teachers’ unions appeared in Baltimore County Parent And Student Coalition (4,029 members), Parents Choice March – Save Our Children (19,361 members), Reopen California Schools (17,960 members), South Bay Open Schools (747 members), Take Back Missouri Schools/Education (2,541 members), Unmask Our Kids Oregon (4,219 members), and Washington State citizens against the MRNA injection (35,440 members), Unmask our kids Washington (6,934 members), STAND FREE DURANGO (1,960 members), UNMA$K CLINTON COUNTY (1,118 members), UNMASK OUR KIDS CT (12,230 members), Estes Park Patriots for Freedom (505 members), Delawareans Against the Mask Mandate (1,835 members), Patriots for Delaware (11,666 members), Californians Against Excessive Quarantine (21,884 members), Open Up Kansas! (11,316 members), WA State Against Mandatory Masks, Jabs & Lockdowns (2,626 members), REOPEN NJ (49,849 members), REOPEN MA (13,419 members), and Open Oregon (36,036 members).[272]

Some COVID deniers take aim at specific teachers’ unions such as the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), again, often attacking them for supporting school safety measures. A member of Against the Mandate Lincoln NE (429 members) wrote, “The NEA wants to force children to be vaccinated for COVID though they don’t need it and it could harm them, and they want them to wear facemasks though they are useless and harmful to Children’s health. The NEA Doesn’t Give a Tinker’s damn about our children.”[273]

The Administrator of Open Spokane Schools! (3,027 members) posted a letter sent to anti-labor legislators, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), declaring that “the NEA…influencing the CDC regarding mask mandates is the last straw for many…I reach out to you both from Washington State where we have a tyrannical Governor that is also heavily influenced by the NEA.”[274]

A member of Parents Choice March – Save Our Children (19,361 members) declared, “Teachers – One way to fight back is to drop the NEA! Deplete the unions (sic) funding!”[275] Likewise, a post in Illinois Parents Union (11,463 members) encouraged teachers to cancel their NEA membership, “Look up Janus law to understand why you can cancel anytime.” Janus refers to the 2018 anti-labor ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Janus v AFSCME that allows anti-union workers to avoid paying union fees despite benefitting from collective bargaining and representation [See discussion below].[276]

Other posts assailing the NEA or AFT were found in Unmask New Jersey (1,285 members), CBSD Back on Track (794 members), My Child…My Choice (1,148 members), No Mask New Mexico (2,627 members), Reopen California Schools (17,960 members), and We The Patriots – Polk County (10,818 members).[277]

COVID Denial and the Freedom Forum

Another avenue for anti-labor radicalization in COVID denial Facebook groups is the circulation of material from notoriously anti-labor organizations that also oppose pandemic safety measures. A case in point is the Freedom Foundation, a libertarian-leaning group based in Olympia, Washington, with chapters in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California.[278] As the pandemic unfolded, the Freedom Foundation opposed school closures and initiated a lawsuit against state vaccine mandates.[279]

The group is best known, however, for its relentless assaults on trade unions – in particular, public sector unions. In recent years the Freedom Foundation has campaigned nationally to mobilize the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 anti-labor decision in Janus v ACSME as a battering ram to defund public-sector unions. In Janus, the Court held 5-4 that unions may not require agency fees from workers who do not consent to them. While the Freedom Foundation claims that its actions are intended to ensure that nonmembers are not required to pay for union political activity at odds with their beliefs, nonmembers already had such First Amendment protection under the 1977 Supreme Court decision Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The Freedom Foundation campaign is best understood as an effort to undermine unions and union democracy in the real world. Akin to so-called right-to-work laws, Janus was a boon for anti-labor organizations, undermining unions by allowing anti-union workers to “free ride” from the gains of collective bargaining and union representation even though they do not pay any union fees. On top of its anti-labor politics, the Freedom Foundation has promoted anti-LGBT bigotry and opposed the self-determination of sovereign Indian Nations.

Facebook COVID denial groups point to the potential for the spread of the Freedom Foundation’s anti-labor politics and contributing to confusion about pandemic-related policies. For instance, a member of Washington State citizens against the MRNA injection mandate (35,429 members) posts an apparent letter from Teamsters Local 117 President and Executive Director Michelle Woodrow about union efforts to negotiate the impacts of a state public sector vaccine mandate on workers. In the letter, Woodrow is cited as explaining that Teamsters Local 117, which has encouraged members to get vaccinated and met several times with Governor Jay Inslee, has sought clarification on medical and religious exemptions, flexibility in state deadlines for workers making “reasonable efforts” to get vaccinated, and reimbursement and paid leave for time spent getting vaccines and recovering from any side effects. The letter continues,

“In addition to processing the trauma associated with the pandemic, the Freedom Foundation and similar organizations are adding to the confusion with unsubstantiated claims of being able to block the mandate for their own political gain. This is not a time for empty promises that delay and confuse working people at a time when you are forced to make a critical decision for yourself and your family.”[280]

Commenters on the thread responded, “Wrong position taken. The unions should be demanding a stop to the mandates, not negotiating with a dictator;” “Unions don’t represent their members. They are phony champions of the working class;” and “They don’t care about their members. Never have. If they did, they wouldn’t support the Democrat/ Communist party.”[281]

