The Koch-Like Family You’ve Never Heard Of Influencing State Legislatures

On the homepage of almost any major news publication, one can read about the latest bombastic actions of the current crop of conservative candidates – Trump, Cruz, Carson etc. Behind all of the pageantry and show, however, it is critical for people of conscience to consider how big-money donors can influence public policy. Most people have heard of big spenders like the Koch brothers or the Walton family—well known for using their money to shape not only policies, but also the very infrastructure of our political system. But  who are those deep-pocketed names we’ve never heard of?

The DeVos family—Michigan-based builders of the Amway fortune—is one of the most influential families in conservative U.S. politics. Their agenda includes many items on the Corporate and Christian Right’s wish lists, including so-called “right to work” laws that weaken unions, discriminatory Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bills, and education privatization (including pushing school vouchers that transfer public dollars to private religious coffers). Although some of their higher-profile activities such as Dick DeVos’ failed 2006 race for Michigan governor and Richard DeVos´ ownership of the Orlando Magic basketball team are covered in the press, their political spending has gotten far less attention. This year 435 seats will be contested in the House of Representatives, 35 in the Senate and 13 gubernatorial races will take place alongside local and county elections; therefore it is critically important for the country to see and debate the influence that rich families like the DeVoses are wielding in politics.

Though they share the Kochs´ commitment to corporate welfare, the DeVoses also promote a Christian Right cultural and social agenda. They use their money and influence to contribute to conservative infrastructure, including think tanks, astroturf organizations and policy advocacy groups, both in Michigan and elsewhere. The family epitomizes the disturbing trend toward billionaires willing to spend big money to change the political structure—a structure that, as PRA’s late founder and political scientist Jean Hardisty wrote in 2014, is “drifting toward oligarchy”.

The DeVos Family

Dick and Betsy DeVos  (Grand Rapids Press File Photo)

Dick and Betsy DeVos
(Grand Rapids Press File Photo)

Based in western Michigan, the DeVoses fund a number of organizations that push conservative policies including right to work, RFRA, and school vouchers. Richard DeVos, the patriarch of the family, is one of the original founders of Amway, a supplier of everything from home care products to insurance (the company was ranked 30th largest U.S. company by Forbes in 2015, and pulled in nearly $11 billion last year).

If you were to walk through Grand Rapids or Detroit, it would be nearly impossible not to notice the DeVos name: the DeVos Convention Center, DeVos Performance Hall, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, Helen DeVos Center for Arts and Worship and DeVos Graduate School of Management to name a few places. For many in Michigan, the name is synonymous with western Michigan, conservative philanthropy and the Republican Party.

For the past 50 years, Richard and his wife Helen have positioned themselves as one of the most important families in Michigan politics. Their son and daughter-in-law, Dick and Betsy DeVos, are following in their footsteps with their own foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. (Betsy is the daughter of Edgar Prince, a founder of the Family Research Council.)  Between 2000 and 2012, the family gave nearly $5.4 million to the Michigan Republican Party, according to a report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The report also demonstrates how the DeVoses exert influence over state and national policy making. For example, the DeVoses gave $50,000 to a Michigan ballot committee that worked to ban same sex marriage in 2004; the committee also received support from Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and the Michigan Family Forum. Locally, their money has found its way into 70 different Michigan political committees. According to a report by the Michigan Campaign Finance network, the family gave $4,902,055 during the 2013-2014 cycle.

The DeVoses exert influence over state and national policy making. For example, the DeVoses gave $50,000 to a Michigan ballot committee that worked to ban same sex marriage in 2004.

Right to Work

Right to work laws originated in the Old Right of the 1950s and, as PRA economic justice researcher Mariya Strauss has written, are designed to “remove the requirement for workers in a given workplace to actually pay for the representation and benefits the union provides for them. It is a label that has nothing to do with the right to work or the right to a job.”

The story of how Michigan became a right to work state features the backroom dealings and pressures from big business that have typified right to work battles in state after state since the 1950s.

The DeVos family pushed for this legislation long before it landed on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder´s desk. The West Michigan Policy Forum organizes yearly conferences bringing together policy makers and business leaders in order to advance a so-called pro-business agenda in Michigan.  The organization, Dick’s brother Doug DeVos was former board chairman, has pushed for right to work since 2008. After the family spent $4.9 million on political candidates and committees during the 2014 state elections, right to work passed and was signed. In addition to the work of the West Michigan Policy Forum, the DeVos family also gave at least $2 million to fight a union-backed amendment to the bill that would have guaranteed unions the right to bargain.

Outside Michigan, the DeVos family is also tied to the national Tea Party organization, Americans for Prosperity, which was created by the Koch brothers and has now setup 36 state-based shops to operate out of. The DeVoses gave AFP over $800,000 between 2007-2011. This connection to David and Charles Koch points to a key observation: not only do the two families hold similar policy positions, but they also fund some of the same groups. AFP not only played a role in garnering support for right to work in Michigan, it also led a coalition pushing for a right to work law in Missouri. Although AFP failed to get the bill passed this year; workers’ rights advocates say they expect it will return soon.

