Detroit News prints Koch brothers-funded Franklin Center anti-union op-ed about Netroots Nation coming to Detroit

Rewriting history to blame unions for Detroit’s crisis is offensive and ludicrous


Photo by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog.

This piece has been edited to correct the statement that the Franklin Center was “invited” to provide the Detroit News op-ed I’m discussing. They were not invited to do so but simply submitted it.

As I announced earlier this year at the Netroots Nation conference in San Jose, California, in 2014 the conference will be held at the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. This will be an incredible shot in the arm for the city as thousands of progressive organizers and organizations come to Detroit for several days to share ideas and strengthen their relationships. It will also be a tremendously energizing moment for the many Democratic campaigns that will be in full swing next summer as we head into the final months of the 2014 election cycle.

This clearly has corporatist, Republican-supporting groups freaked out. They want to keep Michigan in the hands of their well-funded Republican legislators for as long as possible and the thought of losing the House or, even worse, having corporatist poster child Rick Snyder removed from office must give them cold sweats at night.

As part of their response, the Virginia-based Koch brothers front group the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity wrote an opinion piece for the Detroit News titled “Netroots nation comes home to the unions’ roost”. Before I unpack the myriad lies and the blatant anti-union propaganda in this offensive op-ed, a little bit about Erik Telford and the corporatist group he works for, the Franklin Center.

Journalist Lee Fang recently wrote about the State Policy Network (SPN) in an article titled “The Right Leans In” (my summary HERE.) SPN is a group founded to coordinate corporatist messaging, legislative initiatives, and to shape public policy to favor corporate interests and profit statements. The Franklin Center is a member of the SPN and spend a great deal of energy attempting to replace traditional, independent journalism with their own slanted propaganda.

Here’s what Fang writes about the Franklin Center in his book The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right:

TRICKLE DOWN ECHO CHAMBER

The next horizon for the SPN is an attempt to undermine government through a large-scale opposition research program posing as objective journalism. Starting in January 2009, the secretive Sam Adams Alliance started the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. The Franklin Center partnered immediately with the SPN to help each of its think tanks create state-based news websites and to hire investigative journalists… The Franklin Center’s foray into state-based journalism is part of a larger scheme to enhance the power of state-based corporate front groups, including the State Policy Network. While the goal of providing additional oversight is ostensibly positive, the Franklin Center appears to have a singular focus on delegitimizing government institutions, promoting myths about left-leaning groups, and weakening programs that regulate their corporate sponsors. Just as the SPN attacks progressive policies by creating a local messaging entity in each state, the addition of localized dirt digging presents new opportunities for the right to flood the news media with smears.

Indeed, the Franklin Center brags about their ability to get their slanted reporting into newspapers across the country, saying that their group “already provides 10 percent of all daily reporting from state capitals nationwide.”

The author of the Detroit News op-ed is Erik Telford. The same week he went on the attack against unions and their sponsorship of Netroots Nation, he also wrote a piece for Politico where he suggests the right must become more like Netroots Nation!

Over the years, Netroots Nation, a union-financed annual conference of liberal online activists, has served as the incubator for the core infrastructure of professional digital organizers on the left, making it possible for then-candidate Obama to leverage an existing online network to launch my.barackobama.com, which eventually grew to 2 million users. […]

This past June’s edition of Netroots Nation was a shining example of what Democrats are doing right and where Republicans are falling short.

Telford’s confused love/hate for Netroots Nation is particularly comical given that he started the Right Online conference, the conservatives’ answer to Netroots Nation. Right Online used to follow Netroots Nation from city to city every year. They would wait until the location for the following year’s Netroots Nation was announced and the announce that they, too, would be in that city. Though they desperately wanted to be as big a deal as Netroots Nation, Right Online drew a tiny fraction of the attendees that Netroots Nation did each year. Notably, the top sponsor for Right Online is the Koch brothers corporatist group Americans for Prosperity.

So, with that as the backdrop, let’s unpack the Franklin Center’s propaganda op-ed written by Mr. Telford.

The piece ostensibly blames the financial crisis in Detroit exclusively on both public and private sector unions.

Detroit’s bankruptcy has shed light on the ugly face of progressive governance, and is a haunting indicator of what can happen when government lets public-sector unions bleed taxpayers dry. […]

Once the Motor City, Labor City may now be the better moniker, as unions have a stranglehold on the city’s government and economy.

Detroit’s public departments employ up to twice as many union workers as other major cities, and its public employees are among the most generously compensated in America.

Since 1937, when the United Auto Workers labor union rose to power, Detroit has gracelessly fallen from the ranks of the world’s leading cities into crippling depression.

Over the seven decades since it became Labor City, Detroit’s population has been cut in half, and those who remain haven’t had much success. Over one-third of Detroiters live in poverty, and the city’s unemployment (18.6 percent) and violent crime rates are each the worst of any large American city.

