“Faith-Washing” Right-Wing Economics: How the Right is Marketing Medicare’s Demise

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.
Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

If you have worked all your adult life and are now receiving Medicare health benefits, you may be vexed to find that the third-largest federal program1 may not cover everything you need. Indeed, as PBS reported in July, “Medicare certainly does not cover long-term custodial care in nursing homes or other institutional settings.”2 Despite its limitations, the federal benefit program remains among the most popular government initiatives in U.S. history, even among Tea Party Republicans, who found a rallying cry in one South Carolina man’s infamous 2009 demand to establishment politicians: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”3 A 2011 Marist poll showed that 70 percent of those identifying themselves with the Tea Party opposed any cuts to Medicare.4 More recently, an April 2015 poll from Reuters/Ipsos showed that 80 percent of all Republican voters opposed cutting either Medicare or Social Security.5

Medicare’s broad popularity presents a problem for conservative candidates who are racing each other to eliminate the program as we know it. Some politicians want to cut Medicare as a means of shrinking the welfare state; others want to redirect Medicare’s vast payroll deduction revenues into the hands of private corporations. (Private contractors already administer at least one category of Medicare benefits.6)

President Barack Obama participates in a discussion about poverty during the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2015. From left, moderator E. J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post columnist and professor in Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Photo: White House photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama participates in a discussion about poverty during the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2015. From left, moderator E. J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post columnist and professor in Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Photo: White House photo by Pete Souza

Either way, following the demise of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign—helped along by Romney’s mocking of poor and working class voters as “entitled” “victims”7—conservatives from across the ideological spectrum have been in search of a new marketing strategy: one that downplays the take-from-the-poor, give-to-the-rich foundations of their policies. Whether and how factional disputes between the Tea Party’s “Freedom Caucus” and the GOP leadership in the House of Representatives can be managed remains to be seen. As William Greider recently wrote8 in The Nation, “The party can’t deal with the real economic distress threatening the nation as long as rebellion is still smoldering in the ranks. Of course, that suits the interests of the country-club and Fortune 500 wing of the party—the last thing they want is significant economic reform.”

In the throes of this turmoil, the free market or “country-club” conservatives are test-marketing a new brand: a Christian-inflected, contemporary remix of the 1980s’ and ’90s’ “compassionate conservatism.” Even as candidates like Jeb Bush (who wants to “phase out” Medicare9), Sen. Marco Rubio (a Florida Republican who has said he wants to raise the retirement age10), and former candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (who proposed cutting $15 million from his state’s Medicare program11) sharpen blades to slash retirement security, a chorus of voices preaching Christian love and generosity toward the poor is rising from two groups whose connections with each other are not widely understood—the Christian Right and what we might call the free market fundamentalists.

Though this new brand may be meant to appeal to those—including many Christians—uncomfortable with rhetoric that demonizes vulnerable people, conservative groups pushing this new poverty narrative aren’t breaking with free market and Christian Right leadership. They have no plans to redress income inequality. Instead, responding to internal pressure from both the Tea Party Producerist Right (whose “makers and takers” frame blames both the undeserving poor and liberal elites as drivers of a system that takes from “real,” productive Americans) and external pressure from the economic populist Left, the Christian Right and free market fundamentalists are changing the packaging on their long-shared policy agenda12 of cutting the government benefits on which vast numbers of people rely.

During this primary season, right-wing populists such as Donald Trump and Sarah Palin have grabbed headlines with the racist implication that everyone who isn’t a “maker” is to blame for keeping the United States from greatness. From a public relations standpoint, this sort of unrestrained demagoguery—dangerous as it is – could polish the shine on the relaunch of compassionate conservatism. But when we turn down the volume on these deliberately offensive antics, it becomes easier to recognize how the new right-wing slogans about poverty pose a serious threat.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Neoliberal conservatives like Bush, neoconservatives such as Rubio, and free market libertarians like Walker benefit from the decades-long Christian Right re-education of Evangelical voters, around half of whom now believe that capitalism is a Christian system.13 These politicians make the demolition of seniors’ retirement security seem like a tragic inevitability, as uncontrollable as the weather, rather than the political choice that it is.

An early election-season example of this narrative came from Jeb Bush in a July 22 interview, in which he argued that Medicare should be preserved for those already receiving the benefit, but “we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something—because they’re not going to have anything.”14

But Jeb’s concerns amount to crocodile tears. As Trump parades through city after city, spewing hate-filled rhetoric, Bush coolly explains how he will enact policies that will cause millions of future seniors to become destitute. By the standards of progressive economic populists, there are no “good guys” among the current roster of conservative candidates. They may differ on message and tactics, but as historian Geraldo Cadava wrote of Bush in a September essay in The Atlantic, “do not mistake his moderate tone, performance of goodwill, or marketability to Latino voters for an entirely different message than his cruder primary opponents.”15

Whose safety net?

“It’s time to declare peace on the social safety net,” announced Arthur C. Brooks, president of the free market think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), at Georgetown University’s May 12 Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, before calling the social safety net “one of the greatest achievements of free enterprise.” Sharing the stage with Brooks were Robert Putnam, a best-selling author and Harvard political scientist whose latest book examines the diminishing prospects for economic mobility in the U.S.16; veteran Washington Post political commentator E.J. Dionne; and President Barack Obama.17 But Brooks did not mean to express approval of direct government benefits such as Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, TANF, and food stamps. Instead, his declaration of “peace” was the opening gambit for a broader argument to weaken these highly popular government programs.

“The safety net should be limited,” Brooks said, “to people who are truly indigent, as opposed to being spread around in a way that metastasizes into middle class entitlements and imperils our economy.” Brooks did not mention that AEI scholars spent the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s publishing commentaries and reports pillorying people who apply for public assistance.18 Perhaps the most famous of these scholars is AEI’s W.H. Brady Scholar Charles Murray (coauthor of the noxious 1994 tome The Bell Curve), whose 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, provided the intellectual basis for the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which effectively ended the federal welfare system. Murray’s arguments helped shape the myth of the “welfare queen.” (“Poor, uneducated, single teenaged mothers,” he wrote, “are in a bad position to raise children, however much they may love them.”) Brooks’ comparison of government aid to metastatic cancer echoed those earlier waves of AEI antagonism.

It also underscored an implied threat. Brooks went on: “If you don’t pay attention to the macro-economy and the fiscal stability you will become insolvent. And if you become insolvent you will have austerity. And if you have austerity the poor always pay.” Such statements help make the increasingly precarious middle class fear that government direct aid programs that help their fellow citizens will lead to an economic tailspin. And if Brooks and his peers can effectively frighten the middle class away from defending the social safety net, there will be no constituency left that is strong enough to defend it.

But what will certainly remain are the largely invisible government aid programs for the wealthy and corporations: the billions in public subsidies that allow businesses to profit. That’s the cruel irony at the heart of free market fundamentalism. As political scientist Suzanne Mettler wrote in her 2011 book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, privatizing social welfare programs can appear like a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars, and, as such, part of a Reaganite reliance on market-based policy. “Yet, in fact,” she wrote, “such policies function not through free market principles of laissez-faire but rather through public subsidization of the private sector.”19 Because the gigantic subsidies Mettler describes primarily benefit the wealthy corporations that support conservative think tanks such as AEI, conservative intellectuals like Brooks never talk about cutting them. 

Cloaking cruelty with catchphrases

Brooks’ threat of austerity may appear less directly racist than the “bad parent” attacks on African Americans that Murray and others used to pass welfare reform during the 1990s.20 Instead of demonizing the poor outright, this time around Brooks melds Christian rhetoric with economic-speak to offer a more paternalistic, “colorblind” characterization.

“Every one of us made in God’s image,” he said, “is an asset to develop.”21 Brooks is vague about how poor Americans (whom he describes as “the least of these, our brothers and sisters”) can become “assets” in a capitalist sense. But he seems convinced that free enterprise will save them from poverty. Brooks concluded his Georgetown remarks, “That’s a human capital approach to poverty alleviation.” In his recent book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, Brooks expands on this Christian-lite evangelizing about the sacredness of work: “Work with reward is always and everywhere a blessing.”22

So, instead of welfare or government jobs, Brooks is proposing that work in the private sector will help poor people lift themselves out of poverty. Jeb Bush expressed a version of this idea at a Republican women’s event in late September, saying, “Our message is one of hope and aspiration…It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message…says you can achieve earned success.”23 But this strategy has already spectacularly failed, particularly for communities of color. In a May 2015 New York Times article, Patricia Cohen reported how African Americans who used to be able to make a middle-class living at government jobs have increasingly fallen into more precarious economic situations as their agencies have been privatized.24

Brooks’ use of “brothers and sisters” and “the least of these,” is just one example of how neoliberals have been adapting their language to better appeal to conservative Christians in recent years. The Christian Right has become such an important part of the conservative firmament that other factions of the Right are often obliged to cast their arguments in religious terms, weaving religious ideas directly into mainstream policy debates. And the most glaring example of this shift is that, whenever the public discourse turns to a criticism of income inequality, Corporate and Christian Right intellectuals turn to their new narrative: one that laments the existence of poverty while at the same time prescribing mythic free market capitalism—rather than jobs programs or tangible government supports such as Medicare—as its cure.

