What would our democracy look like without the influence of corporations and industrialists? It has become more and more difficult in recent decades to imagine an answer to this question. As the late political scientist and PRA’s founder Jean Hardisty wrote in 2014, neoliberalism—or deregulated market capitalism—”seeks to replace democracy with oligarchy.” Indeed, corporate money and influence are remaking our democratic institutions, from the dark-money lobbying groups and think tanks pushing limitless deregulation, to individual wealthy donors putting their thumbs on the scales of public policy in state legislatures and using new Voter ID laws to suppress the vote. As progressives contemplate how to build a movement for justice that can effectively counter such forces, it is necessary to understand how the Corporate Right—what Hardisty termed the Chamber of Commerce wing of the conservative movement—is collaborating with others on the Right to advance its agenda.
PRA has written much in the past about the Right’s attacks on the most vulnerable groups of working people: women, people of color, LGBTQ people. During 2015, we launched the new PRA Economic Justice Research Project to identify some of the current trends and to develop a fuller analysis of who exactly is behind the ongoing transformation of our democratic infrastructure. Our research has fueled some of the most effective recent campaigns for economic justice, including: the fight for domestic workers’ rights, the fight for paid family leave laws, and the fight for fair wages for restaurant workers. Here are five ways our work exposed the Corporate Right’s shenanigans in 2015.
- In January and February, we looked into the International Franchise Association’s (IFA) spearheading of a lawsuit that tried to halt, and then delay, the implementation of a new Department of Labor rule that will allow home care workers to be covered by the same minimum wage and overtime protections that other workers enjoy under U.S. labor law. I also wrote an article about the IFA’s involvement in this fight that was published by In These Times.
- From January through March, we examined how restaurant owners, through their own corporate lobbying group – the National Restaurant Association, are fighting against paid sick days and better pay for employees. We also discussed how Walmart’s announced pay raises were little more than PR stunt to change its anti-worker image.
- In March, we began seriously investigating the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), a professional association claiming to represent 275,000 HR professionals worldwide. SHRM is headquartered in Alexandria, VA, and pulls in about $143 million per year. It has a 501c3 charitable foundation (the SHRM Foundation) whose activities are still a mystery to us; and it also has an immigration policy advocacy arm, the Council for Global Immigration, which has its own separate structure. Mostly, however, SHRM acts as a lobbying organization for the corporate side of the HR equation. It hosts lavish conferences to which members are invited, and it does train members in how to comply with workplace law. But it also uses its policy and advocacy departments to actively lobby for employer-side changes in workplace law. For example, SHRM opposes the USDOL’s expansion of the overtime rules, the NLRB’s expedited elections rule, mandatory paid leave laws, and much more. Despite SHRM’s strong dedication to curtailing worker rights and workplace protections, SHRM presents to the public, the media, and often to its own membership, a studiously neutral political facade, and attempts to appear not to take sides in employer-employee relations. I attended SHRM’s legal and legislative conference in March 2015, and reported out my findings in a series of blog posts.
- In May and June, we examined how the Christian Right may or may not be informing and involving itself with corporate lobbying groups, think tanks and other vehicles funded by industrialists to remake our political economy. We turned toward the narratives around poverty that began to come out of right-wing think tanks and Christian conservative groups this year—both secular groups like the American Enterprise Institute, and religious groups like the Acton Institute, as well as quasi-Christian groups such as the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics. Based on this research, I wrote a piece for The Public Eye magazine on Faith-Washing Right Wing Economics, or how the Corporate Right uses Christian Right organizations and messaging to advance its agenda. Also, during the national debate surrounding the confederate flag, we discussed how the neo-confederate South lost to (ironically) free market neoliberalism.
- Finally, in December, we looked even more closely at the DeVos family as an example of one wealthy Christian Right family that is involving itself deeply in political work. Although they work primarily in Michigan, this Koch-like family is branching out to other states on some key issues: education privatization, promulgation of RFRA laws, and so-called “right to work.” We think they are not alone; that other wealthy donors are becoming bolder and more willing to call the shots politically in their joint Christian/Corporate Right projects.
As we ring in 2016, I am sad to say I will no longer be heading up PRA’s Economic Justice research work. I look forward to seeing what the team is able to accomplish in the future based on this important groundwork. Special thanks to Kelsey Howe, Jacey Rubinstein, Jaime Longoria, Eli Lee, Doug Gilbert, and Jonathon Orta for their assistance.