The rise of the UAW and fall of Detroit are hardly unrelated. As the UAW’s demands placed a greater strain on the Big Three every year, foreign automakers set up shop in right-to-work states, bypassing unions to build vehicles at lower costs.

As Detroit’s automakers fell behind, a pipeline of jobs and capital flowed out of the city, leaving behind shuttered factories.

This is a profound rewriting of history. The demise of the Big Three vehicle manufacturers in Michigan had little to do with unions. Rather it was the confluence of two major events. The first was the refusal by domestic automakers to embrace the quality teachings of W. Edwards Deming. Deming came to the Big Three with his quality concepts and was rebuffed. He then took his ideas, which have led to the creation of the national and international quality standards used globally, to Japan where he was embraced and revered. Japanese automakers, simply put, began producing high-quality vehicles that outsold US cars because they were a superior product.

Additionally, globalization of manufacturing led companies to set up their shops, not in right-to-work states, but in other countries where wages were orders of magnitude less like Mexico.

The idea that our domestic car companies, which eventually did come to adopt Deming’s important quality teachings, can’t be competitive because of unions is belied by the fact that Chrysler, Ford, and GM are on the rise again and making excellent profits while still employing unionized American workers. They are making high-quality products that are competitively priced and sold around the world.

Telford then attacks Netroots Nation itself, a conference he claims the right should emulate (and has tried so unsuccessfully to do):

Silicon Valley seemed like the perfect setting for the recently concluded 2013 edition of Netroots Nation, which purports to be a gathering of young, idealistic, tech-oriented activists, driving hybrids and using Tumblr to promote social progressivism. But beneath this hipster-centric veneer, Netroots is nothing more than a massive organizing and coalitions event staged by Big Labor, the conference’s primary sponsor.

However it may bill itself, Netroots Nation is at its core a labor showcase, bankrolled by the most powerful unions in America.

In fact, of the 2013 conference’s 19 high-dollar “Premier Sponsors,” 11 are unions, including eight of the 10 largest by membership in the country. Unions also filled the program with nine full pages of advertisements, and sponsored seemingly every panel and social event in sight.

His childish characterization of progressive organizers aside, this is hypocrisy at its finest. Right Online, heavily bankrolled as it is by the Koch brothers’ Americans For Prosperity (AFP), has become a minor component of the Defending the Dream summit also funded by AFP. Hidden behind the label of Americans For Prosperity is a veritable Who’s Who of corporate America. These corporatist individuals and organizations pour millions of dollars into promoting their agenda every year, swaying elections, influencing public policy, and shaping the national dialog.

In other words, Telford’s group is bankrolled by corporations yet he decries unions — groups of individuals working together to ensure good jobs, good wages, and good benefits for American workers — for supporting the progressive movement that fights for workers every day.

Workers will never have the corporations on their side like AFP and the Franklin Center do. They must support themselves. The suggestion that they are trying to destroy the very companies and municipalities that pay their wages is absurd on its face. But that is exactly what Telford and his group would have you believe in this op-ed.

Telford even goes after teachers, blaming them for the crisis in education we’re experiencing in Michigan:

Detroit’s teachers pay only 10 percent of their insurance premiums and have a pension contract so unassailable that it is immune from cuts even during bankruptcy negotiations.

This is the standard, boilerplate misdirection we’ve come to expect from corporatist groups funded by SPN and AFP like the Michigan’s Mackinac Center: portray teachers, once considered pillars in our community, as greedy for daring to ask for a living wage, good healthcare benefits, and, God-forbid, a pension that allows them retire without living in poverty.

It’s the same approach used by corporate sponsored groups and wealthy individuals like Dick Devos across the country on an ever-increasing level.

Oddly, Telford’s op-ed is posted under the topic of “Detroit Bankruptcy”. The fact is, however, it has nothing to do with Detroit’s bankruptcy. It’s a propaganda piece written by a corporatist living in Virginia who is attempting to rewrite Michigan history to suit his group’s anti-union agenda.

In Michigan, we know better. We know that the labor movement, which was born in Michigan, created the middle class. We know that unions brought us the 40-hour work week and raised the standard of living of our citizens so that they, too, could enjoy the benefits of a successful industrial manufacturing economy. They protect workers from the greed and excess of profit-minded corporations ensuring a safe workplace and sensible environmental protections.

Labor didn’t destroy Detroit and its vehicle manufacturers. Rather, it’s part of the resurgence of Detroit, working hand-in-hand to make our domestic automakers the pinnacle of global manufacturing. The results are playing out in front of our eyes:

All of this done by organized workers working together with their employers to bring back the Big Three in Detroit and across the country.

Shame on the Detroit News for allowing this corporatist propaganda to stain the pages of its paper. Revising history to propagate anti-union messaging in the birthplace of the labor movement is offensive to Michiganders.