More to the point, a post in Unmask the Gorge (1,902 members) highlighted the kind of attack the Freedom Foundation can foster on union efforts to address concerns about COVID-19-related policies while still promoting health measures to end the pandemic. In this post, Nicole Chiasson, who claimed to have previously worked for the Freedom Foundation, wrote,

“I am hearing unions are not backing their people regarding jab mandates here is some info. So, your Union is not standing up for you? Hit them where it will hurt! What you may not know is in the last few years the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case titled “Janus vs AFSCME” that Unions could not force workers to pay dues. They could opt out. Right now!…Not just for those involved with AFSCME either! Other Unions are also covered under these Supreme Court rulings! You can opt out of paying Union dues. It’s simple. I used to work for Freedom Foundation. I handed out these brochures and talked to people about opting out. This is a legitimate foundation!”[282]

In other instances, the Freedom Foundation and its leaders were promoted as authorities on all things COVID. For example, the administrator for Reopen Clallam County (1,475 members) cited Freedom Foundation National Outreach Director Matthew Hayward urging resistance to vaccine mandates.[283] In addition, the administrator of Reopen Oregon Now (1,171 members) posted an article about a Freedom Foundation lawsuit against vaccine mandates.[284]

Similarly, posts promoting Freedom Foundation efforts against vaccine mandates in Central Kitsap Parents for Freedom (1,460 members) and Washington State citizens against the MRNA injection mandate (35,421 members) stated that “The Freedom Foundation is exploring all legal options in response to this latest abuse of executive powers.”[285] A member of Open Oregon (36,037 members) cited the Freedom Foundation alongside Ammon Bundy’s far-right People’s Rights network as authorities on issues related to the pandemic.[286]

Other posts citing the Freedom Foundation in the context of COVID denial have appeared in Unmask the Gorge (1,902 members), Unmask Oregon (2,754 members), Open Spokane Schools! (3,027 members), and REOPEN WASHINGTON (3,533 members).[287]


Eleven:  Stop the Steal and Jan. 6th


Thirteen: Recommendations


[261] Tole, Dee. Facebook. Posted in Unmask our kids Washington. September 9, 2021.

[262]Rawlinson, Gerry. Facebook. Posted in Let’s Get Back to Work! – September 4, 2021.

[263] Guzman, Cynthia Lynn. Facebook. Posted in Parents Choice March – Save Our Children. August 6, 2021.

[264]Ashely, Jen. Facebook. Posted in UNMASK OUR CHILDREN! WNY. August 12, 2021.

[265]Hamilton, Justin T. Facebook. Posted in Open Up Kansas! August 7, 2021.

[266] Weimer Cooper, Shelly. Facebook. Posted in NoCO Health Freedom Coalition. September 10, 2021.

[267] Sachetti, Allen. Facebook. Posted inPatriots for Delaware. August 3, 2020.

[268] Lake, Elise. Posted in Washington – Resist a 2nd Lockdown. July 30, 2021.

[269]  Dion-Jones, Laura. Facebook. Posted in ReOpen DC. August 6, 2020.

[270]Hall, Diane. Facebook. Posted in UNMASK OUR CHILDREN! WNY. June 7, 2021.

[271]Lynn, Cherrie. Facebook. Posted in UN-MASKED Home Schoolers of COLLIER. August 30, 2021.

[272]Search on “teachers union” in a subset of COVID denial Facebook groups. September 16, 2021.

[273]Ahlstedt, Terry. Facebook. Posted in Against the Mandate Lincoln NE. July 7, 2021.

[274] Neff, Russel. Facebook. Posted in Open Spokane Schools! September 12, 2021.

[275]Kellum Manning, Julie. Facebook. Posted in Parents Choice March – Save Our Children. August 7, 2021.

[276] Tina, Chris. Facebook. Posted in Illinois Parents Union. August 29, 2021.

[277] Search on “nea” in a subset of COVID denial Facebook groups. September 16, 2021. This search was conducted only for “nea,” though some posts referenced both the NEA and the AFT. A search on AFT would, no doubt, have found additional attacks on that union.

[278] Freedom Foundation. Accessed September 16, 2021.

[279] Freedom Foundation. “COVID.” Freedom Foundation website. Accessed September 16, 2021.

[280]Lawrence, Barry. Facebook. Posted in Washington State citizens against the MRNA injection mandate. August 31, 2021.

[281] Lawrence, Barry. Facebook. Posted in Washington State citizens against the MRNA injection mandate. August 31, 2021.

[282] Chiasson, Nicole. Facebook. Posted in Unmask the Gorge. September 1, 2021.

[283] Rodman, Susan. Facebook. Posted in Reopen Clallam County. August 23, 2021.; Freedom Foundation. Matthew Hayward. National Outreach Director. Accessed September 16, 2021.

[284] Poole, Less. Facebook. Posted in Reopen Oregon Now. September 10, 2021.

[285] Gadke, Kirsten. Facebook. Posted in Washington State citizens against the MRNA injection mandate; Lander, Jeff. Facebook. Posted in Central Kitsap Parents for Freedom. August 25, 2021.

[286] Hindman-Allan, Dana. Facebook. Posted in Open Oregon. September 2, 2021.

[287] Search of “Freedom Foundation” in a subset of less than 200 COVID Denial Facebook groups. September 16, 2021.

Facebook and COVID Denial

How the platform is fueling another wave of far-right activism, insurrectionism, and violence, and what we can do to stop it.
A Special Report of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights

Copyright © 2021. Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.