This connection to David and Charles Koch points to a key observation: not only do the two families hold similar policy positions, but they also fund some of the same groups.

Americans for Prosperity has continued trying to build support for the bill in other states such as Kentucky. FreedomWorks—another conservative advocacy organization that represents a strategic partnership with the Kochs—runs public relations and advertising campaigns for anti-union and right to work bills. The organization received $600,000 between 2009 and 2011 from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, according to SourceWatch. Their online presence is also significant, as it is a key tool used to spread information on their anti-union and right to work positions.

Education Privatization

So-called “school choice” seems to be the area where the family has invested the most outside of Michigan. School choice is a blanket term used to describe everything from school voucher programs to charters to online “virtual” schools, and has garnered support from both Republicans and some Democrats. Conservative donors such as the DeVos family have used their money to influence this national trend. One of the biggest events is the annual School Choice Week, which included 11,082 individual events across the country last year. Every January the events are marketed as a social justice movement whose aim is to “raise public awareness for all types of educations options for children”. Behind the scenes, its most influential backers are the DeVoses and other conservative donors who have been pushing for more private and more religious schooling.

A look at the main partners—and their affiliations—helps shed light on the ideas driving School Choice Week. The American Federation for Children is a public policy organization whose board of directors is chaired by Betsy DeVos. According to SourceWatch, the organization, a 501(c)(4), is the political organizing arm of the Alliance for School Choice. The DeVos have been tied to efforts in Pennsylvania to eradicate public education by giving over $15 million over the last five years. PRA research fellow Rachel Tabachnick has compiled an anthology of the DeVos family’s efforts to eradicate public education.  As a front group that funnels money into other groups around the country, American Federation for Children has links to a number of other organizations which the DeVos family gave a total of $355,000 in 2013 – such as the American Enterprise Institute, Alliance for School Choice, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education is another sponsor of School Choice Week. Based in Florida, the organization is an example of how the DeVos family’s money has expanded outside of Michigan. The foundation received $100,000 from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation in 2013, and Betsy sits on the board of directors. Another group supported by the family is the Children’s Scholarship Fund. The New York-based group provides scholarships for students to study outside of the public school system. Pamella DeVos, wife of Dan DeVos, sits on the board of directors and helps direct the organization’s work in eight states.

Anti-LGBTQ Influence

As previously reported by PRA, this past summer Michigan passed a statewide religious exemption law that gives adoption agencies the right to claim a religious exemption from having to serve LGBTQ couples. The DeVos family donated $300,000 in 2013 alone to Bethany Christian Services, Michigan’s leading adoption agency and the main group that lobbied for the religious exemption bill.

The DeVos family also furthers LGBTQ discrimination through donations to their numerous foundations and religious conservative initiatives outside of their home state. The DeVos family, through its giving patterns, maintains ties to the Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family, and the Federalist Society – all organizations with anti-LGBTQ positions.

The DeVos family, through its giving patterns, maintains ties to the Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family, and the Federalist Society – all organizations with anti-LGBTQ positions.

At the Heritage Foundation, The Devos Center for Religion and Civil Society “examines the role that religion, family, and community [play] in society and public policy”. With the $1.8 million grant, the Center seeks to “help policy-makers, scholars, journalists and other leaders examine the important role of religious thought and activity in the United States, how it influences society and how it affects-an it affected-by public policy”. The center has taken a stance against same-sex marriage, called for defunding planned parenthood, and sponsored events aimed at furthering conservative positions. Along with their center at the Heritage Foundation, the DeVos family is also tied to the conservative Christian foundation, Focus on the Family.

Focus on the Family is a one of the most well funded anti-LGBTQ organizations in the U.S. The conservative Christian foundation has received $800,000 from DeVos foundations. Focus on the Family has published numerous  articles making the false claim that LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination policies poses to religious freedom. The organization donated over $115,000 to defeat marriage equality in Maine, and $91,000 to defeat civil unions in Washington State, according to a 2014 report by the Human Rights Campaign. In the same report, the DeVoses were cited as sponsoring an annual conference advocating “ex-gay” or reparative therapy, the discredited practice of trying to somehow alter a persons’ sexual orientation. (The American Psychological Association has warned that the dangerous therapy poses serious risk to youth, and reparative therapy on minors has been banned in several states.)

The Federalist Society is an influential conservative legal organization that advocates for a conservative interpretation of the Constitution. The group says it aims to “[reorder] priorities within the legal system to place a premium on individual liberty, traditional values and the rule of law”. Members include conservative Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. As  by PRA, the Federalist Society “states that its purpose is to foster debate and discussion about the issues, but the articles and interpretations in its publications are all decidedly conservative and/or libertarian”. Through multiple foundations, the DeVos family contributed $55,000 in 2013 alone.