Arthur Brooks speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia // Need to confirm if this is also Gage Skidmore

Arthur Brooks speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Photo: Wikimedia

The billionaires’ Christian scholars

Conservative billionaire2s who have invested hundreds of millions in the U.S. political system, such as the Koch brothers, the Kern family, the DeVoses, and others, now fund a caravan of Christian social scientists, theologians, and scholars to serve as their free market evangelists. The most high-profile of these wealthy backers are the Koch Brothers; not only has AEI received funds from both the Charles Koch Foundation and Donors Trust (a dark-money organization that allows wealthy donors to give anonymously to conservative causes25), but David Koch also served on AEI’s National Council as recently as 2014.26

Brooks and other Christian free market surrogates use biblical language sanctifying the “dignity of work” and the entrepreneurial spirit, and craft slogans to market the Corporate and Christian Right policy goal of dismantling retirement security and health coverage for seniors. But many conservative donors want more than a catchphrase; they also expect a return on their investment in politics. They also want access for themselves to the largesse of the state. Christian Right groups have been working with free market groups since the 1980s to shrink government programs for the needy and move the funds from these programs into the hands of unaccountable, private religious charities.27

Writers in this magazine and elsewhere have documented this trend of ending direct government aid to the poor and elderly in favor of private charity, starting with the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and continuing to the “compassionate conservatism” that WORLD magazine editor Marvin Olasky helped brand for President George W. Bush.28 As Bill Berkowitz wrote for The Public Eye in 2002, “Stripped of alliteration, ‘compassionate conservatism’ is the political packaging of the Right’s long-term goals of limited government, privatization, deregulation and the creation of a new social contract.”29

One tool that “compassionate conservatives” invented for redirecting state funds into private hands was the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. PRA has reported on this office’s funneling of federal grants to religious nonprofits under Bush, and on its continued lack of transparency and accountability under Obama.30

In the Georgetown panel discussion with Obama and Putnam, as well as in his book The Conservative Heart, Brooks updated compassionate conservatism to draw a sharp divide between what he considers the legitimate “safety net” and the abuse of it in “middle class entitlements.” “Help should always come with the dignifying power of work,” Brooks said.

Perhaps hearing Brooks’ remarks as yet another version of the Right’s attack on government assistance programs, Obama responded with a defensive question, asking, “What portion of our collective wealth and budget are we willing to invest in those things that allow a poor kid, whether in a rural town…in Appalachia or in the inner city, to access what they need both in terms of mentors and social networks, as well as decent books and computers and so forth, in order for them to succeed?”31 Obama was giving Brooks a chance to show his support for equality of opportunity for all people, not just for corporations. Brooks offered no response.

Occupy D.C. protesters outside the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. Photo: Flickr / www.GlynLowe.com

Occupy D.C. protesters outside the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Flickr / www.GlynLowe.com

Charity vs. collective action

Free market neoliberals from both sides of the aisle have not historically concerned themselves with the problems of the poor. Indeed, as the late political scientist Jean V. Hardisty and Northeastern University law professor Lucy A. Williams pointed out in their 2002 essay, “The Right’s Campaign Against Welfare,” the New Right coalition that brought Ronald Reagan to power popularized the idea that there were fewer people living in poverty than government data showed, and that anyone still in need of aid after Reagan’s implementation of supply-side economic policies, such as tax cuts for businesses, was simply abusing the system. “As a result of a decade of message development,” Hardisty and Williams wrote, “the Right was able to augment the justification for the elimination of federal social programs; they should be defunded not simply because they tax our paychecks, but because they destroy recipients’ character.”32

But conservative Christians have a more complex relationship to poverty. Care for the poor is unquestionably a central tenet of Christ’s teachings, and free market ideologues know that even the most profit-motivated Christian has been taught to give back a percentage of his or her income and time to those in need. Christian Reconstructionism33 and its “softer” counterpart, Christian Dominionism, the intellectual movements that undergird much of the Christian Right,34 offer a set of solutions for how a Christian government should treat the poor. As religion scholar Julie J. Ingersoll writes in her 2015 book Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, many of these “solutions,” which are rooted in a strictly literal interpretation of God’s law in the Bible, have filtered into the policy platforms of conservative political figures, most notably Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Rick Santorum.

According to the Reconstructionist and Dominionist worldview, only the elect, or God’s chosen few in the church, get to govern.35 These elect see it as their duty, Ingersoll writes, to “transform every aspect of culture to bring it in line with [the] Bible.”36 This follows from a Calvinist interpretation of the Bible, which posits that only the elect will get into Heaven.

“Retirement is not a Biblical concept. That is a pagan concept.” – Tea Party “Historian” David Barton

A recent example of this vision came in a July 6 video interview that self-styled Tea Party “historian” David Barton gave,37 in which he helped amplify the conservative chorus for cutting Medicare. “Retirement is not a Biblical concept,” Barton said. “That is a pagan concept.” Barton seems to be in favor of doing away with retirement altogether. But despite this hardline—and surely unpopular—position, Barton’s political star appears to be on the rise. In September, Texas senator and GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz hired Barton to lead his superPAC. Time will tell whether Barton can parlay his grassroots Tea Party network into votes for Cruz.38 But with Barton granted such an influential platform, other Christian Dominionists will likely be emboldened to promote their version of biblical government.

Faith-washing inequality

Since even a shrunken, limited government would have to remain as part of a Dominionist transformation, in recent years the Christian Right has had to address the sticky question of how government should behave toward the poor—especially within the context of unfettered global capitalism. In other words, how can the Christian Right reconcile Christ’s admonition in Matthew 25:40 to care for “the least of these” with a system of global capital that allows the one percent to hoard trillions while 16.4 million U.S. children are living in poverty?

Enter the Koch brothers and Christian free enterprise. As Peter Montgomery wrote in The Public Eye’s Spring 2015 issue, “The Koch brothers, who describe themselves 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.”39 Through the use of obscurely-named trust funds such as Themis, ORRA, and EvangCHR4,40 the fossil-fuel tycoons have established the Christian free market think tank Institute for Faith, Work and Economics (IFWE), which has set about resolving this area of potential tension between the Corporate and Christian Right.

Koch-funded theologians have developed a scripture-based argument to address populist anger over economic inequality, blending the Christian Right’s traditional Calvinist hierarchies with an economically Darwinist framework that says it is correct and just for wealth to accrue to those who manage it best.

Beyond advocating simple charity, IFWE theologians have developed a scripture-based argument to address populist anger over economic inequality, blending the Christian Right’s traditional Calvinist hierarchies—the preordained, saved “elect” vs. the rest of us41—with an economically Darwinist framework that says it is correct and just for wealth to accrue to those who manage it best.

IFWE’s Anne Rathbone Bradley, an economist and former advisor to Charles Koch,42 offers the fullest version of this argument, writing in a recent paper, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist?,”43 that people are simply “created differently, and some of us will earn higher incomes than others.”

