Profile on the Right: The International Franchise Association

international franchise association logo

The International Franchise Association (IFA) is a 501(c)6 membership association. Its members include both franchisors–the big brands that control national and regional retail, fast food, and other chains, including home care–and franchisees, the operators of the individual chain stores. Dark-money organizations such as the IFA are politically active nonprofits that can receive unlimited donations from corporations and individuals without being required to disclose their donors. Through them, corporations and individuals can influence policy decisions and elections while remaining out of the public eye1.

The IFA is made up of the Franchise Action Network — the IFA’s public policy arm — and the IFA Educational Foundation (which supports conservative public policies through research). While the Franchise Action Network claims to advocate for locally-owned franchise small business and franchisors alike2, its legal and lobbying activities are only acting on behalf of the biggest franchisors such as McDonald’s and home health care chains such as BrightStar.

IFA’s Funding

According to its 2013 Form 990 filed with the IRS3, the IFA’s total gross income for 2012 was about $18.2 million. Where does its money come from? Again, we cannot confirm exact sources of its revenue, but according to the business news blog Bisnow, “Approximately 40% comes from IFA’s annual convention; 40% from membership dues; 15% from events and program-related sponsorships; 5% from investment income.”4

IFA’s Lobbying Arm: Franchise Action Network

From the IFA’s website: “The franchise industry is under unprecedented attack on the public policy front and the IFA has been leading the fight to protect the franchise industry. From discriminatory minimum wage increases to changes in federal regulations that would recast franchisors as employers of their franchisees’ employees, the franchise business model has never come under assault like this in its history. In order to defend the franchise model against these existential threats, franchise businesses need to come together and speak with one, consistent, strong and collective voice on behalf of the our industry.”5

In fact, the IFA has become the lead organization that is fighting to block legislation that would promote fair labor standards and hold franchisors (or brands) accountable for labor violations.

  • In Seattle, the IFA is suing the city over the mandated minimum wage increase, contending that the law discriminates against the franchise industry by treating franchises as large business, requiring them to begin paying higher wages more quickly than small, independent businesses. 6
  • The IFA is fighting the July 2014 National Labor Relations Board ruling that McDonald’s parent corporation could be designated a joint employer of its franchisees’ employees, meaning the multi-billion dollar franchise can be held accountable for labor violations of employees at some stores7. Now, the IFA is helping to get legislation passed at the state level, as in Tennessee, to dodge the ruling8.

Ultimately, the IFA aims to recast multi-billion dollar franchises as the victims under attack by advocates for fair wages and labor standards, and to undermine any legislation that protects workers’ rights.

The IFA and Homecare Workers

The US Department of Labor issued a new rule in 2014 that would extend labor protections—especially overtime protection–to home care workers. The rule was supposed to go into effect Jan. 1, but is being challenged in court by the IFA and other groups.

Sept 18, 2013:

Steve Caldeira President and CEO of the IFA: “With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 years of age every day, the home health care sector is one of the fastest growing segments in the franchise industry, with more than two dozen franchise systems and more than 4,000 franchise business owners providing a much- needed service to this growing sector of our population. One out of 10 clients require 24-hour, live-in service, and one out of four clients require more than 40 hours per week of companion care services. Eliminating the long-standing overtime companion care exemption for hundreds of thousands of workers will significantly raise the cost of care for seniors while simultaneously stifling a growing sector of the economy responsible for creating thousands of new jobs.

“As adopted, this single decision will force caregivers into an unregulated ‘underground’ market, as clients will no longer be able to pay for live-in care through a regulated agency. Caregivers will lose take home pay, as clients will not be able to pay overtime -resulting in an overall loss in jobs. As a result of this action, much-needed tax revenue will also be lost, as more caregivers will be paid under the table and not report their income9.

Dec. 22, 2014:

Calling the new overtime rules for homecare workers ” yet another example of regulatory overreach of power by the U.S. Department of Labor ,” an IFA spokesman said: “By promulgating regulations to eliminate the overtime exemption for companion care workers, the administration threatened affordable care for seniors and the disabled and put many franchise small businesses and their employees in jeopardy by subjecting them to potentially unsustainable costs.”10

Jan. 31, 2015:

“Specifically, the new rules would have ended a federal regulation from 1974 that labeled home care aides “companions,” a designation that lets their employers — generally, for-profit agencies — ignore basic labor protections.

Justice, however, has been delayed. The Jan. 1 effective date was postponed late last year when a federal judge, Richard Leon, said he first had to issue a decision on a challenge filed by the International Franchise Association and other home care employer groups. On Jan. 14, Judge Leon overturned the new rules, on the highly debatable ground that only Congress can remove the companionship label. The Labor Department has filed an appeal, but the issue won’t be resolved until June, at the earliest11.

May 1, 2015:

Washington Business Journal article Are franchisees unhappy business owners? Union survey says many are

IFA contends SEIU doesn’t care about franchisees; they’re just using them in its campaign to make it easier for them to organize franchise workers.

“The SEIU wants to destroy the time-tested franchise model of doing business for its own self-interest; it doesn’t really care what franchise owners or workers think or want,” Caldeira said.

Jeffrey Tews, who owns BrightStar Care, BrightStar Senior Living and Mr. Handyman franchises in Wisconsin, agrees.

“The SEIU is out to help itself, not my employees,” Tews said. “Its report is transparently self-interested and paints a very different picture than the one that my fellow franchisees and our employees see.”12

Part of a Nexus of Dark-Money Business Lobby Groups

Evidence shows that the IFA leverages the group’s resources and connections to other dark-money business groups and pro-business candidates to increase its political clout at the national level. Under the leadership of President Steve Caldeira, the IFA has grown its political action committee by raising approximately $1.2 million in 2012 and $894,000 in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Caldeira previously held executive roles in the National Restaurant Association which also lobbies against paid sick days, paid family leave, one fair wage, and just hours. Caldeira has worked on multiple Republican political campaigns and presently serves in several committees within the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The IFA has also used the legal services of anti-union labor law firm Littler Mendelson and is a participant in Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute along with SHRM and the US Chamber. To coordinate lobbying around these issues, the IFA has also recently convened the Coalition to Save Local Business, in partnership with such dark-money groups as the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Retail Federation, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, The National Restaurant Association, the US Chamber of Commerce, and others.13

Next Profile arrowEnd Notes

1 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/09/opinion/sunday/dark-money-helped-win-the-senate.html

2 http://www.franchiseactionnetwork.com/federal-activity

3 http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2013/366/108/2013-366108621-0a5adc2b-9O.pdf

4 https://www.bisnow.com/washington-dc/news/association/what-you-didnt-know-about-steve-caldeira-43491

5 http://www.franchise.org/franchise-action-network

6 http://www.qsrweb.com/news/ifa-claims-seattle-minimum-wage-hike-is-discrimination/

7 http://www.wsj.com/articles/nlrb-names-mcdonalds-as-joint-employer-of-workers-at-its-franchisees-1419018664

8 http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/245283

9 http://www.franchise.org/new-regulation-on-home-care-workers-creates-lose-lose-situation

10 http://www.franchise.org/ifa-statement-on-court-ruling-vacating-dol-overtime-regulations

11 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/opinion/sunday/labor-rights-for-home-care-aides-are-delayed-yet-again.html?_r=1

12 http://www.bizjournals.com/chicago/news/news-wire/2015/05/01/are-franchisees-unhappy-business-owners-union.html?page=all

13 http://savelocalbusinesses.com/our-members/

Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire Mandate

Public Eye Spring 2015 CoverThis article will appear in the upcoming Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

In February, the culture warriors at Iowa’s “pro-family” group The Family Leader distributed personalized copies of The Founders’ Bible to every member of the state legislature as part of their lobby day—or as they put it in an invitation letter, the “war with Satan, who has taken many captive in Des Moines.”1 Greg Baker, Director of Ambassador Church Network, told pastors that the goal of “The Iowa Capitol Project” is to help legislators “do what God has asked them to do,” and The Founders’ Bible should help given its “compelling content pertaining to their job at the Capitol.” 2

Most of that “compelling content” —the non-biblical part anyway—comes courtesy of David Barton, the Republican Party activist and self-styled historian whose “Christian nation” revisionism informs the rhetoric of conservative pundits and politicians.3 But Barton’s essays go beyond his claims about the biblical origins of the U.S. Constitution; The Founders’ Bible, a New American Standard Bible translation, is also filled with Barton’s arguments that right-wing economic policies are divinely mandated.

Though Barton’s work has been repeatedly challenged by reputable scholars, including his fellow evangelical Christians, he is no fringe character, but rather a major player within the Republican Party and conservative movement. He was an active member of the GOP platform committee in 20124 and his rhetoric about America’s founding as a Christian nation is promoted by other religious conservatives, from Glenn Beck to Newt Gingrich.

A star-spangled David Barton appears in America: A Call to Greatness (1995). Photo credit: Paige-Brace Cinema, Ltd.

A star-spangled David Barton appears in America: A Call to Greatness (1995). Photo credit: Paige-Brace Cinema, Ltd.

Barton uses his essays and frequent media and public appearances to argue that the Bible, indeed God Himself, opposes minimum wage laws, capital gains taxes and progressive income taxes. He defines the free enterprise system—which he believes is “the economic system set forth in numerous passages in the Bible”—as “one in which ‘prices and wages are determined by unrestricted competition between businesses, without government regulation,’” and sees any policies that penalize productivity and profits as “a completely unBiblical system.”

To most readers, Jesus’ parable of the vineyard is generally understood to be about the gift of God’s grace, a metaphor for the Kingdom of God. In Barton’s exegesis, the story about the landowner who pays workers an equal amount no matter how many hours they worked is a literal handbook for God’s approach to employer-employee relations. Government, he writes, “certainly has no right to tell an employer what to pay an employee, including with a so-called minimum wage.”5

Yes, this is a Bible the Koch brothers can love.

Reconstructionism, the Christian Right and the Tea Party

Barton is one of the figures examined by religious studies professor Julie Ingersoll in Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction,6 forthcoming from Oxford University Press in August. Christian Reconstructionism is hardly a household word. However, its ideology has infused not only the Christian Right but also the Tea Party and the conservative movement in general. Those familiar with Reconstructionism may associate it most often with the idea that government should enforce Old Testament law and its harsh punishments. But, Ingersoll argues, what’s gone largely unnoticed is “The degree to which Christian Reconstructionists understand a biblical worldview to be rooted in economics.” For Reconstructionists, she writes, the very idea of God’s sovereignty is expressed in terms of property rights.

Christian Reconstructionism is grounded in the writing of R.J. Rushdoony, whose magnum opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law, was published in 1973. Rushdoony, who died in 2001, was also active in the homeschooling movement and founded the Chalcedon Foundation, a Reconstructionist think tank. His ideas continue to be promoted by acolytes, including his son-in-law, author Gary North, and Gary DeMar, president of American Vision.

In their book Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What it Isn’t, North and DeMar write, “Reconstructionists believe in a ‘minimal state.’ The purpose of getting involved in politics, as Reconstructionists see it, is to reduce the power of the State.”7 Sound familiar?

“Without a doubt, Reconstructionists have been advocates for, and activists within, the Tea Party,” Ingersoll notes. North is a former staffer for Ron Paul,8 and is currently helping Paul promote a curriculum for homeschoolers that North helped develop.9 That North-Paul connection, like the larger homeschooling movement—Rushdoony was an early advocate of homeschooling—is one of the streams by which Reconstructionist thinking has come to pervade the Christian Right and the Republican Party. And while Home School Legal Defense Association Chairman Michael Farris disavowed the application of Old Testament law in the U.S., he served with a number of Reconstructionists on the steering committee of The Coalition on Revival, a group founded in 1984 to bridge theological divides on the Christian Right. COR’s 1986 “A Manifesto for the Christian Church” proclaimed a dominionist message: that the Bible is the only measure of truth and applies to every sphere of life, including law, government and economics. “All theories and practices of these spheres of life are only true, right, and realistic to the degree that they agree with the Bible,”10 the Manifesto argued. Among the “social evils” that the Manifesto’s signers pledged to oppose was “Statist-collectivist theft from citizens through devaluation of their money and redistribution of their wealth.”

But the Reconstructionist influence has spread well beyond the COR. As Frederick Clarkson noted in The Public Eye back in 1994,11 dominionist thinking has proliferated even among evangelical leaders who might disavow the Reconstructionist label. Gary North, wrote Clarkson, claimed that “the ideas of the Reconstructionists have penetrated into Protestant circles that for the most part are unaware of the original source of the theological ideas that are beginning to transform them.” Reconstructionists have integrated their theology with Pentecostal and charismatic religious networks such as the New Apostolic Reformation and groups like International Transformation Network, as well as among religious leaders who embrace dominionist doctrines such as “Seven Mountains” theology, which holds that the right kind of Christians are meant to control societal spheres of influence such as education, entertainment, business and government.

Billy Graham himself told revival attendees that the Garden of Eden was a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.”

Even in 1994, Clarkson argued, dominionism was no longer “the exclusive revolutionary vision of Christian Reconstructionist extremists,” but had “achieved virtual hegemony over many forms of Christian fundamentalism.” That certainly holds true 20 years later.

David Barton is a good example. Ingersoll says she considers Barton “Reconstructionist-lite”12: someone heavily influenced by Reconstructionist thinking even though he doesn’t publicly identify with the term and may depart from some of its more extreme positions. Barton’s rhetoric about biblical law applying to every aspect of life, including civil government, reflects that influence, as does his Christian-nation revisionism when it comes to American history. Barton has plenty of company, as evidenced by the prevalence of Reconstructionist rhetoric about the role of government at conservative political gatherings, such as the March 19 Pennsylvania Pastors Network gathering at which Barton spoke.

