Commentary: Attacks on workers’ rights continue to escalate

Opponents of organized labor who are waging war against public education, government spending and working families can’t rely on the truth, so they have developed an agenda filled with deception.

They’d like everyone to believe — along with the latest positive headlines about Tea Party followers and union-busting governors and legislators — that the national assault on working families springs from widespread popular opposition to organized labor. They hope educators and others will assume there is a grassroots movement behind measures to pass right-to-work legislation, end collective bargaining for public employees and choke off access to union dues.

And they don’t want anyone to see that little has really changed since a few well-funded labor critics launched a 1998 California “paycheck deception” initiative — a money grab that targeted deductions for union dues and political spending. The initiative was overwhelmingly rejected when it became clear that just a few millionaires and billionaires — most of them from out of state — were bankrolling the assault, spurred on by anti-tax organizer Grover Norquist in Washington, D.C.

linksSince then, labor critics have engaged in regular assaults in courtrooms, in statehouses and at ballot boxes to target union finances and organizing strength. Woven through these obvious assaults are more subtle ones: the “alternative professional” group that pitches itself as a counter to the NEA and the AFT and the so-called think tanks that promote biased research and are increasingly housing their own “news agencies” to push out their materials.

Tactics may have changed some — social media and the Internet deliver messages faster — but the players and the endgame are still the same. A small cast of characters is orchestrating these assaults, drawn from among the richest of the 1 percent. This movement, a mile wide and an inch deep, is taking on everyone else while manipulating policymakers to strengthen its political and financial advantages.

Unions remain the most effective defender to deflect the movement’s ultimate goals of smaller government — a goal that promotes privatized schools, fewer regulations and reduced private and public employee benefits and pensions. That means the small-government crowd will make labor a high-profile target in the run-up to this year’s congressional, presidential and legislative elections.

Here are some rules of engagement to consider today and as this campaign season unfolds:

  • A few billionaires can go a long way. The Koch brothers — David and Charles — needed only to pump their wealth into a few groups such as Americans for Prosperity to finance the framework that created the Tea Party. Joined by a handful of big corporate interests and funders clamoring for less government and oversight, the Kochs and their brethren support the Tea Party structure, think tanks, advocacy groups, legal organizations and political action committees to promote a political landscape hostile to unions. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker needed that support to undermine collective bargaining in his state; he could not have sustained momentum for the effort without the puppeteer-like hand of the Kochs. By providing money for organizing, lobbying and campaigns, the Kochs and their handful of donor friends are creating a one-stop shop to take on labor. Look for the same tactics and money this year for anti-collective-bargaining bills and right-to-work legislation in up to a dozen states.
  • Donors can further hide their identities if they “invest” in anti-labor, anti-education groups.
    Wealthy donors are able to hide some of what they spend on the assault by funneling money through two Virginia-based nonprofits, Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust. “Investments” in the fund are not disclosed, which creates one more layer to bury the identities of donors pouring money into groups challenging government, labor and education. Research suggests that donors include the DeVos family of Michigan, Richard Mellon Scaife, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust and the Humes of California. The two Donors groups paid out $72 million in grants to right-wing groups in 2009 alone. Smaller groups could not exist without this money. Many state-based think tanks and policy groups rely on the Donors’ funds for as much as one-quarter of their revenues, making it even harder to determine who funds these groups.
  • Ideologues and corporate interests are drafting the legislation. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination for a legislator to take a bill drafted for one state and introduce it in another. But that’s what hundreds of lawmakers are doing with measures targeting labor, education, tax policy and regulations. Each year state legislators, guided by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, introduce bills written by company lobbyists with innocuous-sounding names such as the Public Employee Freedom Act and Voluntary Contribution Act — measures that make it harder for unions to organize or use dues for political purposes — or school voucher proposals such as the “Choice Scholarship” Act. Wisconsin’s fight over collective bargaining centered around ALEC-inspired anti-union legislation. This year ALEC’s state leaders are sharing measures on collective bargaining, right¬to-work and paycheck deception, along with a voter-suppression Voter ID Act. And these are just a few of the ALEC-inspired measures that will be reproduced about 1,000 times across legislative sessions this year.
  • Out-of-state groups help carry the message. Groups that may have a very small presence in a state are critical messengers for anti-union forces. This is especially true of organizations that promote themselves as teacher-friendly alternatives to the NEA and the AFT. The Association of American Educators, a group backed by some of the deepest pockets in the anti-public-education movement, would benefit from suppressing NEA’s influence. Its membership includes teachers outside of public schools, and their interests are not solely focused on public education. The group promotes private and religious schools, supports taxpayer subsidies for private school tuition through vouchers and tax credits, and is celebrating any momentum behind right-to-work laws and legislation ending collective bargaining. The AAE is partnering with the National Right to Work Committee to encourage educators to give up their NEA membership and join an organization that has affiliates covering just six states and provides limited benefits for its national members. All of this is funded by the same contributors who push paycheck deception and reduced spending on public education. Right-wing foundations provide nearly all of the money to the AAE Foundation; two funders regularly provide half of the support.

Even as educators and their allies fight hard for fairness and better communities, it continues to hold true that a select group of people who have deep pockets are spending their money to perpetuate their wealth and narrow world — a world hostile to the prospects of a safe, educated and financially sound future for the rest of us.

It’s something to look out for as 2012 legislative sessions unfold and Election Day draws near.