The Federalist society takes an anti-LGBTQ stance through its support of lawyers hostile to equal rights. Through their university campus chapters around the country, they host events hostile to LGBTQ equality such as one at Northwestern University Law School where the chapter hosted a debate on LGBTQ discrimination with food catered by Chick-fil-A (whose CEO publicly opposed marriage equality in 2012, prompting a national bycott).

DeVoses branching out

While Michigan has traditionally been the DeVos family’s stronghold, their influence for right to work, school privatization and RFRA bills is creeping into statehouses across the country. As states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and Missouri are pushing to become right to work states, it is worth asking how DeVos money finds its way to these battles. At the same time as their efforts to expand education privatization increase, their efforts to push RFRA bills continue to find their ways into state legislatures across the country. Through a network of organizations, the DeVos yield an impressive amount of power and influence in statehouses around the country. As the election cycle heats up in 2016, grassroots progressive organizers need to understand how billionaires such as the DeVoses are wielding influence.

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

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


Wisconsin Teamsters protest the "right to work" law

Wisconsin Teamsters protest the “right to work” law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Attack on Unions

Right-Wing Politics and Democratic Possibilities

Boston demonstrators support Wisconsin public employees, February 2011 (©Ellen Shub)

Boston demonstrators support Wisconsin public employees, February 2011 (©Ellen Shub)

The November 2010 Republican Sweep

More than a million people watched on Youtube as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sneered at a public school teacher who had the temerity to ask him at a September 2010 town meeting how his policies would help the middle class when so many teachers had been laid off.1 His response? He wasn’t to blame—union chiefs forced the layoffs and were responsible. Young conservatives cheered his take-no-prisoners style, though only a few months later, Christie’s high approval ratings, particularly among women, tanked.2

Still, the voucher-loving, tax-hating governor seemed to show free-market conservatives what they could do once they were in charge: how deeply they could cut government, and how successfully they could go after union “bosses,” even with a Democratic legislature. Elected only in 2009, Christie quickly became an inspiration for the Right, as he went full throttle in blaming unions for the grossly underfunded state pension system and the $11 billion deficit he inherited.

Sidebar: States Where Labor is Under Attack
The 22 Right-to-Work states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.

The 16 states challenging public-sector unions’ collective bargaining rights: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington.

After the midterm elections of November 2010, he had a lot of company in statehouses across the nation. Aided by a potent, antilabor alignment of grassroots groups, legislators, and conservative institutions, Republicans enjoyed a sweep of state legislatures not seen since 1928. Twenty states now have both Republican-dominated legislatures and Republican governors, in contrast to the previous session, when only eight states were all GOP.3 Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine flipped from totally Democratic to totally Republican, and all three governors are aggressively anti-union.4 Tea Party-supported Republicans now occupy top leadership spots in Maine and other northern states. With the help of independents, the Republican base elected businessmen such as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who campaigned as a moderate, and Florida Governor Rick Scott, who carried their anti-union views from the private sector into office.

And here’s a key point: these new Republicans are ideologically more conservative than those who came before them. Prolabor Republicans—and there still are some—have been picked off, year by year, in primary challenges. The Tea Party insurgency, backed by right-to-work and other corporate money, added rocket fuel to the trend, as primary voters ejected those they deemed RINOs—Republicans in Name Only.

What’s at stake is more than the livelihoods of union members. These conservatives want government to operate on a “business model” that dismantles public education, privatizes government functions—leaving retirees to fend for themselves, among other things—and abolishes collective bargaining, the right of workers to negotiate as a group over the conditions of their work. Unions are a right-wing target because they form a bulwark against such privatization, and they and their members fight against a winner-takes-all economy that leaves less and less for the poorer 98 percent. Using language right out of the right-wing populist playbook, conservatives smear public-sector unionists in particular as “elite” workers enjoying “special privileges”—which their “good government” reforms will eliminate.

The usual deep-pocketed suspects were involved in the Republican sweep and the anti-union policies that followed: wealthy conservatives like the Koch brothers, who funded the campaigns of some governors, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, directly and others indirectly with a $1 million-plus donation to the Republican Governors’ Association; political action committees (PACs), like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which channel millions from wealthy donors to political campaigns; and business lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the free market Club for Growth.5

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie quickly became an inspiration for the Right, as he went full throttle in blaming unions for the grossly underfunded state pension system.

While unions later complained that the candidates ran stealth campaigns, keeping mum about their anti-union politics, plenty of candidates and groups were perfectly frank. Virginia Governor-elect Bob McDonnell maintained while campaigning, “The secret to success in Virginia is this—you keep taxes, regulation and litigation low and you keep strong Right to Work laws, and if you do that, the free enterprise system will thrive.”6 The so-called right-to-work laws to which he’s referring allow workers benefitting from union bargaining units to refuse to join the union or pay union dues. In Indiana alone, crowed the National Right to Work Committee, local and “national Right to Work organizations sent out roughly 278,000 pieces of targeted mail identifying the forced-unionism positions of state legislative incumbents and challengers.”7 [italics in the original].