Barton’s insistence that the Bible provides authoritative instruction for every aspect of life, including tax policy, echoes COR’s Manifesto and Rushdoony’s insistence that “authority is not only a religious concept but also a total one. It involves the recognition at every point of our lives of God’s absolute law-order.” That includes economics. In The Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony says, “The child has no right to govern his parents, the student their school, nor the employees their employer.”13

According to this “biblical worldview,” unions and the laws supporting workers’ rights and ability to organize interfere with God’s economic plan. Barton says the Bible disapproves of “socialist union kind of stuff.”14

There have been many examples of this playing out in current domestic politics. In 2012, dominionists associated with the New Apostolic Reformation’s Reformation Prayer Network urged “prayer warriors” to pray that God would “break the power and control” of California’s largest unions and that “financial contributions of unions intended to manipulate the voice of the vote would be shut up and shut down.”15

Christian Right leaders such as the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins have cheered on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s relentless attacks on the state’s unions.16 And in February, Gary North gloated over Walker’s anti-labor “right to work” legislation as representing what he called “a death spiral for unions in America.”17

The Deep Roots of Anti-Unionism

This hostility toward unions has been part of the Christian Right from the movement’s earliest days. Author Jeff Sharlet has written that Pat Robertson’s father was among the members of Congress who were told by Abraham Vereide, founder of the National Prayer Breakfast and The Fellowship Foundation (aka The Family), that God wanted them to break the spine of organized labor.18 And in a March 14, 2015 commentary in The New York Times,19 Princeton University professor Kevin Kruse places Vereide within a larger context of corporate titans recruiting religious leaders to evangelize on behalf of unrestricted capitalism in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. One of them, writes Kruse, was Billy Graham himself, who told revival attendees that the Garden of Eden was a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.”

The Christian Coalition’s 1990 leadership manual quotes four biblical passages of the “slaves-obey-your-masters” variety, which president Ralph Reed, stunningly, used as a model for modern employer-employee relations.

Corporate efforts to push back against government regulation and to engage religious leaders as public spokespeople were reenergized in the wake of a 1971 memo by Lewis Powell written just months before his nomination to the Supreme Court. In the memo, Powell warned against the “attack” on the American free enterprise system coming from the nation’s campuses, pulpits, media and arts. Powell called for an aggressive long-term political, intellectual and cultural campaign by American business interests to attack their critics, resist regulation and promote the idea that economic freedom is “indivisible” from other rights.20

It is hard to imagine a memo having greater impact. Powell’s manifesto sparked a massive investment in right-wing infrastructure building by conservative funders and strategists, many of whom came to be called “The New Right.” Among them were Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips. These strategists started building the institutional infrastructure that still undergirds the right-wing movement, through powerful organizations like The Heritage Foundation. And, as political scientist Richard J. Meagher wrote for The Public Eye in 2009, they worked to bring conservative evangelicals into their political organizing, hoping that social issues and a “pro-family” platform could help secure their commitment to the Republican agenda.21

By the end of the decade, these New Right leaders had recruited Jerry Falwell and helped him launch the Moral Majority. From that national pulpit, Falwell argued that “the free enterprise system of profit [should] be encouraged to grow, being unhampered by any socialistic laws or red tape.”22 Rus Walton, the late former director of the Plymouth Rock Foundation, included a Christian political agenda in his book One Nation Under God that included abolishing minimum wage laws and compulsory education; instituting right-to-work legislation; ending social services; and applying anti-trust laws to trade unions.23

As Paul Weyrich wrote in the Conservative Digest in 1979, “The alliance on family issues is bound to begin to look at the morality of other issues such as…the unjust power that has been legislated for union bosses.”24

Weyrich’s prediction certainly seemed to be true. In 1990, the nascent Christian Coalition published a leadership manual for its local leaders, co-authored by its then-president Ralph Reed. In a section titled “God’s Delegated Authority in the World,” the manual says, “God established His pattern for work as well as in the family and in the church.”25 The manual quotes four biblical passages of the “slaves-obey-your-masters” variety, which Reed, stunningly, used as a model for modern employer-employee relations:

“Of course, slavery was abolished in this country many years ago, so we must apply these principles to the way Americans work today, to employees and employers: Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers, since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man.”

The New New Right

Today’s equivalent of the “New Right,” one could argue, is the huge, opaque network of political organizations funded by the Koch brothers and their pro-corporate, anti-regulation allies.26 The Koch brothers, who describe themselves27 as libertarians uninterested in social conservatives’ culture wars, are more than willing to use Christian Right voters as well as mountains of cash to achieve their anti-government, anti-union ends.28

One of the Koch brothers’ many projects is the LIBRE Initiative,29 which was created to promote laissez-faire economics among American Latinos—this year LIBRE has been cheerleading30 for state passage of “Right to Work” legislation31—and to serve as a vehicle for deceptive advertising trashing Democratic candidates.32 Former National Association of Evangelicals official John Mendez, who directs LIBRE’s faith outreach, told ThinkProgress last year that his job is to put LIBRE’s free-market message “in a theological context.”33 As Mendez told ThinkProgress, “In Scripture it tells us of dependency on God, not dependency on Man…To whom you’re dependent on is who you belong to. So you should not be dependent on government.”

Mendez elaborated in an interview with the Pacific Justice Institute last year that, “we come in and inform them and teach them on those principles of economic freedom and free enterprise from not only a constitutional perspective, but also a biblical perspective.”34

Mendez works with both Tea Party35 and Christian Right groups who are organizing politically, offering advice on how conservatives can reach out to Latinos. Last year, for example, he participated in Ralph Reed’s “Road to Majority” conference and took part in a “Watchmen on the Wall”36 conference organized by Family Research Council and Vision America Action.37 In 2013, he led a “prayer gathering” in advance of a prayer breakfast to help “unite” Virginia’s clergy around their state legislature and inform the religious leaders “of their biblical role and constitutional rights in shaping Virginia.”38

One of the other right-wing organizations formed in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election is the Freedom Federation, a coalition of Christian Right political groups and dominionist “apostolic” ministries and organizations. Tucked among them is the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which preaches a small-government gospel.39 The presence of AFP may explain why the coalition’s founding “Declaration of American Values” included, in addition to predictably conservative positions on social issues, opposition to progressive taxation.

AFP’s Tim Phillips, a former business partner of Ralph Reed, spoke at the Freedom Federation’s Awakening conference a few years ago, along with anti-tax and anti-government activist Grover Norquist, in order to encourage religious conservatives to prioritize shrinking the size of government.40

The Man Who Doesn’t Work Doesn’t Eat

Perhaps even more central to the Reconstructionist philosophy than opposing unions is hostility to government social service spending. North and DeMar are not out to minimize the state simply to save money or prevent government overreach—rhetoric you might hear at a Tea Party function—but because they believe the Bible has delineated clear areas of jurisdiction for the family, church and government. And, they argue, the Bible leaves charity, like education, to the individual and the church, with no biblically legitimate role for government.41

A particularly clear example of what Reconstructionists call “sphere sovereignty”—the idea that God granted the family, the church and government authority over specific areas of life—can be found42 in the writings of Michael Peroutka,43 a former Constitution Party presidential candidate who runs the Institute on the Constitution. Peroutka was elected last year to the Anne Arundel County Council in Maryland as a Republican,44 despite the fact that he’s argued that the Maryland General Assembly is an invalid government body since it has passed laws that Peroutka believes violate “God’s law.”45 Peroutka also believes that, given the government’s only legitimate, biblically-sanctioned role is to protect “God-given rights,” then “It is not the role of civil government to house, feed, clothe, educate or give health care to…ANYBODY!”

John Lofton, the late right-wing pundit and spokesperson for Peroutka’s Institute on the Constitution, had a similar message in 2012, writing that “it is crystal clear that in God’s Word He gives NO AUTHORITY to civil government (Caesar) to give health, education or welfare to ANYBODY. If people need help, it is the role of the Church—God’s people—to provide this help and NOT government.”46

David Barton sounds similar themes. Last July he appeared on Trinity Broadcasting Network’s “Praise the Lord.”47 In addition to promoting his theories about Jesus’s views on various taxes, Barton declared, “It’s not the government’s responsibility to take care of the poor and needy, it’s the church’s responsibility.” He added, “What we’re doing right now is for the first time in America we have ignored what the Bible says. The Bible says you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

If that has a familiar ring, it’s because some Republican lawmakers quoted that verse to support cuts in spending on food stamps in 2013. One of them was Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, who also said, “The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity, is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.”48 (His rhetoric equating taxation for social services with theft apparently did not apply to his family’s farming operations, which have received millions of dollars in federal farm subsidies.49)

Star Parker, a frequent speaker at Christian Right political gatherings, similarly equates taxation with theft. Like many conservative activists, Parker has a conversion story. Her shtick is to denigrate recipients of government assistance by describing herself as having once been lazy and dependent on government handouts until someone confronted her that her lifestyle was not pleasing to God. She suggests that anyone willing to work hard can make it like she did. Today, she calls redistribution of wealth “a violation of scripture.”50

Star Parker speaking at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. Credit: Gage Skidmore.

Star Parker speaking at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. Credit: Gage Skidmore.

Parker’s rhetoric goes beyond bootstraps hectoring. Like other Christian Right activists, she portrays concerns about income inequality as sinful covetousness. Noting that African Americans are traditionally a religious group, she asks, “Why does a people so inclined to turn to God so readily violate the Tenth Commandment’s prohibition on covetousness and measure themselves in terms of what others have? And then use this sin to justify violating the Eighth Commandment and give government license to steal what others have in order to redistribute?”51

“Perhaps more fundamentally,” she asks, “how can a church-going people buy into the materialism of socialism?”

It may not be surprising to hear this kind of language from people at the far right of the evangelical political movement. But similar rhetoric can be heard from people widely considered to be among the reasonable centrists of the evangelical community. Rick Warren is often held as the model of moderate, politically engaged evangelicalism (although PRA readers know to treat that notion skeptically52). Warren told NPR in 2012, “The primary purpose of government is to keep the peace, protect the citizens, provide opportunity. And when we start getting into all kinds of other things, I think we invite greater control. And I’m fundamentally about freedom.”53 More pointedly, as journalist Sarah Posner noted that same year, Warren has called the social gospel “Marxism in Christian clothing.”54

The Meaning of “Socialism”

“Socialism,” one of the chief rallying cries against health care reform, gets thrown around a lot by conservatives grousing about the Obama administration and progressive policies in general. Ingersoll offers a useful insight into the Christian Right’s use of the term:

“When scholars, or liberal activists and commentators, hear the label “socialist,” they understand it to mean a political and economic system where the government centralizes ownership and control in the hands of the state, eliminating private property. When the Reconstructionists use the term, they mean a system in which salvation (in its earthly historical manifestation) is thought to be found in government and in politics; a system that by its very nature seeks to replace God. In this view the legitimate role of government in the economy is limited to ensuring that people deal honestly with one another. Tea Partiers and Reconstructionists see socialism in the “government takeover” of major functions of other institutions. But it is also much broader than this, as socialism is understood as a systematic world and life view.”55

North, notes Ingersoll, sees the world as a binary: “either faith in God or faith in man. It is either Christianity or Marxism.”56 In this conceptualization, writes Ingersoll, “‘socialism’ is when the civil government usurps authority ‘legitimately granted’ to the individual, the family, and the church.”

The social gospel—a strain of progressive-minded Christianity concerned with the promotion of social and economic justice—particularly annoys religious conservatives. And that can play out even within the Republican Party. In January, Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich cited Matthew 25, in which people facing the final judgment are asked whether they fed the hungry and clothed the naked, to defend his decision to accept Medicaid expansion in the state. Some conservatives and right-wing activists were beside themselves.57

Gary DeMar responded to Kasich by saying, “Jesus is not describing the development of government programs…Governments can’t legitimately be charitable and magnanimous with other people’s money.”58 He continued, “They are organizing politically to impose the covetousness prohibited by the tenth commandment.”

The notion that looking to government for economic assistance is a form of idolatry is an idea we have heard elsewhere in the public arena, notably in the ultimately unsuccessful Senate campaign of Sharron Angle, who said entitlement programs “make government our God.”59 Also a few years ago from then-Sen. Jim DeMint, who told The Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody that many Tea Party members may have been motivated by “a spiritual component”:

“I think some have been drawn in over the years to a dependency relationship with government and as the Bible says you can’t have two masters and I think as people pull back from that they look more to God. …The bigger God gets the smaller people want their government because they’re yearning for freedom.”60

It’s not only Christian Reconstructionists and conservative evangelicals working to give right-wing economic policies a religious grounding. Catholic writer Michael Novak, formerly ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism back in 1982. Thirty years later, Rep. Paul Ryan defended the massive social spending cuts in his proposed budget in 20121 as a reflection of Catholic principles—a claim vigorously challenged by Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of the national Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK,2 who continues to oppose Ryan’s approach to poverty and his interpretation of Catholic social justice teachings. READ MORE...

It’s not only Christian Reconstructionists and conservative evangelicals working to give right-wing economic policies a religious grounding. Catholic writer Michael Novak, formerly ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” back in 1982. Thirty years later, Rep. Paul Ryan defended the massive social spending cuts in his proposed budget in 2012 as a reflection of Catholic principles—a claim vigorously challenged by Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of the national Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK, who continues to oppose Ryan’s approach to poverty and his interpretation of Catholic social justice teachings. Click here to read more…

DeMint now heads The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing marketing behemoth that is among the institutions that seek to merge the philosophies and organizing energies of the Christian Right and the economic right-wing. One manifestation of that work is “Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty,” a publication and project devoted to convincing conservative activists that free-market conservatism and traditional values conservatism go hand in hand, as Justice Lewis Powell urged more than 40 years ago. Among the highlights are anti-gay activist Bishop Harry Jackson, writing that the minimum wage is a form of coercion that “reminds me of slavery,” and WORLD magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky, arguing, “Those who esteem the Bible should also applaud St. Milton Friedman and other Church of Chicago prelates, because their insights amplify what the Bible suggests about economics.”61

A Powerful Combination

Advocates for social and economic justice who watch with dismay as right-to-work laws take effect in formerly strong labor states,62 as Republicans propose savage cuts to social spending,63 and as inequality skyrockets in the wake of tax giveaways to the wealthy—what David Barton might call biblically-mandated rewards for profit-makers—are up against a brutally powerful coalition.

For more than half a century, groups of pro-business, anti-regulation, anti-social spending conservatives have built an infrastructure designed to gain and hold political power and have enlisted religious leaders as spokespeople for laissez-faire economic policies. Their efforts have been buttressed by the parallel rise and spread of dominionist theology, grounded in Christian Reconstructionist ideology that unrestricted free-market capitalism is mandated by the Bible and that God grants no role for the government in education or care for the poor. This ideology provided fertile ground for the anti-government zealotry of the Tea Party and the belief that a radically limited role for the federal government is not only a constitutional mandate but also a biblical one. Any long-term strategy for rebuilding progressive political power and reclaiming the legacy of the New Deal must grapple with the realities and motivating power of these intertwined economic, ideological and religious ideologies.

peter montgomery squaredPeter Montgomery is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and editor. He is a senior fellow at People For the American Way and contributes to its Right Wing Watch blog, and is an associate editor for online magazine Religion Dispatches.
 

End Notes

1 (2015). “The Iowa Capital Project.” The Family Leader. Online at http://www.thefamilyleader.com/the-iowa-capitol-project/.