Much of Bradley’s theological justification for this claim rests on her Calvinist interpretation of the Bible’s “Parable of the Talents,” and how it provides for what she calls “a diversity in income.” Also known as The Parable of the Bags of Gold, Matthew 25:14-30 tells of three servants and their master, who, before departing on a journey, leaves the servants to guard his wealth. To the first, he gives five bags of gold. To the second, he gives two. And to the third, only one—“each according to his ability.” Upon his return, he finds his first two “good and faithful” servants have invested and doubled the amount of gold that each was given. The third buried his master’s gold in the ground and naturally retrieved only what was given to him. This servant, who merely saved the money, was chastised as wicked and lazy, and sentenced to be thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

People are simply “created differently, and some of us will earn higher incomes than others.” – IFWE’s Anne Rathbone Bradley, former advisor to Charles Koch

Bradley sees in this parable a lesson about God-granted “diversity in abilities,” which in turn justifies and normalizes income inequality. Those who gain wealth have done so because they applied their God-given abilities. Those who have not lack the ability to do so. Bradley’s interpretation also rationalizes the perpetuation of income inequality because, had the master “given each man an equal amount, putting equality over ability,” Bradley writes, “he would have squandered his resources” by limiting his potential profits. (AEI’s Arthur Brooks echoed this point in a July interview with The Christian Post, saying, “I think Christians, in particular, can design their own thinking about politics around the 25th Chapter of Matthew, and thinking about people with less, and especially people with less power.”4546)

Using the Parable of the Talents to inform policy decisions is just the latest in a long series of Christian and Corporate Right intellectual projects. Marvin Olasky emphasized the importance of the business-faith alliance in a 2010 essay titled “Prophets and Profit,” in a Heritage Foundation anthology called Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty. “Social conservatives who revere the Bible can learn much about how to apply it from economic conservatives who share a realistic outlook,” he wrote. “Economic conservatives also can learn from biblically motivated conservatives the importance of ethical and other non-economic factors in determining economic success.”47

And for those who find themselves on the short end of the “talents”- and profits-stick? For those, Bradley and fellow IFWE theologian Art Lindsley prescribe charity, citing Proverbs 14:30 in their book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty: “whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” But they make clear that the Bible’s instructions for people don’t apply to governments, or government aid.48 Such arguments help set the table for political debates that devalue the role of government and make it easier for conservative politicians to carve into programs such as Medicare.

Christian free enterprise has thus made significant inroads in policy circles. The “bad guys” in their poverty narrative may have changed; they are no longer the “welfare queens” of the Reagan era so much as liberals accused of a “lack of civility”49 for calling free market capitalists greedy, or progressives labeled fiscally irresponsible for refusing to cut Medicare. But the narrative follows a familiar formula—one that Jean Hardisty identified in her 2000 book Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers: “skillful leaders recruiting discontented followers by offering simple explanations, complete with scapegoats, for their resentments.”50 We can see the progress this new coalition has made when even the President of the United States is compelled to defend the country’s continued investment in established public benefits on a stage with the head of the American Enterprise Institute.

SIDEBAR: Jay W. Richards: The Free Market's Culture Warrior (click to expand)

One of the “skillful” leaders—as PRA founder Jean Hardisty characterized right-wing strategists who mobilize conservatives’ resentment against poor people and communities of color—who has gone largely unremarked in the mainstream press is Jay W. Richards, a conservative Catholic who currently holds an assistant research professorship at The Catholic University of America’s School of Business and Economics. Richards has been a guest lecturer at the anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council as well as a former visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Richards, who earned his Ph.D in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, has also worked stints as a fellow at other right-wing think tanks, including the anti-evolution Discovery Institute, where he edited a book defending creationist curricula. He has authored around half a dozen other books, including the 2009 Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem.63 From his current perch at Catholic University, Richards now focuses on the Christian defense of free market capitalism.

When he isn’t building bridges between the Corporate and Christian Right, Richards is a culture warrior. He expresses transphobic, homophobic, and anti-abortion views on his social media pages. On April 10, he posted an article bearing a photo of concrete gargoyle-demons on his Facebook and Twitter pages with the caption, “The subject few are willing to broach: The Attack on Marriage Is Diabolical”—a suggestion that the devil is behind the push for same-sex marriage. On May 24, he snarked on Facebook and Twitter about the news of the Boy Scouts allowing gay troop leaders by commenting, “Sticking a crow bar in the Overton Window” next to the article title, “‘Be Prepared’: ‘Gay Men’ with Boy Scouts in Tents,” equating openly gay Scout leaders with sexual predators entering Scouts’ tents.

More recently, though, Richards has shifted his emphasis from social and cultural sniping to economic and political issues. The Christian Right is increasingly turning to Richards as a thought leader on reconciling biblical economics with homophobic, white nationalist-tinged Producerism.

Moment of opportunity

Christian Right politicians sometimes acknowledge a personal wish to help the poor. Former Virginia Congressmember Frank Wolf, speaking at an AEI event in May 2013, offered such a platitude: “I am compelled because of my faith,” he said, “to have compassion for the weak and vulnerable in our midst.”51

Working class and poor people form a diverse grassroots base that can mobilize to win political power; they may not be quite as “weak and vulnerable” as Wolf supposes. Leaders on the Right have in some ways learned to harness this power. While the 2008 economic crash led, on the Left, to the Occupy movement and the Wisconsin pro-labor uprisings of 2011 and 2012, the Tea Party used populist anger over the economy to marshal White working-class voters to sweep the state and federal legislatures in 2010. But after Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential campaign, following his tone-deaf comments about working Americans “who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,”52 conservative candidates are working harder than ever to appeal to working-class voters.

As historian Bethany Moreton, author of the 2009 book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, has observed, Tea Party leaders gained ground by building a voter base through local town hall events and involvement with White cultural institutions such as conservative churches and corporations like Walmart. Because Tea Party populism included Christian free market principles among its broadly shared core values, it has been difficult for dissenting Left groups such as the union-backed Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) and the Fight for 15 movement to disrupt Tea Party populism with a call for better treatment of workers. Thanks to Walmart’s cultural innovation of “blending Christian service ideals with free market theories,” Moreton has written,53 the company has given rise to an entire low-wage workforce in the retail sector that prefers Christian ideas about charity to collective action or government reform. “The same retail workers that progressive unions sought to organize,” writes Moreton of Walmart’s exponential growth in the 1970s and ‘80s, “report that they are more likely to turn to God for help on the job than to a union, a feminist organization, or a government agency.”

But where there are still unions, the grassroots political power of the working class still militates toward the Left. In the face of a jobless recovery and historic inequality, economic justice arguments are making an impact. The 2009-2014 decline in median wages across all income groups,54 along with high-profile demonstrations by low-wage workers, has left the Corporate Right politically vulnerable. An August Gallup poll showed that one in five U.S. workers worry they will have their hours and wages cut at work (up from the teens before the 2008 recession).55 Meanwhile, the rich keep getting richer: between 2009 and 2012, one study showed that the top one percent captured 95 percent of total income growth.56

Even in non-union regions and sectors of the workforce, movements for economic justice have gotten more sophisticated, sometimes with an analysis that appeals to Christians. The North Carolina-based Moral Mondays movement, for example, has built a robust activist base through progressive pastors and faith leaders calling for broad-based economic justice, investment in public education, and an end to inequality. Further, about a year ago, the Fight for 15 fast-food campaign began involving home care workers,57 who represent a workforce, two million strong, of mostly low-wage women, immigrants, and people of color. Although home care workers’ campaign for public support—a moral appeal called Caring Across Generations—has been underway for years, they had never before combined forces strategically to stand with other low-wage workers. The marriage of a bad mood among the voting public with effective economic justice organizing has created a moment of opportunity for mass political mobilization.

Whose vision will prevail?

Industrialist donors are not waiting around for the Christian Right to step in and help them sell their policy agenda of dismantling government benefits. Instead, as demonstrated above, they have begun recruiting—and funding—experienced Christian scholars and public relations experts to make their case in the media and on college campuses. The Koch-funded IFWE is one center for this activity; so is the Foundation for Economic Education, a project of the ultraconservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy run by libertarian leader Lawrence Reed58; and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that takes aim at mainline churches with funding from neoconservative and Christian Right groups.59

But their victory is by no means assured. Communities of color who were pilloried and thrown off the welfare rolls under President Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act were, it turns out, the canaries in the coal mine. Now, most of the White workforce finds its wages cut; many have had to go on food stamps or apply for other benefits. Indeed, 40.2 percent of 2013 food stamp recipient household heads were White60; in addition, more than half of 2013 Medicare beneficiaries were White in all states except Hawaii and the District of Columbia.61

Now, while Producerist right-wing populists like Trump demonize immigrants and liberal elites as moochers (and worse62), some Corporate and Christian Right leaders are offering another line: that everyone flourishes according to his or her talents. This approach could appeal to those conservative Christians unconvinced by market logic and resistant to the mean-spirited attacks of Trump and the Tea Party..

Christian Right and Corporate Right thought leaders like Barton, Bradley, and Brooks may use gentler language that strikes a chord with some conservatives, but the policies they promote bespeak a different vision. The elitism that undergirds their collaboration is fundamentally at odds with the equality of economic opportunity that liberals, and even some Republicans, hold as a core value.

In a world where the Parable of the Talents justifies regressive economic policy, those who lack property are left to fend for themselves.

The coalition of Christian conservatives and free market fundamentalists promotes a vision that elevates property rights—rather than human rights—to the level of sacred principle. With wages continuing to fall even as the business world recovers from the Great Recession, it is clear that enacting policy according to this principle leads to profit for a few, and suffering for many.