As soon as the election was over, the union-busters got busy. In Indiana, a right-to-work bill was submitted on the very first day of the legislative session—though the National Right to Work Committee was soon sputtering that the state’s Republican Governor Mitch Daniels wasn’t doing anything to enact it. New Hampshire’s Republican legislators passed right-to-work bills in February and April, but without a veto-proof majority they faced a skeptical Democratic governor. Missouri’s divided Republican legislature tried but failed to pass right-to-work legislation.

The antilabor legislation isn’t limited to right-to-work bills. Also introduced into state legislatures were bills repealing project labor agreements—requirements that contractors on publicly funded projects be guided by collective bargaining agreements with unions laying out the terms of work—and prevailing wage laws, requiring contractors on such projects to pay their workers what are essentially union rates. These laws, which benefit construction unions, help set standards of work and keep all wages from spiraling down. Idaho’s new law banning project labor agreements is now snarled in the courts. But the main battlegrounds are the heavily union states in the North, including Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, as well as not-so-union states like New Hampshire, and Maine.8 Important fights are taking place in Florida and Tennessee, too. According to the AFL-CIO, 26 states are on the firing line over prevailing-wage laws. The Wall Street Journal called the state legislative sessions that ended in May and June test runs for battles this year.9

Collective Bargaining Challenged

After the Republican sweep, public-sector workers braced themselves for struggles in nineteen states, mostly in the Midwest, over their ability to bargain as a group over wages and benefits. The media turned its attention to this issue during the uproar in Wisconsin in January and February, when Democratic legislators fled the state rather than give newly elected Governor Scott Walker the quorum he needed to pass legislation curtailing the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions, barring state and municipal governments from collecting dues for unions, and requiring annual recertification elections for unions. Standoffs between Tea Party activists and union supporters became the paradigmatic media images of the season.10 After weeks of prolabor demonstrations by teachers, unionists from the private sector, public-sector workers, and progressives, the Republican-dominated legislature used procedural manipulations to pass the limitations—only to find them snarled in court battles. The law finally took effect in late June even as pro-union activists campaigned to recall the senators who voted in favor of it; they need to get rid of just three of the eight Republicans they are targeting to regain control of the state senate in elections scheduled for early August.

Also facing a fall recall vote because of his support for antilabor legislation is Michigan Governor Snyder, whom progressives hold accountable for a so-called emergency financial managers law, under which the state is consolidating municipalities, bypassing elected officials, and appointing “crisis managers” who have the power to rip up contracts and end collective bargaining in school districts.11 The majority-Black town of Benton Harbor and Detroit’s school system are Snyder’s test cases. This law too sparked a lawsuit and a recall campaign of the governor and some legislators, with 800,000 signatures needed by August 5.12

Twenty states now have both Republican dominated legislatures and Republican governors, in contrast to the previous session, when only eight states were all GOP.

Although it attracted far less national attention, on April 1, Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich signed a law, SB5, that imposes limits on collective bargaining even broader than Wisconsin’s. SB5 includes police and firefighters’ unions, which Walker left out. Like the Wisconsin law, SB5 bans strikes and allows the negotiation only of wages, not of benefits such as health insurance, sick time, or pensions. It also eliminates automatic pay increases in favor of merit raises. Ohio, the birthplace of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the site of the rubber and steel strikes that launched the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), is now ground zero in the counterattack. Union radicals there have pulled together in a new, national Emergency Labor Network,13 while locally, Ohio unions and their allies collected a record number of signatures, almost 1.3 million, to force a referendum on November 8 to repeal SB5. The successful petition drive put the law on hold until after the vote.14

Why the Right Opposes Unions

While unions and their supporters are waging a vigorous counterattack, there is no denying that the Republican takeover of the states was a hard-fought victory for three overlapping, antilabor elements of the free-market Right:

  1. Corporate-minded conservatives such as the Koch brothers, the National Right to Work Committee, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They hate unions because they view profits as rightfully belonging to business owners and see union demands for wage and benefit hikes as extortion. They want total control over working conditions, wages, and benefits, because their main goal is raising the bottom line.
  2. Moralists, seen most vividly at Tea Party rallies. Because of their vision of rugged individualism, they oppose any collective endeavor—whether by unions or by government—in the name of the common good. They pit virtuous taxpayers against “taxeaters” and deride unionism as a form of authoritarian socialism imported straight from the Soviet Union. FOX News broadcaster Glenn Beck played a big role popularizing this vision, which was once confined to marginal Patriot movement activists and the far Right.
  3. Technocratic conservatism, associated with Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, think tanks like the Cato and Manhattan Institutes, and state legislators organized through the nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). These groups claim—contrary to the evidence—that “limited government” works better than a regulatory, social-welfare state in creating jobs, building the incomes of everyday people, and enriching the middle class.15 For the technocrats, unions are bad because they are “job killers” in the private sector and demand inefficient costs in the public sector.16 They see private businesses as the prototype for how public institutions should run and push for the privatization of government services, most notably schools.17