2 Ibid.

3 “Barton’s Bunk: Religious Right ‘Historian’ Hits the Big Time in Tea Party America.” People for the American Way. Online at http://www.pfaw.org/rww-in-focus/barton-s-bunk-religious-right-historian-hits-the-big-time-tea-party-america.

4 Peter Montgomery (2012). “Election 2014: 6 Right-Wing Zealots and the Crazy Ideas Behind the Most Outrageous Republican Platform Ever.” Alternet. Online at http://www.alternet.org/election-2012/6-right-wing-zealots-and-crazy-ideas-behind-most-outrageous-republican-platform-ever.

5 David Barton (2012). The Founders’ Bible. Edited by Brad Cummings and Lance Wubbels. Newbury Park: Shiloh Road Publishing.

6 Julie Ingersoll (2015). Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism (forthcoming). Oxford University Press. Online at https://global.oup.com/academic/product/building-gods-kingdom-9780199913787.

7 Gary North and Gary DeMar (1991). Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t. Institute for Christian Economics. Online at http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/christian_reconstruction.pdf.

8 Adele M. Stan (2011). “5 Reasons Progressives Should Treat Ron Paul with Extreme Caution— ‘Cuddly’ Libertarian Has Some Very Dark Politics.” AlterNet. Online at http://www.alternet.org/story/152192/5_reasons_progressives_should_treat_ron_paul_with_extreme_caution_–_%27cuddly%27_libertarian_has_some_very_dark_politics?page=entire.

9 Sarah Posner (2013). “The Christian Fundamentalism Behind Ron Paul’s Home-school Curriculum.” The Guardian. Online at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/12/christian-fundamentalism-ron-paul-homeschooling.

10 Jay Grimstead (1986). “A Manifesto for the Christian Church.” The Coalition on Revival Online at http://www.reformation.net/COR_Docs/Christian_Manifesto Worldview.pdf.

11 Frederick Clarkson (1994). “Christian Reconstructionism: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence.” The Public Eye. Online at http://www.politicalresearch.org/1994/03/19/christian-reconstructionism-part-1-theocratic-dominionism-gains-influence/.

12 Julie Ingersoll in discussion with Peter Montgomery, February 25, 2015.

13 Steven Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel (2009). Evangelicals and Democracy in America; Volume II Religions and Politics. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Online at https://books.google.com/books?id=3flSfjLfYNEC&pg=PA195&dq=the+child+has+no+right+to+govern+his+parents,+the+student+their
+school&hl=en&sa=X&ei=CzYxVamwJ5OSyQTXjoGQDw&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
.

14 Peter Montgomery (2011). “Jesus Hates Taxes: Biblical Capitalism Created Fertile Anti-Union Soil.” Religion Dispatches. Online at http://religiondispatches.org/jesus-hates-taxes-biblical-capitalism-created-fertile-anti-union-soil/.

15 Vicki Nohrden (2012). “California Fastforward Prayer Guide.” The Reformation Prayer Network. Online at https://web.archive.org/web/20120417223106/http:/www.usrpn.org/prayer_guides/single
/california_fast_forward_prayer_guide
.

16 Russell Berman (2015). “Scott Walker, Anti-Union Man.” The Atlantic. Online at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/scott-walker-anti-union-man/387283/.

17 Gary North (2015). “Public Sector Unions in Wisconsin Are Dying.” The Tea Party Economist. Online at http://teapartyeconomist.com/2015/02/23/public-sector-unions-in-wisconsin-are-dying/.

18 Jeff Sharlet (2009). “This Is Not A Religion Column: Biblical Capitalism.” Religion Dispatches. Online at http://religiondispatches.org/ithis-is-not-a-religion-columni-biblical-capitalism/.

19 Kevin Kruse (2015). “A Christian Nation? Since When?” The New York Times. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/opinion/sunday/a-christian-nation-since-when.html?_r=0.

20 Lewis F. Powell Jr. (1971). “Confidential Memorandum: Attack of America Free Enterprise System.” Reclaim Democracy! Online at http://reclaimdemocracy.org/powell_memo_lewis/.

21 Richard J Meagher (2009). “Political Strategy and the Building of the GOP Coalition.” The Public Eye. Online at http://www.politicalresearch.org/2009/06/10/remembering-the-new-right-political-strategy-and-the-building-of-the-gop-coalition/.

22 Robert Scheer (1981). “The Armageddon Profit: Falwell with Reagan, and preaching at a Moral Majority meeting.” The Age. Online at http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1300&dat=19810318&id=0PFUAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ZZIDAAAAIBAJ&pg=2299,750980.

23 Russ Walton (1993). One Nation Under God. The Plymouth Rock Foundation. Online at http://books.google.com/books/about/One_nation_under_God.html?id=lnYFDLpYzt8C.

24 Paul Weyrich (1979). “Building the Moral Majority.” Conservative Digest. pp 18-19.

25 Peter Montgomery (2011). “Jesus Hates Taxes: Biblical Capitalism Created Fertile Anti-Union Soil.” Religion Dispatches. Online at http://religiondispatches.org/jesus-hates-taxes-biblical-capitalism-created-fertile-anti-union-soil/.

26 Matea Gold (2014). “Koch-backed political network, built to shield donors, raised $400 million in 2012 elections.” The Washington Post. Online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/koch-backed-political-network-built-to-shield-donors-raised-400-million-in-2012-elections/2014/01/05/9e7cfd9a-719b-11e3-9389-09ef9944065e_story.html.

27 Paul Blumenthal (2014). “Koch Brothers Fund Group That Contradicts Their Ideology in 2014 Election Push. The Huffington Post. Online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/23/koch-brothers-gay-marriage_n_6035958.html.

28 Kenneth P. Vogel (2015). “The Kochs put a price on 2016: $889 million.” Politico. Online at http://www.politico.com/story/2015/01/koch-2016-spending-goal-114604.html.

29 “The Libre Initiative: The Koch Brothers’ focus on Latino Voters.” People For the American Way. Online at http://www.pfaw.org/rww-in-focus/libre-initiative-koch-brothers-new-focus-winning-latino-voters.

30 The LIBRE Initiative. Twitter Post. February 28, 2015. 12:41p.m. Online at https://twitter.com/libreinitiative/status/571772077134364672.

31 (2015). “Press Release: “Right to Work” Laws Associated with Stronger Growth.” The LIBRE Initiative. Online at http://thelibreinitiative.com/press/right-work-laws-associated-stronger-growth.

32 Ed Morales (2014). “The Koch Brothers’ Latino Front.” The Progressive. Online at http://www.progressive.org/news/2014/10/187891/koch-brothers%E2%80%99-latino-front.

33 Alice Ollstein (2014). “Inside the Koch Brothers’ Multi-Million Dollar Campaign To Win Over Latinos.” ThinkProgress. Online at http://thinkprogress.org/election/2014/09/30/3573291/koch-libre-latinos/.

34 John Mendez, interviewed by Brad Dacus. Pacific Justice Institute. May 22, 2014. Online at http://www.pacificjustice.org/religious-freedom-minute.

35 (2013). “John Mendez of Libre Initiative speaks to MyLiberty.” MyLiberty. Online at http://mylibertysanmateo.blogspot.com/2013/01/john-mendez-of-libre-initiative-speaks_18.html.

36 John Mendez interviewed by Christian Post. (2014). “John Mendez on the Christian Post.” Youtube. Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4MqjZCuj5c.

37 (2014). “Join us tomorrow in Denver…” Family Research Council. Online at http://www.frc.org/watchmenonthewall/join-us-tomorrow-in-denver.

38 (2013). “The LIBRE Initiative Invites you to the Pre event Prayer meeting.” Facebook Event. Online at https://www.facebook.com/events/164354173747558/.

39 Kyle Mantyla (2009). “When The Going Gets Tough, The Rights Starts A New Group.” People For the American Way. Online at http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/when-going-gets-tough-right-starts-new-group.

40 Peter Montgomery (2011). “Tea Party Jesus: Koch’s Americans for Prosperity Sidles Up to Religious Right for 2012 Campaign.” AlterNet. Online at http://www.alternet.org/story/150622/tea_party_jesus%3A_koch%27s_americans_for_prosperity_
sidles_up_to_religious_right_for_2012_campaign
.

41 Gary North and Gary DeMar (1991). Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t. Institute for Christian Economics. Online at http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/christian_reconstruction.pdf.

42 Michael Peroutka (2013). “Is Our Government Really “Broken”?” The American View. Online at http://www.theamericanview.com/is-our-government-really-broken/.

43 Frederick Clarkson (2015). “Roy Moore & Ron Paul: The Politics of Secession, Nullification, and Marriage Equality.” Political Research Associates. Online at http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/02/22/roy-moore-ron-paul-the-politics-of-secession-nullification-and-marriage-equality/.

44 Nathalie Baptiste (2014). “GOP’s Neo-Confederate Theocrat Wins Council Seat in One of Richest U.S. Counties.” The American Prospect. Online at http://prospect.org/article/gops-neo-confederate-theocrat-wins-council-seat-one-richest-us-counties.

45 Frederick Clarkson (2014). “Party-Switching Theocrat Wins Primary, Claims Maryland Legislature is Invalid and Talks Revolution. “ Political Research Associates. Online at http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/06/27/party-switching-theocrat-wins-primary-claims-maryland-legislature-is-invalid-talks-about-revolution/.

46 John Lofton (2012). “God Gives Government NO Authority To Help The Needy…NONE.” The Christian Post. Online at http://blogs.christianpost.com/recovering-republican/god-sanctions-no-health-education-welfare-for-anybody-9538/.

47 David Barton interviewed by Matt and Laurie Crouch, Praise the Lord. July 10, 2014. Online at http://itbn.org/index/detail/lib/Networks/sublib/TBN/ec/RrcG51bjoRcfQnwzbKDLsESPOp09mvGC.

48 Sheryl Gay Stolberg (2013). “On the Edge of Poverty, at the Center of a Debate on Food Stamps.” The New York Times. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/05/us/as-debate-reopens-food-stamp-recipients-continue-to-squeeze.html?_r=0.

49 Andrew Kaczynski (2013). “These Republicans Who Votes To Cut Food Stamps Personally Received Large Farm Subsidies.” BuzzFeed News. Online at http://buzzfeed.com/andrewkaczynski/these-republicans-who-voted-to-cut-food-stamps-personally-re.

50 Kyle Mantyla (2008). “Star Parker Brings the Crazy.” Right Wing Watch. Online at http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/star-parker-brings-crazy.

51 Star Parker (2011). “Why Do Blacks Still Let Obama Off the Hook?” Townhall.com. Online at http://townhall.com/columnists/starparker/2011/07/18/why_do_blacks_still_let_obama_off_the_hook/page/full.

52 Frederick Clarkson (2015). “Will Our Prisons Overflow with Christians?” Political Research Associates. Online at http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/03/01/will-our-prisons-overflow-with-christians/.

53 Barbara Bradley Hagerty (2012). “Christian Debate: Was Jesus for Small Government.” National Public Radio. Online at http://www.npr.org/2012/04/16/150568478/christian-conservatives-poverty-not-government-business.

54 Sarah Posner (2012). “That Not-So-Mystifying Rick Warren.” Religion Dispatches. http://religiondispatches.org/that-not-so-mystifying-rick-warren/.

55 Julie J Ingersoll (2015). Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism (forthcoming). Oxford University Press. Online at https://global.oup.com/academic/product/building-gods-kingdom-9780199913787.

56 Gary North (1987). Liberating Planet Earth. Dominion Press. Online at http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/liberating_planet_earth.pdf.

57 Joseph Farah (2015). “John Kasich Defends Obamacare- With Bible!” WND. Online at http://www.wnd.com/2015/02/john-kasich-defends-obamacare-with-bible/.

58 Gary DeMar (2015). “Republican Governor John Kasich Says Bible Supports Obamacare.” Godfather Politics. Online at http://godfatherpolitics.com/20141/republican-governor-john-kasich-says-bible-supports-obamacare/.

59 Anjeanette Damon (2010). “Sharron Angle’s views rooted in biblical law.” Las Vegas Sun. Online at http://lasvegassun.com/news/2010/aug/06/angles-view-rooted-biblical-law/.

60 Jim DeMint interviewed by David Brody, The Christian Broadcasting Network. April 21, 2010. Online at http://blogs.cbn.com/thebrodyfile/archive/2010/04/21/senator-demint-to-brody-file-tea-party-movement-will-bring.aspx.

61 “Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty.” The Heritage Foundation. Online at http://thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com/2013/pdf/Indivisible_Revised.pdf.

62 Mariya Strauss (2015). “The Religious Right Has Been Pushing Anti-Union Right to Work Laws For A Century.” Political Research Associates. Online at http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/03/17/the-religious-right-has-been-pushing-anti-union-right-to-work-laws-for-a-century/.

63 Paul Krugman (2015). “Trillion Dollar Fraudsters.” The New York Times. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/20/opinion/paul-krugman-trillion-dollar-fraudsters.html.

 

Chain Restaurants Post Record Profits While Lobbying to Pay Workers Less

Restaurants have shifted labor costs onto the backs of tipped workers and their customers—and some big chain restaurants are lobbying state lawmakers to keep it that way.

Tipped workers are hurting in America. In the restaurant industry, where the majority of the nation’s six million tipped employees work, over 20 percent of those workers live in poverty. According to an analysis by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, of the tipped restaurant workers who are parents, 40 percent say they must rely on free public school lunches to feed their kids. This, and other types of public assistance tipped workers rely on, costs taxpayers $9.4 billion per year according to a report released today from ROC United.

Yet merely raising the minimum wage won’t help many of these workers. In the states where it is legal, their employers only pay them a sub-minimum hourly wage of $2.13 per hour. Their customers, through tips, pay the remainder of their salary. Restaurants have shifted nearly the entire cost of servers’ labor onto the backs of the workers and their customers—and the National Restaurant Association (NRA) is lobbying in some statehouses to keep it that way.

Employees at Darden-owned Red Lobster. Image via glassdoor

Employees at Red Lobster. Image via glassdoor

Large chain restaurant owners and their hired lobbyists have recently swarmed state legislatures such as Minnesota and Rhode Island. Why? They want to prevent any new laws that would require restaurants to pay their tipped workers a base hourly wage greater than the sub-minimum wage currently allowable.