In a world where the Parable of the Talents justifies regressive economic policy, those who lack property are left to fend for themselves. But there is another way. It is not enough for those who desire economic justice to ridicule or denounce the overtly racist rhetoric of a Donald Trump. Politicians also need to hear a full-throated rejection of the narratives that treat poor people, immigrants, and people of color as “the least of these” or “assets to develop.” Such messages infantilize everyone who may one day rely on widely supported social safety nets; they are also portents of the broader benefit cuts that conservatives hope to enact. Now that billionaires have already purchased many of the mechanisms of democracy, people who do not want a future without programs such as Medicare and Social Security must act quickly to join and strengthen the collective movements that can defend them.

Mariya Strauss is PRA’s Economic Justice Researcher. 

Jaime Longoria contributed research and reporting to this article.


1 “The Facts on Medicare Spending and Financing,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, July 24, 2015, http://kff.org/medicare/fact-sheet/medicare-spending-and-financing-fact-sheet/.

2 Philip Moeller, “Medicare coverage for aging parents’ care is not nearly enough,” PBS.org, July 22, 2015, www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/medicare-coverage-aging-parents-care-nearly-enough/.

3 Philip Rucker, “Sen. DeMint of S.C. Is Voice of Opposition to Health-Care Reform,” The Washington Post, July 28, 2009, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/27/AR2009072703066_2.html.

4 David Weigel, “Poll: 70 percent of ‘Tea Party Supporters’ oppose Medicare cuts,” Slate, April 19, 2011. http://www.slate.com/blogs/weigel/2011/04/19/poll_70_percent_of_tea_party_supporters_oppose_medicare_cuts.html

5 Amanda Becker, “Americans don’t like big government–but like many programs: poll”, Reuters, April 30, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/30/us-usa-election-libertarians-idUSKBN0NL15B20150430

6 Suzanne Mettler, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (Chicago Studies in American Politics), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), Kindle Locations 333-335.

7 Molly Moorhead, “Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax,” PolitiFact.com, September 18, 2012, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/sep/18/mitt-romney/romney-says-47-percent-americans-pay-no-income-tax/.

8 William Greider, “Why Today’s GOP Crackup Is the Final Unraveling of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’,” The Nation, Oct. 12, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/why-todays-gop-crackup-is-the-final-unraveling-of-nixons-southern-strategy/.

9Jeb Bush: We Need to “Phase Out” Medicare  [Video] Retrieved September 21, 2015, from https://youtu.be/Ry_fRjLyE68.

10 Jonnelle Marte, “Marco Rubio’s plan to fix America’s Retirement System,” The Washington Post, May 13, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2014/05/13/marco-rubios-plan-to-fix-americas-retirement-system/.

11 “Walker had proposed forcing tens of thousands of participants in the state program to enroll in private plans through the federal Medicare Part D benefit.” See: Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, “GOP Lawmakers Restore SeniorCare Benefits,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, May 21, 2015, http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/joint-finance-to-deal-today-with-troubled-wedc-cuts-to-seniorcare-b99504512z1-304551231.html.

12 For a fuller discussion of how free market economic ideologues co-evolved with the Christian Right, see: Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against The New Deal. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).

13 Kevin M. Kruse, “A Christian Nation? Since When?,” The New York Times, March 14, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/opinion/sunday/a-christian-nation-since-when.html?_r=0 and http://religiondispatches.org/capitalism-and-christianity/.

14 Tara Culp-Ressler, “Jeb Bush Quietly Suggests ‘Phasing Out’ Medicare,” ThinkProgress.org, July 23, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/health/2015/07/23/3683804/jeb-bush-medicare/.

15 Geraldo L. Cadava, “Will Latino Voters Support Jeb Bush?,” The Atlantic, September 1, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/jeb-bush-inadequate-latino-ties/402748/.

16 As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out, Putnam’s latest book suffers from an unwillingness to confront the root causes of inequality; yet Putnam is still viewed by many as an authority on the subject. See: Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, “Lost Opportunity,” Democracy Journal 38 (Fall 2015), http://www.democracyjournal.org/38/lost-opportunity.php?page=all.

17 “Obama at Georgetown: Now is the Time to Invest in Helping the Poor,” Georgetown University, May 12, 2015, https://www.georgetown.edu/news/poverty-summit-2015-with-obama.html.

18 One example of this reviling of the poor can be found in this white paper from an AEI scholar: Nicholas Eberstadt, “American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State”, American Enterprise Institute, January 5, 2015, https://www.aei.org/publication/american-exceptionalism-entitlement-state/.

19 Suzanne Mettler, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (Chicago Studies in American Politics), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), Kindle Edition (Locations 410-413).

20 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

21 Brooks is referring to a strain of neoliberal economics that focuses on maximizing what late 20th century economists such as Gary Becker termed “human capital,” or the education and job skills of members of a given population. The human capital of a country is one yardstick that international financiers such as the World Bank uses to measure how developed that country is for the purposes of calculating how much austerity to impose on that country as part of economic restructuring. See: http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/1995/03/01/000009265_3970702134116/Rendered/PDF/multi0page.pdf.

22 Arthur C. Brooks, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, (New York: HaperCollins, 2015), 68, http://www.amazon.com/dp/0062319752/.

23 Sean Sullivan, “Jeb Bush: Win Black Voters with Aspiration, Not Free Stuff,” The Washington Post, September 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/09/24/jeb-bush-win-black-voters-with-aspiration-not-free-stuff/.

24 Patricia Cohen, “Public-Sector Jobs Vanish, Hitting Blacks Hard,” New York Times, May 24, 2015, http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/05/25/business/public-sector-jobs-vanish-and-blacks-take-blow.html.

25 Andy Kroll, “Exposed: The Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement,” Mother Jones, February 5, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/donors-trust-donor-capital-fund-dark-money-koch-bradley-devos.

26 Center for Media and Democracy, “Ties to the Koch Brothers,” SourceWatch.org, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/American_Enterprise_Institute#cite_note-7.

27 Joseph E. Lowndes, From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism, (Michigan: Yale University Press, 2008).

28 Ben Koons, “Compassionate Conservatism: An interview with Marvin Olasky,” The Princeton Tory, April 22, 2012, http://theprincetontory.com/main/compassionate-conservatism-an-interview-with-marvin-olasky/.

29 Bill Berkowitz, “Tilting at Faith-based Windmills,” The Public Eye, July 1, 2002, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2002/07/01/tilting-at-faith-based-windmills/#sthash.fLhY6V1P.dpbs.

30 Clarkson, Frederick. “An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs,” The Public Eye, Fall 2014, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/10/an-uncharitable-choice-the-faith-based-takeover-of-federal-programs/.

31 President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Conversation on Poverty at Georgetown University,” The White House—Office of Press Secretary, May 12, 2015. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/05/12/remarks-president-conversation-poverty-georgetown-university.

32 Jean V. Hardisty and Lucy A. Williams, “The Right’s Campaign Against Welfare,” From Poverty to Punishment: How Welfare Reform Punishes the Poor, Applied Research Center, Gary Delgado, ed., 2002, http://www.jeanhardisty.com/writing/articles-chapters-and-reports/the-rights-campaign-against-welfare/.

33 Leo P. Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War, (Philadelphia, Pa: Temple University Press, 1983).

34 Chip Berlet, “The Roots of Dominionism,” Political Research Associates, http://www.publiceye.org/christian_right/dom_roots.html.

35 Peter Montgomery, “Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire Mandate,” The Public Eye, April 21, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/04/21/biblical-economics-the-divine-laissez-faire-mandate/.

36 Julie J. Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 49.

37 “RWW News: David Barton Says God Opposes Retirement Because It ‘Is A Pagan Concept.’”  YouTube video, 1:55.  Posted by “RWW Blog,” July 6, 2015, http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/barton-god-opposes-retirement-because-it-pagan-concept

38 Zachary Mider, “PAC Built by Ted Cruz Mega-Donors Gets Evangelical Leader,” Bloomberg Politics, September 9, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2015-09-09/pac-built-by-ted-cruz-mega-donors-gets-evangelical-leader.

39 Peter Montgomery, “Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire Mandate,” The Public Eye, April 21, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/04/21/biblical-economics-the-divine-laissez-faire-mandate/.

40 In an August 22, 2015 blog post at PRWatch, Lisa Graves, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy and an expert on the Koch brothers, wrote that EVANGCHR4 “is legally tied to a mysterious limited liability corporation called ‘ORRA LLC,’ which received more than $5 million from the Kochs’ Freedom Partners operation.” Graves also established that Family Research Council Action, the nonprofit arm of the Family Research Council, received funding from EVANGCHR4 between June 2013 and May 2014, when disgraced TV reality star Josh Duggar was head of FRC Action. See: http://www.prwatch.org/node/12914.