Anti-Union Rhetoric, New and Old

The billionaire Koch brothers fund all three anti-union manifestations with their petrochemical fortune: the corporate conservatives through the Heritage Foundation, Cato, and Manhattan Institutes, as well as the lesser known Mercatus Center at George Mason University; the moralist-eclectic Tea Partiers through Americans for Prosperity; and the technocrats through ALEC and campaign donations to politicians such as Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

The brothers are important players, but they have the backing of a longstanding, deep bench. The free-market notions that unions kill jobs and are bad for the economy have been promoted for decades by other right-wing funders, such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Wilson Family Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Castle Rock Foundation. After World War II, as some corporations made an uneasy truce with their workers, corporate-funded groups such as the National Right to Work Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce led the charge.18 More recently, these powerhouses have been joined by the public relations expert Rick Berman, whose firm is notable for setting up antilabor and anti-environmental front groups, with names like the Center for Union Facts and the Employee Freedom Action Committee, to flog his clients’ messages.19 The convergence of the economic crisis, underfunded public pensions, and the Tea Party insurgency has created the moment they’ve all been waiting for.

Conservatives want government to operate on a “business model” that dismantles public education, privatizes government functions, and abolishes collective bargaining.

The long-established anti-union message presented by the think tanks and corporate-funded advocates has four elements:

  1. Union leaders are undemocratic thugs.
  2. Unions restrict individual choice.
  3. Union workers are unproductive.
  4. Unions interrupt the law of supply and demand by setting wages, thereby undermining free enterprise.

According to this reasoning, unions are both immoral and damaging to business and the economy. Weakening unions will jumpstart wage growth during the recession, argues the National Right to Work Committee: “Right to Work and Lower Taxes appear to deliver a one-two punch in states’ fights against unemployment and personal income decline. In fact,” the committee claims, referring to Florida, Virginia, and Tennessee, “Right To Work states lead in economic prosperity and personal income growth.”20

Tea Party candidates and their supporters have picked up on the venerable rhetoric about unions as Communist threats that would create a big government unsupportable by the tax base. Like Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican Party’s point man on privatizing government functions such as Social Security and Medicare, the new Republicans feel no need to compromise on their embrace of the free-market mantra. To them, individuals who band together to negotiate their wages and working conditions are destroying not only businesses’ ability to create jobs but the entire moral order. Ryan says, “The attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America, is an attack on the moral foundation of America.”21 This kind of thinking is emotionally supported by a belief system known as “producerism,” in which the middle class feels that its hard work is exploited by the lazy rich above it and the freeloading poor below.22

In contrast to this extreme individualism, unions point out that theirs are democratic institutions that enable workers to fight exploitation, improve working conditions, protect wages, and win social reforms like the forty-hour work week, which benefit all workers. Union participation in corporate governance can actually democratize enterprises. Of course, like all democratic institutions, unions need oversight and accountability, so that officers who exploit their power don’t get away with it. But conservative media such as the New York Post and Rick Berman’s websites feature corrupt union officials to signal that any collective action is illegitimate.

The Right-Wing’s Antilabor Strategists

In good technocratic fashion, in early March 2011, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a comprehensive blueprint for reversing proworker rules at the state level in order, it said, to create jobs. Its proposals include reducing state and local minimum and living-wage requirements when these exceed the federal levels; cutting the length and rates of unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation; reducing leave, rest, and overtime levels that exceed the federal minimums; promoting right-to-work laws; and banning the payment of unemployment benefits to locked out workers.23 The liberal think tank the Economic Policy Institute points out that in the decade after Oklahoma became a right-to-work state in 2001, its unemployment rate differed little from its neighbors.24 Nevertheless, a chamber press release insisted that its plan for “streamlining government” would create “746,462 net new jobs nationwide.” Such unfounded claims are enticing stuff for a nation in the midst of a recession.

The chamber is aided in its antilabor push by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization claiming as members “more than 2,000” state lawmakers who say they want limited government, as well as a so-called Private Enterprise Board with representatives from major U.S. corporations, including Exxon Mobil, WalMart, and Coca Cola.25 ALEC teams legislators with member-lobbyists to craft model legislation such as right-to-work laws, and laws repealing minimum-wage hikes and prevailing-wage requirements.26 ALEC teams also promote so-called paycheck-protection laws; called “paycheck deception” by unions and sought for decades by their opponents, these laws require explicit consent from union members before their dues can be directed toward political activities.27 Arizona passed such a law in its last session.28 And across the country, powered by a network of legislators organized by ALEC, states are seeking, in the name of austerity, to follow Utah, which shifted its public workers out of traditional, defined-benefit pensions, in which retirees receive a predictable amount each month, to 401(k)-style, defined-contribution plans, in which workers invest in funds directly and receive whatever the market is paying at the moment.

Why Attack Public-Sector Workers?