The NRA (led by former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, past presidential hopeful, and Religious Right darling Herman Cain) negotiated the sub-minimum wage with Congress on behalf of the restaurant industry in the mid-1990s, and it has been stuck at $2.13 ever since. A handful of states, including Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Minnesota, California, Oregon, and Washington, have passed laws to bring the tipped wage up to match the minimum wage paid to other workers. Other states have raised the tipped minimum wage by tiny amounts—in Arkansas, for example, it’s $2.63. But now the NRA and its lobbyists are trying various legislative maneuvers to stop more states from doing the same.

Employers are required to pay the difference—but many don’t

Technically, if a worker didn’t make enough in tips to equal the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, their employer is required under the Fair Labor Standards Act to pay the employee the difference. But evidence suggests this almost never happens.

ROC United published a report last year showing an 84 percent noncompliance rate among 9000 cases investigated by the Wage and Hour Division of the US Department of Labor. Again, 84 percent of the restaurants investigated did not pay what they were required to pay, so many of those workers likely made less than minimum wage.

What is more, anyone who has spent years waiting tables in diners and family-style restaurants, as I have, can corroborate that it is rare for an employer to pay them the difference–called the tip credit– if they failed to get enough tips to equal $7.25 per hour. Server Tiffany Kirk recently told CNN Money that she can barely make ends meet on her income–and she’s one of the lucky ones whose employer does pay the tip credit. “Kirk said she is fortunate that the owner of “Howl at the Moon” follows the law and pays her at least the Texas minimum wage of $7.25 if her tips don’t add up. Many businesses don’t.”

Ondre Anderson, a server at a “casual fine dining” establishment in New York City, spoke to the New York Times about this in February. “When you’re working for $5 an hour, that’s basically just food money for the month,” said Mr. Anderson, 33, who added that he hoped to earn enough to move from a homeless shelter in Queens into an apartment. “We never know where our tips are coming from. Some people tip and some people don’t.”

Business owners and lawyers defend the current system of tipped wages with either fairy tales about highly-paid servers, or with straight denial. NRA spokesman Scott DeFife recently told NPR that “Tipped employees at restaurants are among the highest-paid employees in the establishment, regularly earning $16 to $22 an hour…Nobody is making $2.13 an hour.” Other defenders of big business, such as employer-side labor law blogger John E. Thompson, maintain that “there is no such thing” as a tipped wage, because employers must make up the difference between the minimum wage and the $2.13 subminimum. As we’ve seen, in practice this rarely occurs.

Restaurants can afford to compensate workers fairly

Tipped employees such as servers do earn vast, ever-increasing profits, but those profits go almost exclusively to the restaurant owners—with little to none of the increase benefitting the workers and their families. The industry projects that it will make a record-high $709 billion in sales in 2015. This number has steadily increased for six years running. One can reasonably conclude that the restaurant industry overall has recovered from the 2008 recession.

The biggest of these employers, chain restaurant owners such as Darden (which owns Olive Garden and several other brands) and Disney, take the money their tipped (and other) workers have made for them and use it to lobby against better wages for those same workers. They donate to the political campaigns of lawmakers who will vote against a fair wage and other worker-friendly policies such as paid sick days. They pay into the National Restaurant Association’s coffers, and the NRA then pays millions to lobby Congress and in the states to do various things to block the rights of restaurant workers. For example, one NRA-funded GOP lawmaker proposed a bill a few weeks back in Minnesota, that would re-set the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to $8 per hour and—but would cap it there. What sort of position is that to take on behalf of a wildly profitable industry?

The industry is flush with the cash its employees earn. Restaurant owners can certainly afford to pay a living wage. One might ask why they are using the money their workers have made for them to lobby so hard—and so publicly—against them.

Meet SHRM – the HR Association Lobbying & Suing to Roll Back Worker Rights

“If it happens that you don’t agree with one of SHRM’s positions, we ask that if you disagree you please refrain from that discussion.” –Kathleen Coulombe, SHRM Senior Associate for Government Relations, speaking to dues-paying SHRM members at its recent legal and legislative conference on how to lobby members of Congress


Human Resources doesn’t usually conjure up images of adversarial political activism. Yet contrary to its politically neutral image, the innocuously-named Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM, pronounced “sherm”) campaigns for public policies and mounts legal efforts to block workers’ rights. The group, which claims to have grown from 130,000 members in 2000 to now having 275,000 members globally, purports to represent individual human resources professionals across all industries. And indeed, it produces HR resources such as tip sheets and reports on how to comply with the law, workshops and trainings to earn professional certification, a trade magazine, and statistical analyses about the HR industry and the job market.

But lobbying to change the regulatory climate for business is one of its major unspoken goals.

Back in 2000, union-busting lawyer and then chair of SHRM Michael Lotito (from whom we will hear again later), said “If we had a market penetration—let’s say SHRM had 500,000 members, and 250,000 of them were in grassroots networks—we would be heard not because we shouted, but because we threatened to whisper.”  SHRM has quietly and steadily grown its lobbying operation to include a half-dozen staffers, a nationwide member lobbying network, a major legal and legislative conference, and even a satellite office in Sacramento, whose sole purpose appears to be lobbying at the California statehouse.

Though its stated mission is to “serve the needs of HR professionals and advance the professional practice of human resource management,” SHRM’s legislative agenda is instead aligned with that of big corporations such as McDonalds, and major GOP donors such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Openly working in concert with dark-money business lobbying groups such as the International Franchise Association, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business, SHRM has been speaking out in the press, filing lawsuits, and pushing state and national bills. These efforts are aimed at blocking the rights of workers to do everything from forming unions, to having guaranteed paid sick days, to getting health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Undercover at SHRM’s legislative conference

So how does SHRM speak to its own members about the need to block workers’ rights? I went undercover for Political Research Associates to SHRM’s annual gathering, the Legal and Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. March 22-24 to find out. More than 650 people attended the conference from all 50 states and D.C., each having paid between $1200 and $1500 for the ticket.

“We’re not going to see successful efforts to mandate paid leave at the federal level,” Mike Aitken, SHRM’s Vice President for Government Affairs, told the assembled members at the conference.  Aitken briefly outlined a sophisticated, multi-state strategy for fighting paid leave and higher wages, and not only defunding the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) – but suing in court to block its decisions. Aitken also alluded to SHRM’s use of member focus groups and questionnaires to form its policy positions. Though we were unable to locate any focus group or questionnaire results regarding policy positions, SHRM did this past week publish the results of a survey of its state legislative directors with questions about how engaged they are with SHRM. However, no actual SHRM members we spoke with said they have ever been contacted for their input on actual policy—and Aitken acknowledged that  “our Board is what shapes our policy positions.”1

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

Other presenters at the conference included employer-side labor lawyers and HR consultants, each delivering a message of “we’re not an anti-union organization, but…” with confidence and uniform consistency. Unlike organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce and the International Franchise Association(IFA) who co-sign and help to push SHRM’s anti-workers’ rights positions (who explicitly exist only to represent business interests), SHRM brings a grassroots base of HR professionals—people who are used to being peacemakers and finding compromises. In their regular professional practice, they are charged with complying with the law, rather than changing it to restrict the rights of employees. But SHRM tells members that it is also their job to pressure members of Congress and federal agencies to change the regulatory regime in favor of the largest employers.

The Chicken Little approach to “grassroots” anti-worker lobbying

How is SHRM selling its members the case for blocking employees’ rights, such as the right to earn paid sick leave and the right to choose a union? By telling them the sky is falling.

Lotito is now a shareholder in the employer-side labor law firm Littler Mendelson.  He gave a session at the conference entitled “The NLRB: New Relevance and New Challenges.”  During the session, his voice rising from a conspiratorial whisper to a roar of outrage, sermonizing on how a recent decision from the NLRB’s general counsel to treat McDonald’s franchisees as jointly liable with the headquarters could damage other businesses. He suggested that the joint-liability decision threatens the business-to-business relationships many companies have with their cleaning services, gardeners, and so forth, suggesting that any company could be viewed as somehow liable for the treatment of its subcontractors’ employees.

But the NLRB general counsel’s decision on joint liability narrowly applies only to cases brought by McDonald’s employees against the hamburger chain. As Steven Greenhouse recently reported in The New York Times, “’The Golden Arches is an employer, plain and simple,’ said Micah Wissinger, a lawyer who filed complaints on behalf of several McDonald’s employees in New York. ‘The reality is that McDonald’s requires franchisees to adhere to such regimented rules and regulations that there’s no doubt who’s really in charge.’”

Lotito, who co-chairs his law firm’s “Workplace Policy” subdivision, also criticized the NLRB’s recent decision to significantly shorten the 25-day window of time between when a union files for an election and when the election takes place. The new rule, which SHRM (echoing a US Chamber of Commerce talking point) dubs the “Ambush elections rule” in its printed policy statements and Powerpoint slides throughout the conference, goes into effect April 14.

Lotito’s old firm, Jackson Lewis, has made a lot of money advising employers on how to run an anti-union campaign during the existing 25 day window. As journalist David Bacon wrote in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2008:

“Campaign tactics include: In the weeks before these tainted elections, 51 percent of employers threaten to close if the union wins; and 91 percent force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with supervisors. This conduct is effectively unpunishable, making a mockery of free elections. Signing cards is a safer, calmer process that workers control themselves, and workers keep the option of using either the cards or the election – their choice, not their employer’s.”

SHRM is one of a handful of business lobby groups that is suing in federal court to block the rule’s implementation.2

Lotito explained that his firm also provided members of Congress with questions to use in a House Appropriations committee hearing the following day, March 24, on the NLRB’s budget. (You can watch that hearing here. Though we don’t know specifically which questions were provided by Littler, SHRM VP Mike Aitken told those at the conference that SHRM may attempt to fight the NLRB by adding a “rider to defund them through the appropriations process.” )

Having framed SHRM’s participation in the assault on workers’ rights as a matter of defending employers from onerous government regulations, Lotito was ready to unveil the Goliath that he says HR professionals should fear: unions. (He conveniently omitted the fact that unions now only represent just over 6% of the private sector workforce.) Again referring to the McDonald’s joint employer finding, Lotito explicitly named the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as the enemy:

“What I think is going to happen, what I would do if I were the SEIU, is on April 14th I would file 100 petitions in 20 different states against a whole bunch of franchisees alleging that there is a joint employment relationship between those franchisees and McDonald’s. I will win at least 50 percent of those elections and then I will demand… all kinds of information from McDonald’s Corp with respect to the underlying economics because they are the ones who are really controlling the purse strings with respect to the franchisee, so in order to have meaningful collective bargaining in theory I gotta have the franchisor with me, and I would use that as additional attack points. Or if I was really really really really tricky, on April 11th or 12th I’d go to McDonalds and say that on April 14th I’m going to file for elections, and as a result of that I’m going to bring your organization to a standstill. I’ve got an out for you though. I can be your best friend. I can tell everybody how great you are. All you have to do is agree to neutrality and card check…This is all about increasing union market share.”

Despite its studiously politically neutral and “we’re not anti-union” claims, SHRM has entered the public policy ring unmistakably on the side of big business and against workers’ rights. Whether its members accept its characterization of who the enemy is—and how many of them will unquestioningly sally forth to help block workers’ rights in the ongoing state and federal policy battles—remains to be seen.

End Notes

[1] SHRM’s website explains its process for determining policy positions thusly: “SHRM’s Government Affairs team partners with our Research Department to develop survey questions to take the pulse of the membership on what it feels about the issue.  Our Research Department may utilize the full SHRM Survey Report or a shorter Question of the Week format to obtain input from our members. In addition, Government Affairs staff gathers information by convening a series of public policy focus groups at the various SHRM national conferences, regional conferences and chapter meetings.

Once this input is gathered, staff develops a proposed public policy statement that is then subject to review by several SHRM Special Expertise panels who have jurisdiction over the subject area for their comment and review. The proposed public policy statement is then presented to the Board of Directors for its review and approval.” http://www.shrm.org/advocacy/publicpolicystatusreports/federal/pages/default.aspx#sthash.rXJAGapV.dpuf

[2] As economist Ross Eisenbrey noted in the Economic Policy Institute’s blog earlier this month, “The NLRB’s rule does away with an automatic 25-day delay between when employees file an election petition and the election occurs. The National Labor Relations Act does not mandate any such delay, but the anti-union lawyers treated it as a God-given right and claimed its elimination was ‘blowing up the election process’ and a denial of employer free speech rights. You’d think they were kidding, but they at least pretended to be serious.” In actual practice, the old rule has given employers enough time to harass, intimidate, and illegally fire workers involved in a unionization campaign, effectively lowering the number of union elections in US workplaces to 1453 in FY 2014– approximately two one-hundredths of a percent of all US workplaces.

My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism

In honor of PRA’s late founder Jean Hardisty, please enjoy this article originally published by the Women’s Theological Center (now known as Women Transforming Communities) in March 1996, as part of The Brown Paper series. Republished with permission.

Jean hardisty SLIDE

PRA founder Jean Hardisty

As I sit at my desk working my way through a stack of requests for donations and entreaties to renew my membership in various organizations, I am torn about when to write a check and when to save my money. At the moment, the pressing question for me is whether to support the larger, liberal organizations that do what I think of as “mainstream” liberal work—organizations such as The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, The National Organization for Women, and People for the American Way.

For years I have written these checks, almost as an act of dutiful citizenship. After all, I am glad the organizations are there. I want them to continue to exist. That means I have to do my part to keep them alive. But this seems a rather lazy way to make a decision.

I feel I should decide what I really think about liberalism and its prospects in the 1990s. It is clear that in 1996 liberalism is in eclipse—or at least adrift and demoralized. Meanwhile, the Right is in its glory. It dominates the political arena, with an apparent lock on the new ideas, the money, the organization, and the attention that used to belong to liberalism.

Liberalism is nearly an orphan. It has a bad name in many circles. For the Left, it represents a compromised reformism. For the Right, it is socialism in disguise. For the center, it is a label associated with fuzzy thinking and do-gooder incompetence.

Liberals are divided and seem to have lost confidence in their own ideology. The vicious attacks mounted by the Right have scored points with the public by caricaturing liberal programs, their adherents, and their recipients. After fifteen years of such attacks there is now a proven formula: seize on an example of abuse of a liberal program, market an image of the program’s undeserving recipient (preferably a poor person of color) to the taxpaying public, then sit back and wait for the impact. The “welfare queen,” the Black rapist on furlough, the unqualified affirmative action hire—all have assumed powerful symbolic significance.

In the face of these attacks, liberals themselves seem to know on some level that their programs have not worked as planned. Even in defending them, they are forced to appeal to the spirit in which the programs were based, or the benefits they have delivered to their most deserving beneficiaries. Liberals seem unable to mount a vigorous defense of these programs—on their own terms, across the board, without regard to the worthiness of the recipients. By mounting a weak defense, liberals tacitly concede to their Republican attackers that the programs are at least flawed, perhaps even indefensible.