41 Researcher Chip Berlet explained the basis of Calvinist theocracy in this magazine in 2004: “These ‘Elect’ were originally thought to be the only people going to Heaven. To the Calvinists, material success and wealth was a sign that you were one of the Elect, and thus were favored by God. Who better to shepherd a society populated by God’s wayward children?” See: http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v18n3/berlet_calvinism.html.

42 Lisa Graves, “Josh Duggar-led Group Funded via Koch Brothers Freedom Partners Operation,” PR Watch, August 22, 2015, http://www.prwatch.org/node/12914.

43 Anne R. Bradley, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist? – Part Two,” Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, June 5, 2012, http://tifwe.org/resources/income-inequality/part-two/.

44 Ibid.

45 Napp Nazworth, “Arthur Brooks: Conservative Policies Help the Powerless, Christians Can Lead the Way (Interview),” The Christian Post, July 15, 2015, http://www.christianpost.com/news/arthur-brooks-conservative-policies-help-the-powerless-christians-can-lead-the-way-interview-141520/.

46 Contrary to the teachings of the “prosperity gospel” popularized in the mid-2000s, this version of Christian capitalism says that those of any faith, not just Christianity, can become wealthy. Where Prosperity Gospel held no hope for non-Christians, this defense of inequality encourages the listener to aspire: if I have the right skill sets and abilities, I too can one day “flourish,” or amass wealth.

47 Marvin Olasky, “Profit: Prophets and Profit,” in Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty, (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 2010), 41.

48 Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley, Eds., Forward by Arthur C. Brooks, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), http://www.amazon.com/For-Least-These-Biblical-Poverty/dp/0310522994#reader_0310522994.

49 Jim Wallis and Jay Richards: The Common Good and the Church. YouTube video. Posted by “Henry Center,” July 6, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnV7jvroX6U.

50 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 12.

51 “Competing Visions of the Common Good: Rethinking Help for the Poor,” American Enterprise Institute, May 23, 2013, http://www.aei.org/events/competing-visions-of-the-common-good-rethinking-help-for-the-poor/.

52 David Corn, “Secret Video: Romney Tells Millionaire Donors What He REALLY Thinks of Obama Voters,” Mother Jones, September 17, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/secret-video-romney-private-fundraiser.

53 Moreton, Bethany and Voekel, Pamela. “Learning from the Right: A New Operation Dixie?” in Katz, Daniel and Greenwald, Richard A., eds., Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America, (New York: The New Press, 2012), 26-36.

54 National Employment Law Project, “Occupational Wage Declines Since the Great Recession,” NELP Data Brief, September 2015, http://www.nelp.org/content/uploads/Occupational-Wage-Declines-Since-the-Great-Recession.pdf.

55 Rebecca Riffkin, “One in Five Employed Americans Worried About Wage Reduction,” GALLUP.com, August 31, 2015, http://www.gallup.com/poll/185000/one-five-employed-americans-worried-wage-reduction.aspx.

56 Estelle Sommeiller and Mark Price, “The Increasingly Unequal States of America: Income Inequality by State, 1917 to 2012,” Economic Policy Institute, Jan. 26, 2015. http://www.epi.org/publication/income-inequality-by-state-1917-to-2012/.

57 “Mr. Reed runs Mackinac (pronounced MAK-in-aw), the largest of the right’s state-level policy institutes. The center started its training program eight years ago, and it has alumni in nearly every state and 37 countries, from Uruguay to Nepal.” See: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/17/us/politics/17thinktank.html?ex=1321419600&en=3b6af3fbfa4ff01e&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss%C2%A0&_r=0.

58 Frederick Clarkson, “The Campaign to Undermine Pro-LGBTQ Churches,” Political Research Associates, March 29, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/03/29/the-campaign-to-undermine-pro-lgbtq-churches/#sthash.tmXZsvUY.dpbs.

59 Alissa Scheller and Arthur Delaney, “Who Gets Food Stamps? White People, Mostly,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/28/food-stamp-demographics_n_6771938.html.

60 The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “Distribution of Medicare Beneficiaries by Race/Ethnicity,” http://kff.org/medicare/state-indicator/medicare-beneficiaries-by-raceethnicity/#map.

61 Jen Hayden, “Trump supporters behaving badly, several immigration activists assaulted at rallies,” Daily Kos, September 14, 2015, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/09/14/1421139/-Trump-supporters-behaving-badly-several-immigration-activists-assaulted-at-rallies.

62 Kyle Mantyla of Right Wing Watch reviewed Money, Greed, and God in 2010, and summarized its premise: “As Richards explains, any inequality that results from unrestricted, deregulated free trade is part of God’s will because the entire system of free market capitalism is God’s means of working his will in the world.” See: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/random-book-blogging-money-greed-and-god.


GOP Lawmaker Reveals ALEC-style Group Pushing Model Anti-Worker Bills

Co-authored by Eli Lee

Even as ALEC, the infamous bill-mill that produces right-wing model legislation for state lawmakers, hemorrhages corporate members and is discredited as a neutral voice in politics, other groups are adopting its tactics. PRA interviewed one conservative California lawmaker who said that SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, has begun using ALEC’s playbook to court lawmakers and push anti-worker policies.

Pictured left to right: CalSHRM Director-elect Patti Blosser, California Assemblyman Brian Jones (R-Santee), SHRM A-team Captain Hector Moncada and Mike Letizia, CalSHRM’s state director.

Pictured left to right: CalSHRM Director-elect Patti Blosser, California Assemblyman Brian Jones (R-Santee), SHRM A-team Captain Hector Moncada and Mike Letizia, CalSHRM’s state director.

SHRM, which PRA has reported on in recent months, has spent several years building a lobbying infrastructure on the state level, and—especially in California—it is seeing those efforts bear fruit in the form of close relationships with lawmakers and legislative victories over organized labor and workers’ rights.

SHRM deploys its full-time lobbyists and nationwide network of member lobbyists to push back against any expansion of the overtime laws that would ensure workers putting in more than 40 hours actually receive their due overtime pay. They’re also fighting against paid sick days laws (which have repeatedly been shown to have a low-cost public health benefit to employers, workers and communities), and against any expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). For example, in 2013, SHRM testified against a proposal in Pennsylvania that would have allowed workers to use unpaid FMLA leave to care for their ailing siblings as well as parents or children.

Now, it appears that SHRM is not only opposing workers’ rights, but it is also taking a page out of the ALEC playbook and beginning to use model bills.

California Assemblymember Brian Jones, a Republican from eastern San Diego County, spoke with us about how SHRM’s lobbyists are not only advocating for employer-friendly policies, but are actually offering legislation to lawmakers to change workplace rules to give employers more control over their employees. According to Jones, the association for human resources professionals engages in intense lobbying to try to tilt the public policy playing field more in employers’ favor.

“The first step is they contact my office, and they ask if I would be interested in sponsoring the legislation, and if I say yes, then we introduce the legislation,” says Jones.

“We change the language a little bit … we really tried to package it as an employee bill, so that it benefits employees, whereas previously it had been packaged as an employer bill.” -CA Assemblymember Brian Jones

According to Jones, in recent years these efforts have included working on a bill that would relax the overtime rules to allow for an”employee-selected” schedule of ten hours a day, four days per week instead of five eight-hour days.

Workers’ rights advocates have pointed to two types of problems that could arise from such legislation.The National Partnership for Women and Families cautioned that workers might be coerced into adopting this schedule, explaining that “employers would be able to implement this schedule without any obligation to pay overtime.” Teamsters Joint Council 7 of California agreed in a statement, saying that “This would allow an employer to circumvent the 8-hour day as long as an individual employee ‘voluntarily’ agrees to work more than 8 hours without overtime pay. We know how this would go in workplaces where workers are routinely exploited … everybody would be forced to work extra hours and nobody would be paid overtime.”

Another potential problem with AB 1038 was that it could introduce confusion about which workers are eligible to receive overtime pay, potentially undermining the more stringent federal laws governing the right to receive overtime. “We opposed it and so did the California Labor Federation and other unions,” said Jenya Cassidy, director of the California Work & Family Coalition. “It is what we in the work-family world call ‘bad flex’ because it is designed to chip away at overtime rights. A lot of employer groups support ‘flex’ that benefits employers more than workers.”

But with the help of Corporate Right lawmakers such as Jones, SHRM managed to spin this bill, deceptively called the Workplace Flexibility Act, as a boon to workers. Jones introduced the bill in its present form in 2012 and 2013, but it has yet to pass. Jones said that even before 2012, he and SHRM already had support from “the different pro-business associations” for the bill. “CalChamber—California Chamber of Commerce, they’re the big one, CMTA, the manufacturer’s association… a lot of the associations are helping out with it.”