The attack on unions is old hat. New, however, are the number of Republican-dominated legislatures giving anti-union bills a chance of passage; the Tea Party, which gives the sentiment a popular base; the new politics of austerity created by the Right to engage with the economic crisis; and the attack on public-sector unions, in particular.

The usual suspects do not seem to have crafted the most potent justifications for the latest attack on the public-sector unions. ALEC, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Right to Work Committee have not traditionally distinguished between types of unions. Republicans had been gun-shy about going after public-sector unions after a 2005 California ballot initiative curbing the unions’ use of dues for politics was roundly defeated (although in the same year, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels met with success when he bypassed the legislature and removed state workers’ collective bargaining rights with an executive order ).29 In January 2010, the Heritage Foundation had merely called on government to “reject union calls for higher taxes [and] reject proposals to increase union membership in the government.” Freedom Works, the beltway group through which former House Majority Leader Dick Armey mobilizes Tea Partiers, has long attacked teachers’ unions in its effort to dismantle public schools. But even it only launched a broad campaign against public-sector unions in March.

A major push seems to have come from local Tea Party tax protesters, notably in California, regional think tanks like the free-market Manhattan Institute and California’s Pacific Research Institute, and Republican politicians and strategists like Christie. (see box) The underfunding of some state pensions and a few large payouts to retirees gave conservatives a big bat with which to beat public sector unions. The Republican Governors Association gathering in San Diego in November 2010, right after the election, was abuzz with Wisconsin Governor-elect Scott Walker’s campaign remark, “We cannot and should not maintain a system where public employees are the ‘haves’ and the taxpayers footing the bill are the ‘have-nots.’”30 Public-sector unions were becoming a political football.

The Los Angeles Times quoted Ohio Governor-elect John Kasich, the son of a public-sector worker himself, as he distinguished between public- and private-sector unions: “With organized labor, look, the public-employee unions, particularly the teachers union, you know how I feel about them,” Kasich said. (He doesn’t like them.) “But for the unions that make things, I’m going to sit down with them. And I’ll tell you what, they’re going to become part of the solution, not part of this problem.” Similarly, on the FOX News Hannity program, the conservative shock-pundit Ann Coulter distinguished between “steelworkers who should have unions” and public-sector workers, who shouldn’t.31

Free-market notions that unions kill jobs and are bad for the economy have been promoted for decades by right-wing funders.

In a backgrounder on public-sector unions published on September 1, close to the elections,32 the Heritage Foundation now implied that private sector unions are legitimate while “government unions”—a phrase promoted by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz because it polls badly—are not. “Collective bargaining by unions takes place very differently in government than it does in the private sector,” wrote Senior Policy Analyst in Labor Economics James Sherk.

Private-sector unions have competitors and bargain over the profits they help create. The government earns no profits. Government unions have a legal monopoly and bargain for a greater share of tax dollars. Collective bargaining in government means that voters’ elected representatives must agree on tax and spending decisions with union representatives. Collective bargaining also politicizes the civil service. Government unions negotiate contract provisions that force workers to join and subsidize their fundraising. These subsidies have made them the top political spenders in the country. They use that money to lobby for higher taxes and protect their inflated compensation.33

Over at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Glenn Spencer, head of the Workforce Freedom Initiative, put it this way: “Public-sector unions have a guaranteed source of revenue—you and me as taxpayers.”34

Attacks on public-sector workers, like attacks on “tax-cheating” welfare queens in the past, give the debate a (sometimes unconscious) racist tinge, since public-sector workers are disproportionately people of color.35 Census data shows that African Americans are “thirty percent more likely than other workers to be employed in the public sector,” says Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist at the University of California Berkeley Labor Center; indeed, he argues that public employment helped create the Black middle class.36

In attacking public-sector unions and their contributions to political campaigns, the Right presents itself as a good-government champion with a simple message: unions are bad for government. Karl Rove’s Government Union Reform Action Center, which operates out of Crossroads GPS, champions Christie as a good-government hero for issuing an executive order barring public-employee unions from lobbying the politicians they bargain with. Crossroads GPS itself is promoting the GOP’s Public Employee Pension Transparency Act, which would require states to use a different method for calculating how large pension holdings should be—one that would make the state-pension crisis seem even worse.

Labor Fights Back

In mid-February, at the Washington, D.C., Marriott Hotel, representatives from the National Right to Work Committee, the Heritage Foundation, and other enterprises eager to destroy labor were busy setting up booths for the Conservative Political Action Conference. Youngsters in dark suits created displays of reading material about the free market.

At the same time, in a nearby ballroom, 600 United Steel Worker activists were discussing ways to fight state efforts to weaken both public- and private-sector unions. United Steel Workers International President Leo Gerard offered brilliant schooling in popular economics: trade policy, Chinese currency, tax policy, the financial sector—you name it. He was giving his troops ideological weapons for the fight of their lives. “The rich took the anger of our people and turned it against them [in the Tea Party],” he said. “We have a responsibility to invite you into the battle. And you have a responsibility to get in.”