The Swinging Door

I have seen liberalism’s programs and ideology up close for over thirty years. At fifty, I have reached some clarity about liberalism, especially since I have the advantage of a Left perspective—a set of glasses, if you will, that helps to bring the shortcomings of both liberalism and conservatism into focus. Further, I learned my politics during the Vietnam War, a war waged by liberals as well as conservatives.

I know that domestic social programs are intended as amelioration, not real change. I know that the same men who voted for public housing programs voted for aid to the Guatemalan military. I understand liberalism’s self-serving tendency to preserve the status quo, why big business often has found it a useful ally, why its redistributive measures never really disturb the sleep of the rich. I understand why it tolerates police brutality, a rogue FBI, why NAFTA, why GATT. I know all that.

Yet as the Right picks off liberal programs one by one, I mourn each one as if it were the product of a golden age of liberty, equality, and fraternity. My understanding of liberalism’s shortcomings and its history of opportunism is gone. Liberal programs are bathed with a glow of benevolence, set off by a stark contrast with the anti-social and avaricious agenda of the Right.

Take public housing as an example. As it is defunded by the Right and its real estate sold off, I am torn by two conflicting images. In the back of my mind are the towers of Cabrini Green, a massive, notoriously rundown, and dangerous housing project in Chicago. Here the ultimate effect of a liberal program is to segregate poor Black people in a high-rise ghetto. In fact, the numerous high-rise federal housing projects in Chicago form a “wall” that cordons off poor people from the rest of the city. It is difficult to see the result of this liberal housing effort on behalf of low-income families without assuming a malicious intent behind the program.

But in the front of my mind are other images: a broken-down, substandard house in rural Mississippi transformed into a prefab house with indoor water, electricity, and walls that are tight against the weather. Or a range of housing such as scattered rent-subsidized low-income units, low-rise complexes, and rent-controlled apartments that allow people to live in decent conditions even though they have very little money. It is these images that draw me. Perhaps it is sentimental, but I am compelled by the notion of a society that will not tolerate extreme poverty and that responds with redistributive programs—even though the programs are often flawed and sometimes cynical.

This softness toward liberalism is not easy to admit. It can be especially embarrassing to defend liberalism when I am speaking to progressives. It feels like admitting a weakness in my political commitment to Left, progressive values, the values that demand fundamental systemic change and redistribution of power. But this soft-on-liberalism instinct is grounded in my progressive politics. I see the two in relation to each other. I understand the role that liberalism plays in facilitating the work that progressives do. The Left needs liberals to create the breathing room necessary for us to do our work. Liberals, in turn, are given direction and held to some minimal standard of honesty by the Left.

As a progressive feminist, I want to live in a country that understands that some people cannot manage and that is willing to take responsibility for them. I want a government I can believe in; one that is willing to defy the often malicious intent of local power structures and defend the rights of all its citizens with determination. And I am convinced that only the federal government can deliver that protection. That often means that liberal social programs, administered by the federal government, are the only workable answer to social needs. This doesn’t mean I will get the government I want, but it does mean I cannot afford to throw away the idea of government as an important arbiter of justice.

The Right’s current promotion of states’ rights, which argues that power should be decentralized because only state governments provide for the real needs of local folks, ignores the history of states’ rights as a defense of brutal racial segregation and reactionary social policies. Transferring programs like public housing to the states is a sly method of defunding them. Progressives must be careful, when raising pointed criticisms and mounting protests regarding government programs, that we do not let our anti-government rhetoric feed the anti-government campaign of the Right.

I admit that when looking at liberal programs, I have a tendency to accept liberalism’s most appealing face as reality. I am drawn, for instance, by the 1960s social plan called The War on Poverty. I find a certain poetry, idealism, solidarity, and respect in the words themselves. Even when they turn out to be just words (that stand in ironic contrast to the Vietnam War, which was waged simultaneously) they nevertheless represent a glimpse of ideas and programs propelled by humanity and mutual concern. Perhaps two stories from my own experience will help to explain both my attraction to liberalism as we know it and my ambivalence about it.

In Chicago’s 1982 mayoral race, Harold Washington, a progressive African-American Congressman from the South Side, ran against the machine candidate, Jane Byrne, in the Democratic primary. Washington won. The white machine was stunned, and scrambled to find a candidate to run against Washington in the general election. Since Washington would be the Democratic Party candidate, they would have to find a Republican, but they were hard-pressed to locate one, since Chicago is a one-party town. They did find a rather pathetic man named Bernie Epton, who visibly struggled with emotional instability and barely made it through Election Day. Despite the stark difference in the two candidates’ qualifications, most white voters in Chicago voted for Epton. They preferred the unstable white man with no political experience to the charismatic, experienced, progressive, anti-machine African American. Again, however, Washington won.

Harold Washington (left) and Bernie Epton (right)

Harold Washington (left) and Bernie Epton (right)

There were several reasons for his victory. First, Chicago at that time had a minority population of 45%—a voting block large enough to create a plurality of votes. Second, Washington put together a rare coalition that drew over 90 percent of the African-American vote and most of the Latino vote. And finally, “lakefront liberals”—primarily white, often professional, definitely higher-income residents who lived close to the Lake Michigan waterfront—delivered the balance needed to put him narrowly over the top. Among white voters, only the lakefront liberals defied their race allegiance and voted for the Black man.

For me, the Washington election captured a clear irony about life in Chicago. I was proud that Chicago was no ordinary racist northern industrial city. Chicago is organized. It is perhaps the most organized city in the country—the birthplace of the community organizing style of Saul Alinsky. All of Chicago’s neighborhoods—especially the White neighborhoods—are organized with the goal of empowering working people, and much of this organizing has been done by liberals.

Yet when those organized citizens were called on to vote for a more progressive future, they were not able to make the connections. The community organizing so conscientiously mounted by liberals did not touch the racism of Chicago’s White voters. Unable to address the basic social problems, especially racism, liberalism came up short in an actual test of its effectiveness in creating change.

But liberalism was not a complete failure in Chicago. The lakefront liberals did the right thing. Faint-hearted, arrogant, complicit, and often self-serving, they nevertheless served as the swinging door against which social change could push. Without them, there was no space, no breathing room, no recourse.

Perhaps the lakefront liberals stood to gain under a Washington Administration that would create more space for their business interests than the locked-down machine offered. Perhaps the communities of color that voted so overwhelmingly for Washington were mostly voting against Chicago’s White political machine. But the reality remains. It was the vote of White liberals that put the progressive Mayor Washington over the top.

Another story comes to mind. In the early 1980s the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of Leftist political groupings in El Salvador, mounted a credible attempt to overthrow the Salvadoran political establishment. The context for this effort was El Salvador’s history of economic exploitation by an oligarchy of landowners supported by a military trained and armed by the U.S., and a complicit Catholic church hierarchy. El Salvador’s social and economic system was injustice and oppression itself.

The FMLN was explicitly revolutionary. However, it had an arm that operated above ground, in the electoral arena. Always at risk from death squads, some brave people were willing to put themselves at risk by being affiliated publicly with this above-ground group, the Democratic Revolutionary Front, or FDR. The president of the FDR, the late Guillermo Ungo, was well-known in the United States.

In the early 1980s, I was part of a delegation of U.S. foundation staff and donors, led by the director of The Philadelphia Foundation, that went to Central America to meet with humanitarian aid organizations, human rights organizations, and others centrally involved in the conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. J. Roderick MacArthur, the son of the billionaire donor of the MacArthur Foundation, John D. MacArthur, was part of the delegation. Roderick MacArthur had his own foundation, known as “little MacArthur,” that had been involved in funding organizations opposing government abuses and repression against progressives. Rod MacArthur’s politics were liberal, unusually so for a businessman.

MacArthur met Ungo on that trip and they bonded as prominent businessmen with political concerns. MacArthur was both compelled by Ungo’s story and convinced that there were opportunities for U.S. business in a post-revolutionary El Salvador. When he returned to the U.S., MacArthur arranged to have Ungo come north to tour several cities, meeting with U.S. businessmen. When Ungo reached the Chicago stop on the tour, MacArthur held a reception for him in his Chicago suburban home. It was an opportunity for Ungo to speak to prominent Chicago businessmen. As a courtesy, he invited everyone who had been on the Central America trip to attend.

The meeting was predictably awkward. Ungo was not a charismatic man. The businessmen weren’t sure what the point was, and MacArthur didn’t seem able to sway them to his view. Out of courtesy to MacArthur, the businessmen were politely attentive, but they were not at all open to the revolutionary message of the FMLN, and certainly not able to sign onto MacArthur’s vision of a reformed El Salvador exporting its fabulous beer in profitable quantity to the U.S. The meeting fell rather flat.

Well, I thought, this just illustrates that you can’t promote revolution as a business opportunity. Even to want to do so is so exquisitely liberal! The incident provided more support for my sense of liberalism as complicit and ineffective. Nevertheless, as a result of that meeting, those businessmen were undoubtedly less likely to support a U.S. invasion of El Salvador. They were certainly better informed about the reality of life there, and the unbelievable maldistribution of wealth and the extent of repression. They would no longer give knee-jerk support to U.S. policy toward Central America. Rod MacArthur had made a contribution. He had influenced a sector that is completely inaccessible to progressives. He had begun to create a swinging door against which solidarity work could push.

That Compelling, Illusive Coalition

In June 1982, there was an enormous march in New York City to protest the triumph of the Right Wing of the Republican Party with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s administration had succeeded in making major changes in the tax structure, lowering the tax rate of the wealthy as one of its first acts in office. The march was so vast that miles of central Manhattan’s streets were filled with people. There were huge puppets, many more than 15 feet high, that eloquently mocked the Republicans and made tongue-in-cheek pleas for decency. A gigantic inflatable whale, emblazoned with the slogan “Save the Humans,” swayed down the packed streets.

Hundreds of thousands protest in New York City on June 12, 1982

Hundreds of thousands protest in New York City on June 12, 1982

There is no accurate count of how many people participated. As usual, the estimate by city officials was absurdly low. Perhaps more important, we don’t have an official record of which sectors of the liberal coalition were represented. But emotionally, I know exactly who was there. Everybody.

Or more accurately, all the White middle class reform movements that dominated and controlled the liberal coalition. The feminists, the gay and lesbian rights movement, the environmentalists, the disability rights movement, the reproductive rights defenders, the liberal unions. The civil rights movement was represented, but in small numbers, reflecting its position within the coalition as just another partner. That march seemed to me the last public display of the united front known as the liberal coalition.

That coalition was the lion that roared. It was a voting block that could propel a liberal to the Supreme Court, stop a war, prevent an invasion, impose curbs on corporate rapacity, force integration, forbid the death penalty, ensure voting rights.

Today it is a fractured remnant of its days of power. The larger, mainstream organizations are bloated, bureaucratic, and riddles with compromise. In order to maintain their programs, they have bowed to donors and corporate sponsors and cleansed themselves of radical voices, excusing their own moderation by pointing to the need to keep themselves alive in a hostile political climate. This applies even to some civil rights organizations. The vigor is gone, the vision is muddled, and the membership is down.

The less-compromised, small organizations are fighting over funds, plagued by professional jealousies and rivalries, and jockeying for position in a context of political defeat and defunding. The leadership is tired and aging and is not being replaced with another generation of dedicated activists.

Perhaps the coalition was doomed from the start. After all, it was frankly reformist, which means that it could take change only so far before it ran into its own contradictions. Nowhere was this more true than on the issue of race. The White-dominated liberal coalition was not about to give up its dearly-held issues because they were not well-suited to the needs of African Americans. Reproductive rights are a perfect example. The demand of African American women for the reproductive rights movement to broaden its agenda to include the concerns of women of color (e.g. that women be assured of the right to have children, as well as not have children) were heard by only a handful of reproductive rights organizations.

But this is just one of the man reasons for the decline of the coalition. Larger events conspired to weaken it and diminish its vision. I don’t pretend to know the exact profile of these forces. Certainly the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations and individuals under late capitalism has both elevated the individualism so basic to capitalism and defeated the notion of the common good. The attack by the organized and well-funded Right has been successful in undermining the popularity of the liberal vision. And, in any case, it is harder to hold a coalition together when it is undergoing defeat after defeat. By contrast, the Right’s coalition is enjoying victory after victory, and thus finds that continued cooperation and collaboration is visibly rewarded.

With so few victories and so little satisfaction to be had, each member of the liberal coalition now hangs onto whatever pale reformist policies or benefits can be saved. The sectors of the coalition that cannot survive on these remnants, especially working class wage-earners, have been left to make the best of it. The gutting of The Labor Relations Board, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and The U.S. Civil Rights Commission are just three examples of liberal programs now unable to deliver anything resembling social justice. Is it any wonder that so many working people are seduced by the Right’s vilification of liberalism when liberalism has proved unable to defend them and hasn’t appeared to try very hard?

So, the liberal coalition is fractured, aging, compromised, and lacking in vigor or new ideas. It remains White-dominated and predominantly middle-class. Why, then, do I mourn its passing from the center stage of power? Didn’t it deserve to fade?

Something makes me say: “Yes, but…” A part of me clings to a vision of the liberal coalition as it could have been. Also, frankly, I miss the power. Progressives are used to working at the margins, pushing liberals to redress the heinous injustices created by capitalism, and, when liberals create reformist programs, pushing the envelope to open an opportunity for real change. But without a powerful and effective liberal coalition to pressure, there are very few places for progressive policies to exert influence.

It is true that liberalism plays its own role as an aid to reactionary politics, acting as a buffer for capitalism by protecting it from the wrath of the people it exploits. By providing a veneer of caring and accommodation to human needs as well as profits, liberal programs cloud people’s political consciousness. No doubt about that.

But liberalism also serves as a buffer against fascism. In the 1970s we had the luxury of holding liberalism in disdain because it was a sop that prevented revolutionary social change. In the 1990s, liberalism looks more like a line of defense against the final triumph of the Right.

Come Back, Jimmy

By the end of Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970s, Carter was an easy man to scorn. The populist liberalism of his Presidential campaign had been thoroughly compromised as he “got it” about the Soviet threat. His wobbling political leadership became increasingly neoconservative. It was hard for progressives to find much to like about Carter.

Yet throughout the Reagan administration my mantra was: “Come back, Jimmy. All is forgiven.” What I missed wasn’t a hard-headed political analysis, a shrewd ability to work the system in behalf of social justice goals, an uncompromising commitment to the poor. These we had never had from Carter. What I missed, and had taken for granted, was that the man supported the Bill of Rights.