I, for one, an unashamed that our unions play an important role in the progressive movement. Unions are literally that: “unions”. Unions of workers, working together to make sure that they are not held hostage to profit statements and exploited by corporate greed. No amount of glib corporatist messaging will EVER make me ashamed of that and I welcome their involvement in Netroots Nation along with the myriad other progressive groups that participate.

Please join me and the rest of the progressive movement at Netroots Nation in Detroit in 2014. If you register now, you can get the Early Bird Rate. Next week, rates go up so do it today!

P.S. Can we all agree that thousands of progressive organizers coming to Detroit and pumping millions of dollars into the local economy is a GOOD thing? It’s a tribute to Detroit and Detroiters that they can attract that kind of high-attendance, high-quality conference. What kind of person tries to make that sound bad???

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  • Dump The GOP In 2014

    Great job exposing them, keep up the good work.The conservatives will stop at nothing by Poisoning the minds of those that will listen to their lies and misstatements

  • Martin Pollard

    Not surprised that this ended up in the News, aka GOP Pravda Detroit Edition. I stopped reading that rag (which I wouldn’t use to line a birdcage as it would insult the birds, the cage, and the bird’s poop) a long time ago, as its right-wing pandering kept making my teeth ache.

  • gregsullmich

    Greetings from the real world Mr. Telford: I’m an “old, cynical, techno-illiterate, Pontiac-driving, finally-catching- on-to-using-e-mail” activist, and I felt completely at home at the San Jose convention.

  • Brian C. Casterline

    i was confused by the post. Is the 2014 Netroots Conference coming to Detroit? The post says 2013 in the first line.. Certainly good news though.

    • http://eclectablog.com Eclectablog

      That was, indeed, a typo. Thanks for the edit!

  • Michiganmitch

    Telford’s timeline is utterly laughable. Unions come to Detroit in 1937 and immediately the auto industry begins a down hill slide to oblivion. He kindof missed the “golden age” of the middle class and of manufacturing that began in the post- WW II era and began to grind to an end with the election of Ronald Reagan. Thanks Ron! Neary a mention of ill-advised free trade and a strong dollar policies that have made imports cheap and American exports unaffordable overseas. Are Detroit city pensions and union contracts overly generous ? Stats don’t show that. Also, teachers from Detroit are part of MPSERS, the Michigan public employee retirement system, not a city system.

    • judyms9

      Fact checking is a bother to the rightwing, so this load will likely be accepted as fact by many. The Detroit News knows the end is near for many metropolitan newspapers and would love to be saved by the Kochs. I’m guessing we’ll see more of these surreal op eds from them which can only hasten their journalistic demise.
      I am eager to see the rightwingers come to Detroit to counter Netroots Nation. But this place is too intimidating for most of them and they don’t want to spend a dime to help resuscitate a once great American city, the key one that helped win WWII.

  • Mike from Providence

    Sweet, nobody’s called me young in 40 years. The, as always, effort to demonize liberals as some subgroup of Americans that is totally outside the mainstream continues.
    I really think that conservative overreach will be a huge factor in 2014. They have no clue that they are their own worst enemies and drivel like this op-ed does far more for our cause than theirs.

  • TeacherPatti

    It has become way too easy to blame unions. What can unions do to speak up and fight back? I was in Boston last week and Ken and I stopped at a CVS to pick up some sun screen. There was a guy talking to one of the workers and I heard him say, “Are you unionized?” and she said, “No, no unions” and he said, “That’s no good…you need to belong to the union.” And she nodded her head in agreement. Why are things so different here? I have a feeling that if I said those words aloud in a CVS in MI some asshole making $20k/year at his non-union job would get all up in my shit and then we’d throw down and I’d end up in jail. (I’m a worse case scenario person, sorry). What can we do and why aren’t we doing it?

    • gregsullmich

      There ARE things we can do.

      And people like US are just beginning to do them.

      There is an arising “Alternative Labor” movement, and it is receiving real support from conventional unions, the progressive blogosphere, the faith community, and progressives generally. Blogs like this one are picking up on it, and the MSM are starting to talk about it. And yes, even the Colbert Report!

      Retail, restaurant, and health care workers are the vast, underpaid sectors in today’s economy. They are hard to organize, so the movement is trying new strategies. CVS, along with Kroger, Meijers and others, have recognized the UFCW. WalMart is the big roadblock in retailing. We can hook up with Making Change at WalMart to provide community support. Likewise, in fast food, the D15 movement and Good Jobs Now have had some impressive one-day strikes in SE MI just a week and a half ago. Jobs with Justice, Working America, the AFL-CIO, UFCW and SEIU are helpful allies.

      I invite you, and all Progressives, to check out the websites for some of these groups, and lend support to their efforts. Get in on the ground floor of a movement that can make history. 2013 is 1937 all over again.

      I hope this was helpful.

      • http://eclectablog.com Eclectablog

        Great comment, Greg. Thanks so much.

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  • Deoliver47

    Thank you. Will be in Detroit for Netroots Nation.

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