“We lost 100,000 members in the economic collapse,” added International Secretary-Treasurer Stan Johnson. “They’re not here because they can’t be.” And things will get worse, he warned. “Best guess,” Johnson told his audience, “twenty percent of the union will leave under Right to Work. It will destroy the finances of your local union, and the national, and impede our ability to fight.” Wages are much lower in the country’s 22 right-to-work states, where unions don’t have the power to bargain up the rates, than in others—an average of $5,538 lower, to be exact, said Gerard. So, the fight is not just for union members but for all workers.

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter distinguishes between “steelworkers who should have unions” and public-sector workers, who shouldn’t.

The Steel Workers are well-aware that some of their neighbors soak in FOX News and its anti-union messages.37 The unions’ defense of “big-government” programs makes them targets of the Tea Party, as well as of their traditional corporate adversaries. In a state breakout session, one regional leader said, “We’re the coaches, we’re the choir directors. We have to show what the union dollar does for the community. When we make 28 percent more a week, we spend more money in our community … Let people know we’re working to protect Social Security.” The Steel Worker leadership, along with that of the AFL-CIO, takes it for granted that unions have a responsibility to fight for laws that regulate wages and hours, and benefits such as Medicare and Social Security, which help everyone. “If they disable us, and we never get a pay increase, what’s it going to do for the nonunion people?” the regional leader said. “This is one of the things we can tell the nonunion people.”

The Steel Workers and other industrial unions are determined that the Right will not succeed in dividing them from their public-sector brothers and sisters. A few weeks after the Washington meeting, in the midst of the labor uprising in Wisconsin, Gerard addressed a rally at Steel Worker Union headquarters in Pittsburgh: “The recent wave of attacks on public employees is not the fault of the workers but the result of giving enormous tax breaks to the rich and the ultra-rich,” he said. “Public-sector unions are being vilified, used as the scapegoats as budget shortfalls are, pure and simple, being used as political fodder to turn Americans against organized labor.”38

Polls show that many Americans agree with him. A March 2011 national Bloomberg survey found that 63 percent of respondents “don’t think states should be able to break their promises to retirees.” Respondents split over whether governors truly “aim to balance their budgets or weaken unions that back Democratic foes.” Seventy-two percent view public employees favorably, and about half say that “governors are unfairly targeting unions.”39

Yet conservatives had reason to believe their attacks on unions would go over well. Even in the Bloomberg poll, pro-union sentiment outpolled anti-union sentiment by only nine points, 49 to 40 percent. Americans’ support for unions started drifting downward in 2007 as the National Right to Work Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent tens of millions of dollars on anti-union ads, in a successful effort to defeat federal legislation that would have made union organizing easier.40 The advertisements brought the anti-union messages that the Right usually pumps out to its supporters to the general public, as well as to workers targeted by organizing campaigns. The propaganda becomes more effective as union density shrinks; only twelve percent of Americans now belong to unions. Fewer and fewer people know anything about unions first hand, or even know someone in a union. The idea that unions fight for a living wage and rights for all workers is almost wholly unknown.

The outlook is not completely bleak, however. Prolabor Republicans have slowed the sweep in Florida, where the governor was unable to bar automatic payroll deduction of dues by public sector unions; in Colorado, where a bill failed that would have ratified a four-year-old executive order barring collective bargaining by public sector unions; and in Missouri, where Republican legislators questioned whether a right-to-work push would really create jobs.41

“The recent wave of attacks on public employees is not the fault of the workers but the result of giving enormous tax breaks to the rich and the ultrarich.”

Shrinking unions have learned that they can’t win this fight alone, and are strengthening their relationships with small-business, women’s, immigrant-rights, Black, and Latino groups. As inequality worsens, and obscene Wall Street paydays get more attention even as unemployment festers, they propose a moral vision, calling for Americans to build a more egalitarian nation. Groups such as Interfaith Worker Justice provide platforms where people can ask fundamental questions about how the economy works, why Americans don’t talk about class, why big companies don’t pay taxes, and why the top one percent are the only ones who are doing better. By tying moral insights together with technical knowledge about how an egalitarian economy would work, and how fair labor and tax rules would be structured, unions and the Left can regain momentum and remake our world.


“The Trouble with Public Sector Unions”

[div class=”foot-notes”]


1 “Governor Christie Responds to Teacher During Town Hall,” September 8, 2010.

2 Victor Lee, “Who is Chris Christie? Why is he the new patron saint of Conservatism?”, February 28, 2010. Huey-Burns, “Chris Christie’s Approval Rating Hits New Low,”, June 21, 2011.

3 Josh Goodman,” Republicans win most legislative seats in generations,”, November 3, 2010.

4 Pew Center on the States, http://www.stateline.orgNote Pew viewed Michigan’s Snyder as a moderate in his race against the union-backed Democrat. Melissa Maynard, “Moderate Republican candidate swims against party tide in Michigan,”, October 4, 2010.