Jones described how SHRM and lawmakers market such bills to Democrats and others in the CA legislature who may be more labor-friendly. “We change the language a little bit,” Jones says. “The main thing that we did in 2012, compared to prior attempts at the legislation, is we really tried to package it as an employee bill, so that it benefits employees, whereas previously it had been packaged as an employer bill. So that’s kind of how we were able to get more press this time and more notice from interest groups who hadn’t taken a look at it before.”

SHRM has recently taken a lead role nationally on other workplace policy issues, siding firmly with the employer community against workers’ right to unionize and earn overtime. As PRA reported in July, SHRM has pressured the Department of Labor to stop promulgating its new rule expanding overtime protections to a greater number of workers. And in California, according to Jones (who says he is a member of ALEC himself), SHRM is actively working the statehouse, promoting bills that would restrict workers’ rights and leave them open to employer abuses. “There’s lots of conversations that take place between their legislative director and my legislative director, on tactics and how we’re going to get it publicized, how we’re going to get it noticed by the members, who’s going to talk to which members about getting votes, and that sort of thing,” Jones said.

One may not think of a professional association for human resources specialists as having ALEC’s level of access to, and influence over, lawmakers. But, if California is indicative of how SHRM lobbies nationwide, SHRM does appear to be moving in that direction.

Eli Lee is a junior at Harvard University, currently studying history. He was a PRA research intern during the summer of 2015, investigating labor rights and economic justice.

The Long Hurricane – 10 years later

It’s been ten years since the Category 3 hurricane named Katrina came ashore in Louisiana, causing over 1,800 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. Five years after the storm, Political Research Associates published the below piece in The Public Eye magazine as a recap of how the U.S. Right had used Katrina as leverage to institute new neoliberal policies. A public hospital that had served the majority of the emergency services for low-income New Orleans neighborhoods was torn down in favor of a much more expensive facility (which opponents dubbed “The Taj Ma-Hospital”). Public schools were shuttered in favor of a charter school system that today boasts some of the lowest educational levels in the country. Union teachers were effectively banned from the system as the State took advantaged of the cheap labor provided by well-meaning young college grads who were flocking to New Orleans to help after the storm. The state also leaped at the opportunity to gentrify some poor neighborhoods, relocating the former residents to various upper-middle class areas where they could be “taught” to live “better.”

Ten years later, New Orleans remains a Black-majority city, and tens of thousands of its working-class citizens have returned in spite of all the exclusionary obstacles and dangers. Movements to re-establish the public schools, health system, and affordable housing are opposing privatization and continuing to organize. Yet many are still battling Hurricane Katrina – a storm that hasn’t yet ended. The storm waters may have receded, but as Darwin BondGraham wrote for us five years ago, the tidal wave of Economic Right policies has yet to retreat. -PRA

The Long Hurricane

The New Orleans Catastrophe Predates Katrina

By Darwin BondGraham, Nov 1, 2010

Members of Survivors Village, an organization of displaced New Orleans public-housing tenants, and their supporters occupy the Columbia Parc rental office in June 2010.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina and the “federal flood,” as locals call the disaster, the new New Orleans is as much the product of decades of antiwelfare ideology in local and national governments as it is of the unique circumstances of the disaster. Since the storm, a resurgent racist business elite has gained power in the city and region, and instituted a new era of urban renewal—or, as community activists termed it the first time around, in the 1960s, “Negro removal.” Privatization of New Orleans’ public sector has proceeded to a degree that real estate, banking, and industry leaders in other regions only dream of. Federal disaster subsidies have enabled reinvestment in the state’s major economic sectors—oil and gas, shipping, military, and tourism. Characterized by low wages and ecocidal byproducts, these industries dominate state and city politics. Yet New Orleans is held up as a model of redevelopment, its innovations made possible by an unfortunate storm called Katrina.

Concurrent with this neoliberal economic project is a neoconservative cultural project, the goal of which is to remold impoverished Blacks and other underclass people—who are portrayed by the redevelopers as living in a pathological state of dependency, turned into irresponsible burdens on society by decades of failed big government—into “productive citizens.” Foundations both liberal and conservative have converged on New Orleans to experiment with housing, schools, parks, and economic development.

Read More

HR Lobbying Group Leading the Charge Against Labor Department’s Overtime Expansion

With few exceptions, it’s been decades since U.S. employers have had to sit across the bargaining table with their employees’ unions. Now that workers have less ability to protect their own interests, they are more vulnerable to the tricks businesses use to extract ever-greater profits from them, such as wage theft, forced overtime, and other abuses.

Meanwhile, employers and their corporate lobbying groups such as the National Restaurant Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), have grown used to squeezing the most productivity out of the lowest-paid workers—without much interference. They have, either by stacking the regulatory agencies and Congressional committees with corporate insiders (such as former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao), or by presenting themselves as neutral experts on policy instead of industry shills, so successfully managed to kill any new rules or regulations on industry that they profess shock and bewilderment when one manages to get proposed.

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

When the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a rule on June 30th to expand the pool of workers eligible to receive overtime pay, the Partnership to Protect Workplace Opportunity(PPWO), an ad-hoc (or Astroturf) coalition of employers’ lobby groups chaired by SHRM (pronounced Sherm), had its lawyers draft a letter of shock and dismay, requesting that the DOL extend the comment period for the rule to give employers more time to respond to it.

It was almost a believable performance.

SHRM: Not just a professional association

SHRM, which PRA profiled back in March, is part of the nexus of dark-money corporate lobbying groups blanketing Washington, D.C. and statehouses with talking points and testimony to kill almost every proposed workplace regulations. Though the PPWO doesn’t list any leadership on its website, SHRM revealed in a memo to its members dated November 10, 2014, “SHRM is chairing the Partnership to Protect Workplace Opportunity.”

So far, SHRM has hesitated to publicly take the lead on many anti-worker measures, preferring to allow more overt union-busting groups (such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the International Franchise Association) to come to the fore on public policy. But, with its claim of a membership base of 275,000 human resource professionals, and a multi-million dollar lobbying operation since 2007, SHRM has invested eight years and millions of dollars carefully positioning itself as a neutral, expert authority on workplace-related policies. Yet it uses its influence in Congress to push for measures that may are so blatantly anti-worker, it might even surprise its own human resources members, such as using the appropriations process to defund the National Labor Relations Board—a fight that is indeed coming to pass as of this writing.

They are also actively lobbying to halt such basic protections as the Labor Department’s new rule to raise the threshold for who is considered “exempt” from making overtime pay. (The new rule would extend overtime protections to nearly 5 million workers, who for years have been stuck in an exception meant for high-paid executives and working 50-60 hours every week without any overtime pay.)

In anticipation of such an expansion under the regulate-and-enforce watch of Wage and Hour Division chief David Weil, SHRM has been door-knocking around Capitol Hill and in statehouses, pitching its own legislation to address American workers’ chronic overwork problem—but worker advocates say SHRM’s bill would actually drive down wages.

Replace overtime with “comp time?”

The “comp time” legislation that SHRM supports would benefit employers at the direct expense of workers. In 2012, members of SHRM’s Alabama chapter visited D.C. to meet with members of their state’s Congressional delegation. The following year, Republican Alabama Congresswoman Martha Roby introduced the Working Families Flexibility Act—a bill that would allow employers to offer workers comp time credit (where workers who put in over 40 hours per week earn credit hours to later use as leave) instead of overtime pay. The bill has no enforcement provision to ensure that workers would get anything for working over 40 hours in a week. (Similar bills were previously submitted by Republicans in 1997 and 2003.)

Congresswoman Roby specifically mentioned SHRM’s support has having been “instrumental” in the effort to pass the bill. And although the bill died in the Senate that year, Roby once again reintroduced it in early 2015 with SHRM’s support.

SHRM knew that the DOL was likely going to begin cracking down on this abuse of workers sooner or later. In November 2014, SHRM expressed its worry that the DOL might revise the overtime exemption rule in favor of paying workers more, couching its concern about how complex the law might become when it said in a statement:

“The current FLSA regulations present practical challenges when classifying positions…Rigid FLSA regulations also make it difficult for employers to provide workplace flexibility to nonexempt employees. Substantial changes to the overtime regulations could further limit workplace flexibility for employees.”

But the DOL’s new rule couldn’t be simpler, even for the smallest employers.  Employees may not be considered exempt from overtime unless they make at or above the 40th percentile of all full-time salaried employees ($921 per week, or $47,892 for a full-year worker, in 2013). If an employee makes less than that,  you will have to pay them overtime for working more than 40 hours per week. What is more, you have to pay them overtime even if they make above the 40th percentile unless they are executive, administrative, professional, outside sales, or computer employees.  Application of these criteria for exempting workers from overtime is called the “duties test.”