Carter was a typical liberal in that respect. He understood the role of the Bill of Rights in assuring that in addition to stable democratic institutions, people in the U.S. also have certain concrete rights. Take Article I of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment. It reads in part: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble…” It is meant to protect the individual’s right to protest government actions. In the United States, freedom of speech is a civil liberty.

This guarantee has always been applied selectively. The free speech of racists has always been better protected than the free speech of campus war protesters. In the recent past, it was often necessary for the courts to intervene to protect Leftists from the violations of their First Amendment rights by law enforcement officers, the FBI, or exceptionally hostile Justice Departments, such as those of the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

Free speech is particularly important to progressives because in my attempt to change the status quo there must be room to unmask and debunk it. Censorship imposed by legal means, or self-censorship in the context of repression, means that the Left’s effectiveness is dramatically limited.

Progressives, therefore, are dependent on liberals’ commitment to the First Amendment. Liberals serve as a buffer protecting us from the Right and its history of attacking First Amendment freedoms. For instance, it is liberal legislators who stand in the way of laws banning the burning of the flag. It is liberals who defend “sacrilegious” art. It is liberal lawyers and judges who defend the rights of “communist sympathizers” and anti-war demonstrators, and keep the airwaves open for the likes of Angela Davis and Allen Ginsberg. Without that liberal commitment to the Bill of Rights, the voice of the Left could and would be silenced.

That is not to say that liberals won’t cut and run. If the accused is too politically unpopular or the cause too radical, liberals will hide behind the justification that these defendants or causes threaten national security, and they’ll allow the Bill of Rights to go. Sometimes they’ll cave in under threats by the Right to tar them with the brush of radicalism. In these cases, only progressives will stand up and fight for our guaranteed rights.

Nevertheless, right now we need liberal lawyers, judges, journalists, curators, abortion providers, legislators, teachers, unionists, affirmative action officers, and day care advocates. We need the breathing room and protection they provide for progressives. So each time one of them is won over by the Right’s prejudice, myth, irrational belief, inaccurate information, pseudo-science, and outright lies, or each time a liberal resigns from office or retires from the bench (to be replaced by a credentialed Rightist, of course), I worry a bit more. It doesn’t matter whether I particularly like, respect, or admire liberals. I care about them because they are endangered, and I care about what that means for me and for our society.

But is it a Relationship?

Liberalism will raise your hopes and ultimately break your heart. Does that mean that it commands no loyalty? Should it be trashed because it is spineless and flawed? My answer is an unequivocal “maybe.”

It won’t do to say that liberalism could be a useful framework for a late capitalist society if only it wouldn’t act so much like liberalism. It is what it is. Nevertheless, it can be more or less effective according to the principles to which it holds.

The principle of “maximum feasible participation” is an example of the boundaries of liberalism’s potential as an open, humane, and egalitarian ideology. Maximum feasible participation calls for the people who are the recipients of liberal programs to also design, control, and implement the programs. It moves “good works” a step further toward actual power sharing.

Maximum feasible participation was an idea that was barely tried, then abandoned by liberals as unworkable. It is at exactly this juncture that liberalism reveals its intrinsic limitations. There is a crucially important distinction between addressing grievances and inequities with humanitarian aid on one hand, and in solving them through redistributing power on the other. All those who are dispossessed, whatever race, class, or gender, will be given only relief by liberal programs. They will not obtain true justice.

But when true justice is not available—in this country, for lack of the ability of progressives to compete effectively in the struggle for power—humanitarian aid makes a difference. It is this difference that the Right is killing off, program by program. The Right knows that without liberalism’s programs, there is less chance for even the myth of social change, not to mention its reality, to thrive. If they can eliminate the swinging door, then it will be even easier to redistribute power upward. This is one of the reasons that right-wing strategists spend so much time demonizing liberals, especially feminists, environmentalists, gay and lesbian rights activists, and supporters of multiculturalism.

Liberalism has not proved able to stand up to the reactionary onslaught by the Right. Is that surprising? Should progressive people put time and energy into defending liberalism and its programs? Yes – we must. As a strategic response to the current assault by the Right on every democratic principle, it is an important place to put time and energy.

At the same time, it is crucial that progressives continue to work for a more radical vision of social justice and redistribution of power and wealth. Liberalism is in retreat in part because it is not receiving the sort of pressure from progressives that forced it to pursue reform aggressively in the 1970s. Progressives often set the agenda for liberals, by taking direct confrontational action against unjust laws and policies. It is progressives whose public education truly unmasks the structural and individual racism, repression, and other forms of injustice within the U.S. system.

At the moment, the progressive vision lacks the clarity and certainty of the 1930s or the 1960s. But there is an important distinction between our current muddled state, when clarity and unity are diminished, and the death of the vision altogether. We must not confuse the two. To say that the Left is struggling to find its way in a dramatically restructured political environment is accurate. But the fundamental principles around which the Left organizes its radical critique—liberty, equality and fraternity in the service of justice for those whose voices are not heard—are as alive and needed as ever.

Progressives must analyze how the Left became such a weak force. This promises to be a difficult process of self-criticism. Further, more and more people will have to come to the table to help to refine the progressive vision and correct its flaws and omissions. Meanwhile, liberal reforms have to be defended and pressure has to be applied to the few liberals still standing to keep them from waffling or quitting. This is not best done by disdaining or ignoring them.

Like it or not, progressives now must work with liberals, as well as with any other left-leaning sectors such as the Greens, to form a united front against the agenda of the Right. Pat Buchanan’s demonstrated ability to draw 30 percent of the vote in state after state in the recent presidential primaries is just one indicator of how important such a front is.

So, progressives, if you are angry and bitter over the loss of another liberal program killed off without even so much as a debate, don’t apologize. Don’t assume you have become soft on liberalism. This is a natural reaction – a product of this moment in history. And try not to dwell on those years past when there was more certainty, more idealism, and more hope; when working for real change was like moving downstream riding a current of historical inevitability. Now we are swimming against a tide that is thick with peril. The voice in the bubble of this cartoon is no longer saying “Follow that dream!” Now it is saying, “Time is running out. Focus. Get it together. Unite!”

Thanks to Rosario Morales, Dick Levins, Clarissa Atkinson, Denise Bergman, Pat Rathbone, Ruth Hubbard, and Francine Almash for their comments.

 

The Religious Right Has Been Pushing Anti-Union Right to Work Laws for A Century

“I have enjoyed seeing the unions shrink,” crowed Christian Reconstructionist Gary North on his blog, “Tea Party Economist,” on February 27. The following week, the Wisconsin state legislature rammed through a bill that weakens unions by allowing workers to benefit from union-bargained wages and working conditions without being required to pay any dues or agency fees. A triumphant Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed the new law March 9. The Wisconsin law is not unique, but part of a long-term trend of Religious Right support for Corporate Right actors and robber barons like the Koch Brothers.

 

Wisconsin Teamsters protest the "right to work" law

Wisconsin Teamsters protest the “right to work” law

Such laws, dubbed “right to work” laws in the 1940s by anti-unionists within the Christian Right, were passed long ago in states throughout the anti-union South and West. Now, we are witnessing their resurgence in formerly union-friendly states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. As even North admits, the spin is a ruse: “There is no right to work…But the phrase, “right to work,” has been a political winner for a generation.”

In a New York Times op-ed this last week, scholar and observer of the Right Kevin Kruse shared a bit of history on how Christian Right leaders have long helped business leaders whittle away at the economic freedoms granted to working Americans since the New Deal. Kruse mentioned Billy Graham, who in 1952 listed “union dues” and “labor leaders” among the ills that could not have existed in the Garden of Eden. Graham was throwing fuel on the flames of business leaders’ angst over the profits they were losing to their workers in union collective bargaining agreements. By then, too, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 had opened the way for states to begin passing legislation designed to weaken unions. All that was needed was the right pitch to sell these new bills.

Enter the label “right to work”, which cynically refers to state bills that remove the requirement for workers in a given workplace to actually pay for the representation and benefits the union provides for them. It is a label that has nothing to do with the right to work or the right to a job (as the name seems to imply).  The likely origin of the label can be seen in a research document from 1962 on the National Right to Work Committee, dug up by our friends at the Center for Media and Democracy, suggesting that the term “right to work” was coined by Vance Muse, a Christian Right activist who “was a protégé of John Henry Kirby, oil and lumberman and one-time President of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).” The business leaders of the day recognized the public relations value of the term, and the pitch worked in Florida, Arkansas, North Carolina, and so on. “By 1954,” writes historian Bethany Moreton in her 2010 book, To Serve God and Wal-Mart, “the entire South had enacted such legislation.”

On CMD’s blog, PRWatch, Jonas Persson also notes that the ultra-conservative, anti-communist Christian Right group the John Birch Society has been involved with the National Right to Work Committee almost since the inception of both groups. “The leadership of the two groups overlapped heavily,” writes Persson, citing the same 1962 research document that shows the NRTWC was part of a coalition with Birchers—including Fred Koch–and segregationist preachers. The connection with segregationists, Moreton notes, is significant: “segregationist Democrats broke the back of the labor and civil rights Left in the years immediately following the war,” she writes.  Just as industrial unions emphasized organizing across racial lines and unifying blacks and whites in a class struggle, right-to-work was a big part of the Southern business leaders’ political strategy to keep these unions out. (Watch for a forthcoming article by Peter Montgomery in The Public Eye magazine that shows how Christian evangelists such as Billy Graham, and later Jerry Falwell, helped to achieve this.)

Now, with nearly unlimited funding available from the Koch brothers (and other billionaires, such as Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner) for political campaigns focused on finishing unions off, new states are in play on the right to work map. As before, part of the battle is still being fought on religious grounds. As Josh Harkinson reported in Mother Jones in 2011, groups such as Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council have been dutifully rallying the evangelical base to side over and over again with business leaders over unions. Already, this public relations war has paid dividends for Walker in Wisconsin, where state employees who once could rely on strong unions to give them a voice with which to bargain find themselves adrift.

But it is not over yet. While Walker cites scripture to rationalize his pre-emptive strikes against organized labor in Wisconsin, at least one Catholic group (the Wisconsin Catholic Conference) testified on the other side in Madison during the debate over right to work, citing scripture in favor of unions. And while that effort ultimately failed, in Missouri the results have been quite different. There, last March, the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis brought the state’s labor leaders a letter saying that the coalition of religious leaders does not support right to work and would help labor fight it. To the embarrassment of Missouri Republicans, right to work failed in 2014, and though it was re-introduced in February 2015, the state GOP does not have the votes to override the promised veto by Gov. Jay Nixon (D).

Given Walker’s popularity among evangelicals, though, coupled with the Corporate Right’s commitment to bringing down unions, we are likely to see more battles over right to work in the next two years. One need only look at long-term right to work states such as Florida and North Carolina to see what happens when the gains made by unions and collective bargaining are eroded: depressed wages, longer work hours, unchecked racial and anti-LGBTQ discrimination and sexual harassment, and failure to follow health and safety protocols. Yet the Religious Right leaders who are shilling for anti-union policies—the same ones who also say that hardworking Americans deserve government assistance—have never taken any responsibility for such consequences.

About Those Raises: Walmart’s Latest PR Stunt to Change its Anti-Worker Image While Resisting Regulation

Depending on whom you ask, up to half a million Walmart associates got a raise yesterday. The raise was won for them by a brave rebel alliance of hundreds of Walmart workers who are interested in the continued survival of Walmart workers. Calling themselves OUR Walmart, these workers have put their own jobs on the line since 2012 by staging sit-ins, strikes, disruptions at Walmart shareholder meetings, press conferences, and other demonstrations to call attention to the company’s abysmal pay and working conditions.

Walmart3.jpg

The raise announced yesterday in a company press release will ensure that 40 percent of the company’s U.S.-based workforce will make at least $9 per hour starting in April, with another raise up to $10 per hour by next February.  (The Daily Beast’s Michael Maiello disputes the idea that Walmart is really giving half a million people a raise, correctly noting that in states such as Rhode Island and California, where the minimum wage is already $9, workers won’t see a bump.)

The company can certainly afford to do it, as the New York Times pointed out: the nation’s largest retailer had a more-lucrative-than-expected holiday season, with its workers earning it 4th quarter revenues of about $131 billion. (Paying 500,000 people a buck more per hour will cost an additional $20 million per week, or a billion and change per year, by my calculator—or less than 1 percent of revenue.)

OUR Walmart protesters demand livable wages and better hours

OUR Walmart protesters demand livable wages and better hours

As labor reporter Josh Eidelson and others have noted, Walmart is doing this because it has to. It has taken serious public relations hits for years now, thanks to low-wage employer shenanigans such as stores hosting holiday food drives for its own employees,  and dropping 30,000 employees from its healthcare plan (in October 2014) without offering them any more money to make up for the lost compensation. The OUR Walmart campaign, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, has also publicly and successfully shamed the company for its dehumanizing treatment of workers in the areas of pay, benefits, health and safety, and morale. Finally, and significantly, 29 states (plus Washington DC) have passed minimum wage increases that mean Walmart already has to pay those workers more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour anyway.

If you zoom out on the timeline of Walmart behavior in the face of worker unrest, though, a clear pattern emerges—and within that pattern the raise for the 500,000 falls neatly into place. When something bad happens for Walmart workers (like a deadly fire killing 117 workers in a Bangladesh garment factory making Walmart clothing, or news breaking of a pregnant associate being forced to take unpaid leave and lose half her family’s income and drop out of nursing school, or a warehouse owner who packs and ships goods bound for Walmart stores discovered to be paying sub-minimum wages and forcing workers to live in tents in the woods), Walmart responds to the public outcry with a tactical policy shift designed to evade both scrutiny and accountability.

In the case of the 2012 Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka (and the hideous Rana Plaza building collapse which killed 1129 workers at a garment factory outside Dhaka less than a year later), the international outcry became so intense that over 190 apparel brands signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord, establishing an independent inspections, retrofitting, and monitoring system for the industry’s 1600-plus factories there.  Walmart also took credit appearing as if it was positively taking steps to prevent such accidents from happening again. But instead of signing the Accord, it continued its resistance toward any mandatory government or independent regulatory oversight of its practices, and set up its own (voluntary) self-inspection system—which most advocates agree is virtually meaningless in ensuring worker safety.