5 Justin Elliot, “Billionaires give 91 percent of funds for Rove-tied group,” Salon,
20 September 2010.

6 Dr. Frank Lutz, “Election Advertising: Lessons of 2010,” The Word Doctors, p. 3.

7 “Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels Sabotages Right to Work Law, National Right to Work Committee, May 1, 2011.

8 “Union Density in the United States, 2010,” The Center of Labor Education and Research,

9 Kris Maher and Amy Merrick, “Bills Try to Curb the Reach of Unions,” Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2011.

10 Tea party activists blog about union thugs, for instance here, and here Unionists complain the handful of tea party protestors wins the media attention, not their much larger ranks.

11 Sarah Jaffe, “Shock Doctrine: ‘Emergency Finance Managers’ and the Right-Wing’s Power Grab,” Alternet, June 26, 2011.’emergency_finance_managers’_and_the_right-wing’s_power_grab?page=entire

12 “Gov. Snyder Recall Petition Language Approved,”, April 18, 2011.

13 Emergency Labor Network,

14 Jim Provance, “Record 1.3 Million Back Vote to Torpedo SB5,” Toledo Blade, June 30, 2011.

15 An excellent resource tracking how rightwing think tanks promote free market economic theories that even conservative academics can’t stomach is Jonathan Chait’s THE BIG CON: The true story of how Washington got hoodwinked and hijacked by crackpot economics (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). James Galbraith is a liberal academic who shows the fallacy of “free market” theories in The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too (New York: The New Press, 2008). Dollars and Sense magazine and New Deal 2.0, a blog of the Roosevelt Institute, are forums for a range of academics thinking about how government and the economy shape one another. More popular resources include Paul Krugman’s NY Times column and Joshua Holland’s The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy: And Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs, and Corporate America.

16 is a one stop source for op eds written by the technocrats.

17 Larry Cuban, The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Diane Ravitch, “The Myth of Charter Schools,” New York Review of Books, November 11, 2010.

18 Nelson Lichtenstein, “The Long History of Labor Bashing,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 6, 2011.



21 For a brilliant and brief take on this, see Frederick Clarkson and Frank Cocozzelli, “The Randian Fault That Could Shake Conservatism,”, May 2, 2011.

22 Kim Phillips-Fein tracks how big business regrouped around this argument after World War II in Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York: Norton, 2009).

23 “The Impact of State Employment Policies on Job Growth: A 50-State Review, ” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, March 2, 2011. “U.S Chamber Study Shows States Could Create Nearly 750,000 Jobs and 50,000 New Business By Streamlining Government Regulation,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce, March 2, 2011. 

25Gordon Lafer and Sylvia A. Allegretto, “Does ‘right-to-work’ create jobs? Answers from Oklahoma,” Economic Policy Institute, February 28, 2011.

26 “About,” American Legislative Exchange Council.  “Private Enterprise Board Members, as of December 2010”

26 The Commerce, Insurance, and Economic Development Committee circulates these bills, listed on ALEC’s website.

27 Beau Hodai, “PublicopolyExposed,” In These Times, July 11, 2011.

28 The Transport Workers Union offered a handy summary of bills passed and not passed in the spring.

29 “Steven Nelson, “Indiana’s labor fight similar to, but different from Wisconsin’s, ”The Daily Caller, February 23, 2011.

30 Tony Perry, “Republican Governors Take Aim at Teachers Unions, Other Public Employee Unions,” LA Times, November 18, 2010.

31 You can find the clip from March 9, 2011 on

32 James Sherk, “The New Face of the Union Movement: Government Employees, ”Heritage Foundation, September 1, 2010, An American Enterprise Institute scholar argued unions were too weak to diminish free market dynamics,

33 James Sherk, “Time to Restore Voter Control: End the Government-Union
Monopoly,” Heritage Foundation, February 25, 2011. Over at the Heritage Foundation, visiting fellow Jonah Goldberg laid out the same argument. Jonah Goldberg, “Public Unions Must Go,” Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2011.

34 Brody Mullins and John D. McKinnon, “Campaign’s Big Spender,” Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2010.

35 Randy Albelda, “Teachers, Secretaries and Social Workers: The New Welfare Moms?” Dollars and Sense, May/June 2011.

36 Steven Pitts, “Black Workers and the Public Sector,” UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, April 4, 2011.

37 Tracked daily by .

38 “Saving the Middle Class: Hundreds Rally at USW Headquarters for Workers in Wisconsin, Country,”, February 24, 2010.

39 “William Solway, “Americans Oppose Republican Attack on Unions in Poll Divided Over Benefits,” Bloomberg, March 9, 2011.

40 “Favorability Ratings of Labor Unions Fall Sharply,” Pew Research Center for People and the Press, February 23, 2010,; Abby Scher, “Still Looking for the Union Label: A Making Contact Radio Investigation,” September 2, 2009.

41 David A. Lieb, “Efforts to curtail private-sector unions faltering,” Associated Press, May 9, 2011; ; Mary Ellen Klas, “Senators reject Rick Scott’s pitch to fight unions,” Miami Herald, April 27, 2011.