The new rule will serve to remedy the current situation, with workers making only $455 per week, or about $23,000 per year, being considered salaried and exempted from overtime eligibility. The fact that the exempt salary level has been stuck at this amount since 2004 means that a huge number of people are being expected to work more than 40 hours per week without any additional pay. Under the new rule, employers might be less cavalier about assigning people to come in to work on weekends or stay after hours. (While the salary threshold is definitely being raised, the DOL says it wants input from the public on whether it should change the duties test; it has opened a public comment period that will remain open until Sept. 4 of this year.)

The “regulated community” strikes back? 

SHRM’s astroturf group PPWO’s July 13 request for an extension of the comment period is transparent in its outrage at the Labor Department for having the gall to require that employers pay overtime.  What is clear in the letter is that PPWO interprets the term “workplace flexibility” to mean “flexibility in the law for employers to do as they please.”

“The Partnership’s members believe that employees and employers alike are best served with a system that promotes maximum flexibility in structuring employee hours, career advancement opportunities for employees, and clarity for employers when classifying employees. The DOL’s proposed regulation…would dramatically impact the ability of the Partnership’s members to maintain that flexibility and clarity.

“The proposed massive increase to the salary level—more than doubling the current level—is far higher than the Partnership anticipated…”

Several times in the letter, the PPWO refers to itself as “the regulated community”. This is an interesting lens through which to view the DOL’s action, which was done to update the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act in favor of giving overtime pay to more workers—not to put employers’ priorities in the foreground.

Yet having their priorities pulled into the spotlight appears to be exactly what the SHRM-led coalition expected from the DOL. The letter angrily concludes:

“The Department could have used the substantial input it received during the 15 months it spent considering the President’s directive to develop a…proposal that was…reflective of the input it received. Instead, it issued a proposed rule that it could have just as easily issued 14 months ago.”

Such posturing shows that employers have grown unaccustomed to government enforcing and updating labor law to protect workers. But given the crisis in U.S. employment, with unions in decline, wages stagnating, and workers being expected to grow the economy by working ever longer hours and increasing their productivity, it is past time for government to do just that.

Eli Lee contributed research to this article.

White House Fails to Reveal Faith-Based Initiative Budget, Though Some Agencies Will Share Theirs

President Obama may not have continued George W. Bush’s over-reliance on religious organizations to carry out the functions of government. But six years into the “most transparent administration,” the activities and budget of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships remain troublingly opaque.

“If the body of Christ is gonna raise its hand and strike a blow against poverty, against disease…then I want that hand to hold within it every tool at its disposal, including the tool of a servant-led government. And that’s the job of my office.” That’s how Joshua DuBois, former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during President Barack Obama’s first term, described the role of this executive office. Today, 13 federal agencies—including the U.S Departments of Education, Labor, Justice, and Homeland Security—are home to faith-based centers that redirect millions of public dollars to religious organizations. These faith-based liaison offices serve a variety of functions for religious organizations in communities, including: offering information and technical assistance for accessing government grants, providing training opportunities, and connecting these organization with schools, businesses, prisons, and more.

In 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama promised

In 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to make faith-based initiatives more transparent and accountable.

But it is the White House Office that has drawn the most scrutiny, since that is where the President defines the executive branch’s relationship with religious organizations. Since their inception, faith-based initiatives have served as a means for the government to funnel public dollars to private religious organizations, raising (in some cases) issues of transparency and church-state separation. My look into this historically controversial office, now run by religious liberty scholar Melissa Rogers, reveals that unfortunately—as far as transparency is concerned—little has changed.

In a July 2014 article for The Nation, journalist Andy Kopsa exposed a continued basic lack of transparency under Obama, as well as some revelations about what alarming activities this lack of transparency has kept hidden. Political Research Associates senior fellow for religious freedom, Frederick Clarkson, also researched some dangerous implications of the faith-based privatization of public services in The Public Eye magazine last year. Kopsa and Clarkson’s work raised questions about the White House Office’s use of federal tax dollars and potential violations of both federal law and the idea—foundational to the nation—of the separation between church and state. Though the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is still funded, there is little evidence that Obama is delivering on his promise to make faith-based partnerships accountable or transparent. 

What Is the Office’s budget? 

In order to find out the current budget for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, I contacted the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute. In an emailed statement, Communications Associate Anthony Martinez replied, “We don’t have the information you requested, nor do any of our experts know of any kind of published source where it can be found.”

I also called the White House’s Budget Review Division and spoke to a representative who promised to promptly return my call. After leaving several further messages, however, she never got back in touch.

The faith-based liaison offices within the Cabinet were more responsive to my requests. Hoping to track down concrete budget information, I emailed all 14 faith-based centers, housed within 13 executive branch agencies and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

“We don’t have the information you requested, nor do any of our experts know of any kind of published source where it can be found.”

I received one return-to-sender error message (the listed email address for Josh Dickson, director of the U.S. Department of Commerce Center for Faith Based & Neighborhood Partnerships, leads nowhere), and of the 13 emails that were delivered, I received four responses with direct answers to my request. The Centers for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Veteran Affairs, Justice, and Housing and Urban Development all sent me their budgets for 2014 and 2015, which ranged from $339,000 to $1,181,0001.

The remaining nine emails were not answered.

These faith-based centers operate as a liaison between religious and community groups and the federal government. They carry out executive mandates ensuring religious groups have equal access to government grants for public services within the scope of their department. Ultimately, these centers are implementing federal mandates. The drive to deepen partnerships between religious groups and government emanates from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. 

If neither a researcher nor budget policy experts are able to track down basic budget information, what else about the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is unavailable to the public?

The program’s troubled origins 

Explicit partnerships between religious organizations and government began with the passage of “Charitable Choice” legislation as part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act during the Clinton Administration. For the first time, religious institutions could compete for federal grants on an equal basis with secular groups. As Clarkson describes, Charitable Choice was the forerunner to President George W. Bush’s more explicit faith-based initiatives:

“[I]t was the first time Congress gave explicit legislative direction to federal agencies to provide religious institutions with grants and contracts to carry out federal programs on an equal basis with other groups—without requiring that religious groups separate out their religious agendas. Critics presciently observed this risked problematic entanglements between church and state. Even President Clinton was concerned enough to issue signing statements as Charitable Choice provisions were added to federal legislation. On one such occasion, he said that his administration would not ‘permit governmental funding of religious organizations that do not or cannot separate their religious activities from [federally funded program] activities,’ because such funding would violate the Constitution.”

Just nine days after President George W. Bush took office in 2001, he proclaimed faith-based organizations “indispensable,” and unveiled the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Bush adopted a controversial provision exempting religiously-affiliated grant recipients from federally mandated equal opportunity hiring practices – a matter DuBois described as “entirely unresolved.” President Bush’s exemption for religious groups continues to date.

Even more concerning, the Bush Administration never built any transparency into the Faith-Based Office, nor did it publish evidence of the initiatives’ purported positive impact on the welfare of poor communities.

Then there is the issue of religious influence. During his candidacy, Obama promised that the grant money would not be used to proselytize or discriminate against the people it was supposedly designed to help. But this promised restraint on the part of federal-funded religious groups never materialized. Abstinence-only and Responsible Fatherhood initiatives continue to secure millions in federal dollars. These in turn fund anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers and anti-LGBTQ organizations like the Children’s AIDS Fund, which advocates ex-gay therapy. Unfortunately, as investigative journalist Andy Kopsa found, “an entire federally funded evangelical economy took root during the Bush years, and under Obama it continues to thrive.”

Considering the prickly issue of government and religious entanglement embedded in these debates, the need for transparency into the activities of this office is especially pressing. We are six years into the self-proclaimed “most transparent administration.” Despite the volatile nature of these partnerships and the demonstrated need for public accountability, the President’s promise seems to have failed to materialize for this White House Office.

[1] The four departments that responded to my request provided the following information:

  • Department of HUD Faith- Based Office Budget:
    • 2014: $1,170,000
    • 2015: $1,181,000
  • Department of Agriculture Faith- Based Office Budget:
    • 2014: $366,983
    • 2015: $373,000
  • Department of Justice Faith- Based Office Budget:
    • 2014: $339,120
    • 2015: $344,330
  • Department of Veteran Affairs Faith-Based Office Budget:
    • 2014: $620,000
    • 2015: $479,000

Neo-Confederate South Loses Again – This Time to Free-Market Neoliberalism

After nine Black churchgoers were gunned down in Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate battle flag is driving a wedge between neo-Confederates and free-market neoliberals.