In the case of the pregnant worker losing her income in retaliation for asking for reasonable accommodations on the job for her pregnancy, some OUR Walmart members set up a pregnant workers’ rights campaign called Respect the Bump, publicizing the atrocious treatment of this worker. As a result, the company created a new accommodations policy for pregnant associates—attempting to pre-empt any regulatory oversight that could come from a protracted public fight over its lack of a policy. (This fight over additional regulatory oversight may be coming anyway, as Congress debates the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act, introduced in the last Congress and in an array of states—it will be interesting to see if Walmart plays a role there.)

Finally, in case after case involving abusive working conditions for warehouse workers in its supply chain, Walmart has denied culpability and either quietly dropped the warehouse contractor, or adopted better workplace practices in certain warehouses without saying why.  Three separate grassroots workers’ advocacy campaigns have sprouted up around the country to push for better wages and working conditions in warehouses: Warehouse Workers United, Warehouse Workers for Justice, and the National Guestworkers’ Alliance. All of them focus heavily on how Walmart’s abusive practices push down wages and suppress worker organizing across the supply chain.

The pattern of responding to a workers’ crisis by implementing bare-minimum changes, which can reasonably be described as little more than PR efforts, tells you a lot about Walmart’s attitude toward its workers. Contrast this with the behavior of similar companies—such as Costco, which uses higher wages, a willingness to work with unions, and other similar pro-worker policies to position itself as a leader in big-box retail employment practices—and it becomes clear that Walmart’s anti-worker efforts are not the result of business or economic requisites, but rather an internal culture that ultimately values profit revenues for executives far more than the quality of life for those whose work has made the Walton family the richest heirs on Earth.

What is perhaps most chilling here is that Walmart’s announced slight pay raises for some of its employees will likely succeed in somewhat improving the image of Walmart and its treatment of workers. Yet at the same moment that it is announcing the raise for the 500,000, according to that New York Times report, it is also announcing its intent to shrink its workforce and close stores. How many stores? How many layoffs? Sadly, we won’t know until it happens. The heroes of OUR Walmart and other worker organizing groups who have created the pressure forcing the modest raises deserve praise.  But the company still has much to answer for, and a long way to go.

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Crushing the Dream: The Business Lobby Groups Blocking Your Paid Leave

Since President Obama mentioned paid sick leave and paid “maternity” leave in his State of the Union address, an ever-louder chorus of experts and pundits has echoed the need for such family-friendly workplace policies. But despite ironclad evidence of the economic and ethical soundness of these policies, workers are still lacking these protectionsthanks to a coordinated effort to stop them by the Corporate Right

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) speaks to a gathering of National Federation of Independent Business(NFIB) lobbyists in 2013.

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) speaks to a gathering of National Federation of Independent Business(NFIB) lobbyists in 2013.

Nearly every other developed country provides these forms of paid leave without damage to their economies; in states and cities that already have paid sick days or paid family leave, the effect on businesses has been either positive or neutral; allowing for paid leave helps close the gender pay gap by keeping women continuously employed as they have children or take time to care for ill relatives (The New York Times reported that “Paid leave raises the probability that mothers return to employment later, and then work more hours and earn higher wages”). Finally, these policies are so popular that even the House GOP leadership has quietly allowed one congressmember to introduce a paid-leave-lite bill that “would permit all workers to use their overtime toward paid time off,” according to a report in The Hill.

Most GOP lawmakers, though, when asked about passing real paid family leave or paid sick days, either say it is a non-starter (Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recently called it “one more government mandate”) or laugh at the reporter asking the question. Indeed, under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama there has been zero movement toward federally mandated paid leave. As Margaret Talbot wrote in the New Yorker recently, “The FMLA had all the hallmarks of a first step; the problem was that there was never a second or third one.” Why, despite the evidence for such policies, would the Republicans continue to block them?

The answer is that they—and many Democrats as well—are under constant pressure from an array of business lobby groups and trade associations that are dead set against government mandating any new employment policies that favor workers’ rights. Who are these groups, and why are they working to stop us from having any paid leave?

Working Against Workers

It has nothing to do with business being afraid of having to pay workers more. Workers earn their own sick days in states and cities that have passed paid sick days laws, and research has established that it doesn’t hurt the business’ bottom lines. In California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, the states where paid family leave is already law, the state pays workers who are on leave out of a small additional payroll deduction. Again, this additional $1 or so per week is coming out of workers’ own wallets, not business owners’ pockets. Business lobby groups, then, oppose these policies out of an ideological, not a pragmatic, commitment to stopping all new workplace regulations that give workers additional rights. We need to understand who they are.

The business association that has gone on record most frequently against paid leave policies in recent months is the National Federation of Independent Business, or the NFIB. Though its branding makes it appear to represent small “independent” business owners, it consistently tacks hard to the right on just about every workplace policy issue that comes before Congress. Want to raise the minimum wage for retail and fast food workers? The NFIB hates that idea. Et cetera. What is more, even though it tells the IRS it is politically neutral, the NFIB accepts major donations from the right-wing Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners fund. NFIB spokesman Jack Mozloom recently tried to confuse businesses into thinking they would have to pay for paid family leave, telling a reporter from The Hill that “You’re paying twice for the same labor” if business owners must hire a temp worker and also pay the worker who is out on leave.

In the states, the Chamber of Commerce is playing the role of moderate in this debate over paid leave. New Jersey’s Chamber of Commerce initially opposed the state’s policy, which was passed in 2009; that policy has proven to be a boon to workers and cost businesses almost nothing. Still, the New Jersey Chamber recently said it “remains opposed to any government mandate of an arrangement “usually negotiated between an employer and employee.” In Rhode Island, USA Today reports that the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce is “assessing the impact” of the state’s new paid leave policy.

Finally, the Society for Human Resources Management, or SHRM, which claims to represent the views of the 250,000 HR professionals on its membership rolls, has come out against mandatory paid family leave laws in the press. SHRM spokesperson Lisa Horn recently told USA Today that “Her organization supports companies offering paid leave generally, but prefers incentives for employers to offer it, rather than require it.” Although this may sound moderate, SHRM’s opposition to paid family leave is puzzling. SHRM does not explain how exactly paid family leave policies would harm HR professionals. Wouldn’t a policy that reduces employee turnover, results in more equitable pay for women, and keeps employee morale high be a boon for HR professionals as well? And, of course, HR professionals are employees too; they are just as likely as anyone else to welcome a new baby or need to take time off to care for an ill family member.

With both houses of Congress controlled by the GOP, we are unlikely to see movement on national paid sick or family leave policies any time soon. But a handful of states will be considering them this year. As these bills make their way through your state legislature, close observers will note the NFIB, Chamber of Commerce, SHRM, and others weighing in on the debate. Stay tuned to this space for more on these business lobby groups and their anti-worker shenanigans.

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“Employers Feel Wildly Free to Pay People However They Want”: An Interview with Kim Bobo

Interfaith Worker Justice founder Kim Bobo explains why progressives should be doing more to woo evangelicals; how the Chamber of Commerce is abandoning small businesses by not fighting wage theft; and why some Catholic employers are lobbying for workers to get paid overtime.

This interview is part of the Winter 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice

Kim Bobo, the founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), is one of the Left’s luminaries when it comes to the intersection of faith and economic justice. Bobo, who was herself raised an evangelical Christian, and is the author of Wage Theft: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid, and What We Can Do About It, will transition out of leadership at the end of 2014.  Although the problem of wage theft—workers not being paid what they are owed for their work—is rampant in low-wage workplaces, Bobo’s ability to persuade Christians, Jews, and Muslims to support the rights of workers in their communities has even earned her the respect of some employers. But it has also earned her the distinction of being targeted by both the Religious and Corporate Right. In 2012, the Catholic-funded American Life League issued an 80-page “report” red-baiting Bobo. Recently, too, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has challenged IWJ by blocking anti-wage theft laws and naming IWJ in a series of reports claiming that worker centers should be regulated just like labor unions.  Bobo sat down with The Public Eye to talk about her personal journey of bringing together workers’ rights and faith, and about her reasons for remaining optimistic despite the continued suffering of many low-wage workers under the most extreme economic inequality in 100 years.

The Public Eye (PE): How did you come to start Interfaith Worker Justice?

I had gotten involved in 1989-1990 in putting together a religious support committee for the Pittston Coal strike. I realized that there was not much structure in the faith community to be involved in labor issues. That seemed just a missing piece to me, because in faith communities we cared about poverty, we cared about poor people, we were doing soup kitchens and shelters.

Clearly we needed to do something around labor, jobs, wage payment, those kinds of issues, as well. So I did this Pittston work and the folks I worked with at UMWA (the United Mine Workers of America union) were phenomenal and interested in the partnerships with the faith community.  While there was no structure, it was pretty easy to get people to do stuff.

I was living in Chicago, so I put together a group of religious leaders to support labor.  I didn’t understand the politics of labor, but I happened to completely luck out: Don Turner, who was the assistant to the President of the Chicago AFL-CIO, was assigned to be my liaison. He was interested in rebuilding these partnerships. We became this team, with me mobilizing the religious community for labor and him helping me understand labor.

We called it the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice.

PE: What is your faith background?

I grew up in an evangelical fundamentalist home in Cincinnati, Ohio, in what’s called the Church of Christ. I memorized lots of Bible verses as a kid. The heart of the scripture is: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. For me, my whole life is trying to figure out how to put that into actuality. Some would say that’s an odd background to be doing this work. I don’t think so. It was fundamentalist teachings of the core of the scriptures that drove me.

I have been involved in church work my whole life; in fact, I’m the choir director and moderator at my church. I am now a member of the United Church of Christ. (The names sound similar; they’re about as far away from one another as you can get.)

One of the things that has not been smart has been to lump evangelicals and fundamentalists in with the conservative Christian Right. While a lot of people have been confused on things and connect with the Christian Right on stuff, to lump this huge group of people or write them off as not part of our [workers’ rights] movement is dumb.

You see that right now on immigration reform. The evangelical world is completely solid on immigration reform. And at the local level, we see a lot of fundamentalists and evangelicals involved in the work.

We need to understand there are some very well-funded, concerted efforts by right-wing forces to continue to capture [evangelicals]. The Heritage Foundation published a small study guide entitled “Seek Social Justice.” It argues that the best way to help poor people is to do it through your church, because we are closer to people, and thus the best way to get there is to cut taxes of rich people and give more money to the church. It also makes these wild statements like, “If people aren’t happy with their jobs, they can just go find another one.”  Really?  It is not a very sophisticated argument.

We should not assume [evangelical Christians] are a static group of people that is owned by the Right Wing.

We should not assume [evangelical Christians] are a static group of people that is owned by the Right Wing. This is a set of folks that have a set of values of their faith that are being contested. I think that we need to be in there contesting for them. It’s hard because the Right Wing understands the importance of the faith community in these issues. They put a lot of money into funding right-wing religious organizations; the progressive world doesn’t.

You look at those of us working in the economic justice space within the religious community and every one of us is struggling for money. The progressive funding infrastructure doesn’t get that this is contested space and that we need to be out there working at it. Most progressive donors do not fund in this world. It is a problem. We get a little money from the unions, but most large donors, the people who are viewed as the larger progressive donors, do not fund in this world. They just don’t believe in it.

PE: How did the worker centers start?

I can remember that in ’96 and ’97, pastors would refer us workers who hadn’t gotten paid. They said, “Oh you got a workplace problem? Oh, call Interfaith Worker Justice.”  So these random workers would call us. I would say, “You haven’t gotten paid? You work at a restaurant? Maybe the hotel and restaurant workers union can help you.” My assumption was if workers weren’t getting paid, I could just refer them to unions, but unions didn’t want these workers that didn’t make sense in their strategic plans.

We produced a workers’ rights manual in English and Spanish. Then, when workers called, I could send them the manual and I could go back to doing my real work – supporting workers’ right to organize.

Yet we had to figure how to create a structure that could support these workers who are not being served by the labor movement.

I describe the work right now in three prongs. One is the work engaging the faith community in supporting workers’ right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Second is helping support and build structures that help workers that are not yet served by unions: the worker center movement. We now have 27 worker centers. The third is public policy. How can we be involved in policies that raise the core standards of workers, from minimum wage to sick days to anti-wage theft ordinances?

Our wage theft work, which grew out of the worker center movement, has merged with all aspects of our work. On the one hand, dealing with wages is the heart and soul of worker centers. It’s their number one problem.

But unions are recognizing that the issue of wage theft resonates with workers and makes sense to use in organizing workers. In sectors where they are unionized, the non-union companies are committing wage theft in a way that undermines the standards of whole industries.

Even though we’ve been losing on a lot of other stuff, we’ve been winning on wage theft. It’s hard to argue that wage theft is okay.

We’ve been winning all of these local ordinances around the country around wage theft. Even though we’ve been losing on a lot of other stuff, we’ve been winning on wage theft. It’s hard to argue that wage theft is okay.

PE: Can you name a couple of significant victories?

Fe Y Justicia in Houston just passed a wage theft ordinance that strengthens enforcement at the citywide level and says that when they do city contracts they’ll look at wage theft criteria for city enforcement. Arise Chicago (a worker center) led an effort that allows city government to pull a business’ license if someone is found to be a repeat violator.

PE: Are such ordinances largely symbolic, or do they have real teeth?

I think that a bunch of them have teeth. Some of the state bills have treble damages, which is huge [Ed. note: this means the employer must pay the worker triple the amount owed]. The New York State includes a provision for protection against retaliation. The city ones, it’s early to tell.

PE: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been portraying worker centers as a problem, as crypto-unions that should be regulated in the same way.

The Chamber doesn’t like worker centers because worker centers have been effective in challenging bad practices in businesses. To the extent that unions have a bad reputation in the country, which the polls generally show, the Chamber is trying to taint worker centers by calling them unions. I like unions so that doesn’t taint them in my book, but the truth is, legally they’re not unions and the Department of Labor has been really clear [about that].

Worker centers work with and support labor unions, but that doesn’t make them labor unions—in the same way that they work with religious communities but are not a church. If you want to compare them to something, they’re much more like settlement houses at the turn of the century or the Catholic or Jewish labor schools from the ’30s and ’50s. They are community organizations that support labor.

The Chamber of Commerce would be much better served helping its members address the wage theft problems that they have.

PE: What do IWJ worker centers do beyond helping workers who have been denied their wages?

We advocate in general for higher wages through increasing the minimum wage.

If you have a group of workers who come in and they haven’t been paid or are having problems, we talk to them about their rights in the workplace, including their right to have a union.

Workers make the choice. Sometimes they want to get their money back. We’ll work with them on direct action and help them get their money back. Sometimes, we’ll file claims with the Department of Labor or file a lawsuit. Sometimes, they decide, “we need ongoing representation in our workplace,” and the workers organize a union.

We do education around these issues and tell people what their rights are, but the worker center is not the union.

PE: What is the role of congregations with worker centers?

We are trying to encourage deep engagement of the faith community with worker centers. Some worker centers were started by people of faith or by social justice committees. Some of them had a secular start, but because they are affiliated with us, they want to know how to do a better job. Congregations and denominations provide financial support and volunteers. IWJ’s national headquarters is housed at a church that offers space for modest rent. There are a lot of worker centers in church basements and they provide advocacy. If a group of workers want to get their money back from an employer, local clergy will go with them. Or, if they want to strengthen enforcement at the city level, there’s engagement of the faith community in advocating for that.

PE: IWJ says it aims to address the root causes of economic disparity and indignity in the workplace. What are those causes?

It’s because workers don’t have power.  We are trying to figure out how we get more power through unions and through workers working independently, and through core standards and public policy.

We need to figure out how to get from where we are to something hospitable to the vast majority of the people.

We believe that the economic system in this country, monopoly capitalism, is not serving the common good and not serving the vast majority of workers in the country. We need to figure out how to get from where we are to something hospitable to the vast majority of the people.

How do you put some limits on capital, as it is now?  How do you get higher core standards in the society? How do workers get more power, more ability to influence what happens?

PE: IWJ calls for a proactive and transparent Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. How far are we away from that?

We have great leadership in the Department of Labor. Tom Perez is really great, but he’s new.

[Labor enforcement] also hasn’t been on the top of the list of the White House and that’s a problem. While the Department of Labor touts its expanded enforcement as, “We’ve added 250 more investigators,” [that means that] they went from 750 to 1,000 for 135 million workers in the country. That’s not enough. They’re really working hard and doing creative work—but they’re not scratching the surface of the problems.

If they had 4,000 investigators, I think we could start making a dent, but I’m convinced that wage theft has gotten worse, not better, in the last few years. The economy has gotten rough and employers feel wildly free to pay people however they want.  Calling people independent contractors [so that] they are exempt from all basic laws is another practice exacerbating this. How do we stop that?

It’s outrageous: there’s no sense right now of the importance of paying workers fairly. We’ve got to strengthen this sort of work that worker centers are doing around this, beating up on employers who are cheating people.  [That’s] why the Chamber of Commerce is so upset, but we’ve got to keep doing this.

We’ve got to always stand with unions because if we had more unions we wouldn’t have this crisis of wage theft.

We also need to engage the business community in some conversations around this. The Chamber of Commerce needs to stop these attacks and start having conversations with its members: how can we have a democratic society if we can’t figure out how to pay workers enough to raise their family with dignity?  The Chamber ought to be helping lead those conversations.

PE: Do you see any signs of that actually happening? 

I see several signs. They’re not huge ones, but I always look for the glimmer of hope as a person of good faith. There are some business leaders in construction in Texas who are good Republicans, Catholic businessmen who are saying, ‘We can’t compete against these low-road employers who are calling [employees] independent contractors.’

So they are standing up for the anti-wage theft bills in Houston. [Ed, note: Since this interview was conducted, Houston has begun implementing its anti-wage theft law, and workers have been getting the money they are owed.] They’ve got a commitment from both the public entities and the universities and hospitals to only hire employers in construction that pay people fairly. That’s huge and that’s really being driven by the business community. They may be conservative, but these are ethical people.

We are trying to figure how to lift up employers who are paying fairly. I think that’s encouraging.

I did an interview with human resources professionals who were concerned that they’re being asked to condone [employer] behavior in the workplace that’s not right. What if the Chamber of Commerce were saying, “We’re going to start a conversation with our members about how to pay people fairly and justly?” That would change things. They should be doing that.

PE: On the other hand, the HR people are probably worried about their legal responsibilities and the Texas businessmen are worried about competing with low-wage labor. Does the moral argument ever resonate with people?

I think it’s hard to separate them. Stan Merrick in Houston has really led. There are clearly economic arguments. He’s getting hurt by [low-road contractors], but he also has all these immigrant workers. He’s become a huge advocate for immigration reform, as well, because he knows these guys. He’s hired these guys. They’ve got families. It’s also personal. He was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools. His values are also a part of this. When you talk to business leaders, some of them are cutthroat and don’t care about anyone else, but that’s not all of them. A lot of them, on the one hand, are hardcore business guys, and, on the other hand, know it’s not right to cheat people. We’ve got to appeal to people on that.

I think figuring out how to pay people fairly is a moral issue, but it is also an economic issue in the long term. We can’t be a consumer-driven society if the consumers don’t have any money to buy anything. So, I’m going to make all the arguments. You can’t separate one from another. 

PE: “Can you talk about how IWJ’s economic justice work also intersects with and reflects a commitment to racial and gender justice?”

You see companies using race to separate people and to make economic gain. The Chicago Workers’ Collaborative is suing temp agencies that refuse to hire African American workers, and have instead intentionally hired immigrant workers and then stolen their wages from them. The lawsuits seek to recover back wages and stop discriminatory practices. Clearly, the temp agencies believed they could make higher profits that way.

Home care work was women’s work and African Americans’ work, and also not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. We’ve built into the very codification of our laws these discriminatory practices.

Race and class are intermingled in ways that are used against us. Anybody who is vulnerable is likely to be a victim of abuse in the workplace. African Americans often feel vulnerable and are often victims of abuse. Immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are even more vulnerable. Women’s wages are not what men’s wages are. Almost two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and you’ve got this whole sector of jobs that continues to be viewed as women’s work and has historically been paid less.

And these discriminatory practices are embedded in our labor laws. So farm work, which was historically performed by African Americans and then by Latinos, was not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Home care work was women’s work and African Americans’ work, and also not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. We’ve built into the very codification of our laws these discriminatory practices.

PE: What can you leave us with that would be helpful in social justice work?

On the one hand, we’ve got to learn from the past. What are the struggles that people have had before us, and what can we learn from that?

For organizers, how do we make sure we spend time with our families so we’ve got the support structures that we need? We need love surrounding us so we can do the work for the long haul.

And how do we keep hope so we can keep going, especially in what’s been really rough times the past few years? How do we have the hope for the future?

How do we in the faith community do more at the congregational level, because there’s a structure. There are so many young people who define themselves as spiritual but not religious. So how do we capture engaged people who are spiritual not religious, not connected with a congregation? Is there a way to have people participate?

PE: To have a sense of the common good?

Right! I’m intrigued by all the online stuff that people are doing, like social networking. We need to do that, but I’m not convinced that it’s a substitute for “people stuff.” How do we do the people stuff and the social networking? the only way change ever happens is when people work together.

Ed. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Neoliberalism, Higher Education, and the Rise of Contingent Faculty Labor

Higher education is intended to foster critical reflection, personal growth, public discussion, collective inquiry, social and political analysis, and the pursuit of knowledge, truth, and justice.  These values and practices emphasize the generation of knowledge.  Higher education does not simply record what has already been said and done; instead, it reviews the past and present in order to create newer, deeper, and better ideas.  Ideally, those ideas become social goods, improving the lives of everyone—from Albert Einstein’s E = mc2 and Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, to Edward Said’s Orientalism and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Some of these works may be controversial and debatable, but that is also the point—they provoke necessary discussions about the unsavory aspects of worldly affairs.

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This underscores the politics of knowledge and higher learning.  Which ideas are allowed to speak, and which are censored?  Who gets to speak those ideas, and who is silenced?  What values are attached to those ideas and speakers?  How might issues of power, domination and, hopefully, liberation, factor into these equations?

Such issues cut to the heart of the matter: higher education is under attack by the neoliberal enterprise.  While most colleges and universities are still nonprofit institutions, they have been overtaken by the neoliberal agenda.  I am not suggesting some grand conspiracy between university board members and the corporate elite. That may be true in some cases,[1] and some do argue that collusion has occurred.[2]  Generally speaking, however, the synthesis of higher education and corporate interest is much more supple and unspoken.  Forty years of privatization, stagnant wages, a weak economy, a lack of jobs, and budget cuts have forced college administrators to find alternative forms of funding.  These alternatives have involved everything from licensing agreements with Coca-Cola and Disney and the corporate sponsoring of research to a pedagogical emphasis on job preparation.[3]

This corporatization has also given rise to a contingent faculty labor force.  According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “contingent faculty” include both part-time and full-time non-tenure track faculty.[4]  This includes adjuncts hired on a part-time, semester-by-semester basis; full-time lecturers and instructors granted one-year to multi-year contracts; and special- or visiting-assistant professors whose contracts are similar to those of lecturers or instructors but with slightly more institutional status.  The common characteristic among these positions is a lack of institutional commitment from the university.  A 2011 AAUP report found that contingent faculty of all types, including graduate assistants, account for “76 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education,”[5] a marked increase from 55% in 1975.[6]

Adjunct labor represents the largest segment of this workforce, comprising about 50% of all higher education faculty.  (In 1970, that number was only about 20%.)[7]  The overwhelming majority of adjuncts have post-secondary degrees but earn far less than full-time instructors; receive no health or retirement benefits; teach different classes at different institutions; often pay out of pocket for gas and/or transportation; receive no funding for conference travel or professional development; and are commonly assigned cumbersome teaching schedules, making it difficult to teach consecutive classes across campuses.

Such conditions undoubtedly affect the quality of instruction.  That’s not to say that adjuncts—or contingent faculty, in general—are not excellent teachers.  According to a 2010 survey, about 57 percent of adjuncts “are in their jobs primarily because they like teaching, not primarily for the money.”[8] But the contingency of the modern day professorate places unreasonable demands on pedagogical practice.  Adjuncts are rarely granted their own institutional computers, phones, or offices, and something as simple as photocopying can be difficult when teaching once-per-week night classes.  Consistent office hours, regular communication with students, spontaneous classroom activities, pedagogical discussions with colleagues, and critical, creative, open-ended exams become difficult to sustain.

Contingent faculty are also less likely to serve on committees, advise undergraduate theses, teach graduate classes, oversee student organizations, lead program or curricular changes, participate in institutional governance, or reap the full benefits of a university’s intellectual life.  Campus can quickly become a place to earn a paycheck, period.

The most recent economic crisis may have exacerbated, but does not fully account for, this situation.  Decades of conservative, pro-business, deregulatory policies have restructured the landscape not only of higher education but also the workforce as a whole.  Precarious labor is now a defining characteristic of the contemporary global workforce, affecting everyone from computer programmers and IT call-centers to migrant agricultural workers and Wal-Mart employees.  The era of a secure, long-term, well-paid position with a single institution is over.  Downsizing, outsourcing, temp-jobs, sweatshops, day labor, and company relocations have stripped workers of stability and power.  These practices allow corporations to outmaneuver state and federal taxes, government regulations, workers’ rights, and manufacturing costs. Higher education has followed suit, as universities continue to cut back on the number of faculty, increase class size, issue temporary contracts, and refuse to rehire anyone who speaks out.

These precarious conditions also inhibit open and honest discussion, both in and out of the classroom. Controversial course topics might raise the brow of a department chair. An appearance at a campus protest or a quote in the school newspaper might catch the eye of a dean. A search committee might question candidates with politicized research agendas.  (These are some of the very reasons why tenure was invented.) Tenure and academic freedom are being dissolved by a system driven by corporate logic rather than by the free exchange of ideas.

Luckily, not everyone has been silenced.  The American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, and the National Education Association have been vocal in their opposition to these trends; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has launched “Adjunct Action,” a national campaign to address the needs of adjunct faculty; “New Faculty Majority” was started in 2009 to advocate for the rights of contingent faculty; and there has been a resurgence in graduate student unionizing, with New York University and University of Connecticut recently winning high-profile victories.[9]  Even Congress has begun paying attention to the issue of contingent faculty labor.  A Democratic House Committee released a report in January, 2014 on adjunct labor,[10] and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has introduced the “Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program” that could potentially reduce student loan debt for adjunct professors.[11]

These are necessary and uplifting efforts that should be supported and applauded.  Yet we also should recognize that victories for some educators are not the same as victories for all workers.  Only by uprooting the system of neoliberalism and corporate domination can we begin to address the wants and needs of all people and reconstruct higher education as an epicenter for knowledge, truth, and justice.  Such a lofty goal necessitates a broad-based, multi-pronged movement capable of speaking to our shared material conditions and our collective hopes for a more just and equitable society.  Examples from Wisconsin, Occupy, and the emerging student loan forgiveness movement suggest the will of the people is there.  Now it’s time to turn that will into a long-term, sustainable reality.

For more, see Neoliberalizing Public Higher Ed: The Threat of Free Market Ideology, and the Fall 2014 special neoliberal edition of The Public Eye magazine.

Jason Del Gandio is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University.  He is the author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (2008) and co-editor of Educating for Action: Strategies to Ignite Social Justice (2014).  You can visit his website for more information about his work.

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[1] See, for example, Graham Bowley, “The Academic-Industrial Complex,” New York Times, July 31, 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/business/01prez.html.

[2] See, for example, Claire Goldstene, “The Politics of Contingent Academic Labor,” Thought & Action (Fall 2012), http://www.nea.org/home/53403.htm.

[3] See, for example, Natasha Singer, “On Campus, It’s One Big Commercial,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/business/at-colleges-the-marketers-are-everywhere.html; and National Education Association, “Higher Education Privatization,” NEA Higher Education Research Center (10.2, March, 2004: 1-6), http://www.nea.org/home/34258.htm.

[4] American Association of University Professors, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty,” http://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts.

[5] American Association of University Professors, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty.”

[6] American Association of University Professors, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status, 1975-2011,” http://www.aaup.org/file/Instructional_Staff_Trends.pdf.

[7] “The Just-In-Time Professor,” Democratic House Committee Report, Jan. 2014, http://mpsanet.org/Portals/0/1.24.14-AdjunctEforumReport.pdf.

[8] American Federation of Teachers, “A National Survey of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty,” American Academic (March 2010, Vol. 2), https://www.aft.org/pdfs/highered/aa_partimefaculty0310.pdf.

[9] Vimal Patel, “Graduate Students Seek to Build on Momentum for Unions,” Chronicle of Higher Education (May 16, 2014, Vol. 60, Issue 35), http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/jp/uconn-recognizes-new-graduate-assistant-union.

[10] See “The Just-In-Time Professor.”

[11] Tyler Kingkade, “Adjunct Faculty Would Get Student Debt Wiped Away Under New Proposal,” Huffington Post (July 31, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/31/adjunct-faculty-student-debt-durbin_n_5638881.html.