A worker removes a Confederate flag from the Alabama Capitol grounds on June 24, 2015. image via AL.com

A worker removes a Confederate flag from the Alabama Capitol grounds on June 24, 2015. image via AL.com

The Confederate battle flag became the banner of the White supremacist South during the desegregation of the 1960s, has since been flown on several Southern state capitols, and has become an emotionally-charged White Southern cultural icon.  In recent weeks, it has become the target of much of the country’s revulsion at the June 17 assassinations of South Carolina state senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight other Black citizens in a Charleston, South Carolina church.  The removal of the flag from state capitols, and its image from retail store shelves, has sparked some anger among neo-Confederates who want the symbol displayed prominently in civic and popular culture.

Bad for business

Walmart announced June 22 that it would move to take Confederate flag-themed merchandise off shelves, making it the first major retailer to do so. Other retailers, including Sears, eBay, Etsy and Amazon have since followed suit. Yet Walmart is a company based in the South, and has built its corporate culture around conservative Christian values. One could be forgiven for being a bit perplexed by the retail giant’s rush to be first to ban the Confederate battle flag from its supply chain.

In a similar move, albeit with less fanfare, Alabama’s Republican Governor Robert Bentley ordered June 24 that all Confederate flags—including the battle flag—be removed from the state capitol grounds in Montgomery, where they had been flown over a Civil War memorial since 19941. The AL.com news site quoted Bentley’s low-key public statement June 24 after the flags came down:

“Asked his reasons for taking it down and if it included what happened in Charleston last week, the governor said, ‘Yes, partially this is about that. This is the right thing to do. We are facing some major issues in this state regarding the budget and other matters that we need to deal with. This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward. I have taxes to raise, we have work to do. And it was my decision that the flag needed to come down.’”

It is interesting that Bentley mentioned taxes and economics in his statement, rather than simply condemning the flag as a symbol of the South’s violently racist past.

In the case of Walmart, one might well ask what economic or political benefit the company gets from making such a move. In recent years, Walmart has repeatedly done the symbolic “right thing” as long as it can find another way to benefit financially. For example, Walmart announced in February that it would raise the wages of its lowest-paid U.S.-based employees to $9 per hour – a move that turned out to be mostly a symbolic gesture to counteract its anti-worker image. In the case of the Confederate battle flag, vendors are telling the press that the sales of flag merchandise were never enough to justify angering customers who have been outraged by the South Carolina massacre

What is Neoliberalism? “Neoliberalism is the economic, social, and political analysis that best describes the startlingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. today. Neoliberalism, and the policies it undergirds, results from the triumph of capitalism and is sometimes called ‘late-stage capitalism’ or ‘super-capitalism.’” … “Neoliberalism [is] characterized by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squelch regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatize public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. As U.S.-backed policies and puppet politicians were labelled ‘neoliberal’ by scholars, the term became widely-recognized shorthand for rule by the rich and the imposition of limits on democracy. - See more at: http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/07/from-the-new-right-to-neoliberalism-the-threat-to-democracy-has-grown

WHAT IS NEOLIBERALISM? “Neoliberalism is the economic, social, and political analysis that best describes the startlingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. today. Neoliberalism, and the policies it undergirds, results from the triumph of capitalism and is sometimes called ‘late-stage capitalism’ or ‘super-capitalism.’” … “Neoliberalism [is] characterized by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squelch regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatize public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. As U.S.-backed policies and puppet politicians were labelled ‘neoliberal’ by scholars, the term became widely-recognized shorthand for rule by the rich and the imposition of limits on democracy.” – See more at: http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/07/from-the-new-right-to-neoliberalism-the-threat-to-democracy-has-grown

With Governor Bentley’s move to take the flag down, and his remarks about having “taxes to raise,” we see that neoliberal politicians in the South are coming to the same conclusion. Alabama is becoming more of a player on the global economic stage, and a threat to that ascendancy has to be taken seriously. Foreign-owned corporations such as Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, and Airbus all have factories in the state. The Montgomery Advertiser reported recently that such foreign investments in Alabama might not have happened at all if not for the 1993 removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol building. “At the groundbreaking for the plant in May 1994, Mercedes-Benz executives told [then Governor] Folsom that it would have been difficult for them to come to Alabama if the Confederate flag still flew over the Capitol.”

Governor Bentley is well aware of the optics.  In fact, travelers on United Airlines in July will find a 32-page supplement in their in-flight Hemispheres magazine titled “Dossier”, which the magazine promises will “examine Alabama’s diverse businesses and industries, and showcase the economies of the state’s major metropolitan regions.” Featured are Alabama business leaders, economic development boosters, and politicians—including Governor Bentley.

Neo-Confederates respond

Neo-Confederates, and others who have nostalgia for the vanquished Confederacy, are unhappy with this targeting of their battle flag. They have rallied in South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Florida. One Alabama demonstrator, Ronnie Simmons, called Governor Bentley a “scallywag” – a Civil War-era term for a Southerner who collaborated with Northern forces.

Others condemn the recent killings in Charleston, but say they feel the Confederate battle flag is being unfairly scapegoated. The New York Times reported:

“Jack Hicklin, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who had a knife holster and a handgun in his pocket, came in looking for Confederate flag tank tops after learning that Walmart would no longer carry them.

‘We got all these killings and people are worried about the damn flag?’ he said.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is using the flag controversy as an opportunity to fundraise and to grow its ranks; in recent weeks, it posted a video on its website offering discounted memberships.

Dr. Michael Hill, president of the neo-Confederate, White nationalist, and theocratic League of the South, goes further in a blog post, laying the blame for the flag’s desecration at the feet of “Southern ‘conservatives’ who blindly follow the Republican Party.” Hill continues, claiming that the GOP “take sincere Southern conservatives (and others) and lead them down blind alleys to render them harmless to the Establishment, of which the GOP is part. Their time, energy, and money is siphoned off into nothing. If this were not so, America would not be a post-Christian cultural sewer and the South’s symbols would not be under attack, largely by Republicans!” Hill’s League of the South has created an armed paramilitary unit, and he has previously called for the formation of death squads.

The disavowal of the Confederate battle flag by Republican politicians such as Governor Bentley or South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley could present an opening, or signal a positive coming trend, wherein the mainstream conservative movement breaks its pattern of silence around, and implicit support of, White nationalist violence.  As Naomi Braine, assistant professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, points out in her recent Public Eye article, Terror Network or Lone Wolf?, “Right-wing militants…benefit from the power of mainstream conservatives.”  More specifically, Braine refers to “the conservative politicians and writers who see discussions of right-wing political violence as a threat to their own constituency, downplaying the severity of the threat from the Far Right.”

The Confederacy stood for the preservation of slavery, a violent, dehumanizing economic institution that treated human beings who had been kidnapped from Africa—as well as their descendants—as chattel property. In advocating a return to either a Confederate or segregationist South, neo-Confederates distort the facts about slavery and Jim Crow and, as Braine explains, the perspective they promote helps to create the conditions for a massacre such as the one in Charleston.

But neither let us applaud Bentley and Walmart too vigorously. They acted out of economic self-interest, not out of concern for Black people.  As PRA’s late founder, Jean Hardisty, noted in her 2014 essay in The Public Eye, the neoliberal project of deregulating corporations so they can compete in a free-market race to the bottom on wages has undermined democracy, and produced a present-day underclass of workers around the globe. These workers are paid next-to-nothing, forced to live in squalid and unsafe workcamps, and frequently even forced to leave their home countries in search of work. In its global enterprises, neoliberal capital discards working people, not even registering their human needs in its accounting of overhead costs.

As violent as the neoliberal free-market project is, however, its rejection of the symbols of White supremacist violence could make conservative politicians less comfortable about remaining silent in the face of neo-Confederate and other White nationalist movements.  If this happens, it could be a beneficial side effect of the scorched-earth policies of global unregulated capitalism.

PRA researcher L. Cole Parke contributed to this report.

[1] According to the Montgomery Advertiser, several different Confederate flags have been flown over the actual state capitol since the early 1960s: “Former Governor John Patterson ordered the first national Confederate flag, known as the Stars and Bars, to fly over the Alabama State Capitol in 1961, as part of the Civil War centennial. Montgomery served as the capital of the Confederacy from February to May 1861.”  Two years later, militant segregationist Governor George Wallace ordered the iconic and controversial Confederate battle flag to be raised over the state capitol as well, where the flags remained until 1993, when they were moved to the war memorial.

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 appears in the 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

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

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_

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.