Long-term readers of this site probably know about the State Policy Network (SPN). This is the Koch brothers-funded network of state-based “think tanks” used to spread anti-worker, pro-corporate propaganda with the goal of changing policy and laws in states to favor businesses and to harm the positions of workers. Working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Americans for Prosperity, two other Koch efforts, they are having a devastating impact on the ability of workers to bargain collectively for better wages, working conditions, and benefits, all an anathema to corporations and their shareholders.
SPN’s main targets have always been unions but they’re into a LOT of other stuff, as well. Here’s what I wrote about them in 2013:
The SPN started in 1992 to fight tobacco regulation. Today, it focuses on union busting and the spread of right to work laws, stopping environmental regulation, encouraging the spread of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), privatization of education to for-profit corporations including expanded use of “virtual schools” (online classes), opposing net neutrality, and shifting the country’s tax burden from corporations to the middle class.
But it’s unions that the SPN is most interested in because they represent both a threat to corporate profits and a major resource – both financially and organizationally – to Democrats and the progressive movement in general. SPN gets special and favorable tax treatment because they are a 501(c)(3) organization. This status precludes them from engaging in politics. However, that hasn’t stopped them from pushing – and often CROSSING – the lines set forth in the law.
This week, The Guardian released a 2016 fundraising document put out by the SPN in a piece titled “Rightwing alliance plots assault to ‘defund and defang’ America’s unions” that pulls back the curtain on what the SPN’s real goals are, goals that appear to be in clear violation of federal law:
Rightwing activists across the US have launched a nationwide campaign to undermine progressive politicians by depriving them of a major source of support and funding – public sector unions.
A network of conservative thinktanks with outposts in all 50 states has embarked on a “breakthrough” campaign designed to strike a “mortal blow” against the American left. The aim is to “defund and defang” unions representing government employees as the first step towards ensuring the permanent collapse of progressive politics. […]
The new assault is being spearheaded by the State Policy Network (SPN), an alliance of 66 state-based thinktanks, or “ideas factories” as it calls them, with a combined annual budget of $80m. As suggested by its slogan – “State solutions. National impact” – the group outlines an aim to construct a rightwing hegemony throughout the US, working from the bottom up.
To do that, it first has to sweep aside the public sector unions and their historic ties to Democratic and progressive politicians. In a 10-page fundraising letter, part of a set of documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy and published by the Guardian today for the first time, SPN sets out its mission in frank language that does not disguise its partisan ambitions.
The 10-page letter, which you can read HERE, makes it very clear that taking down government employee unions is their primary focus and that the intent is to harm Democrats’ – the “Left” – political position.
Here are some of the more damning statements:
- Describes the $8 million “breakthrough” campaign as a “once-in-a-lifetime chance to reverse the failed policies of the American left … We are primed, right now, to deliver the mortal blow to permanently break its stranglehold on our society.”
- “I write today to share with you our bold plans to permanently break the power of government unions this year. Plans that I believe will deal a major blow to the Left’s ability to control government…”
- “We defund and defang one of our freedom movement’s most powerful opponents, the government unions…”
The document uses the word “freedom” no less than 42 times in its ten pages. That’s no coincidence. When “Right to Work” was passed in Michigan, the effort was a beta testing of the rebranded phrase “Freedom to Work”. In other words, Michigan, through its SPN affiliate Mackinac Center for Public Policy, has been a major incubator for the SPN’s work. It’ll come as no surprise to you that the Mackinac Center is highly funded by both the Koch brothers and the notorious DeVos family.
Here’s how Mother Jones’ Andy Kroll described how Right to Work got passed in Michigan:
A week before the lame duck began, on November 20, 2012, DeVos and Weiser met with members of the Republican leadership, business bigwigs, and the top legislative aide to Gov. Snyder to pitch their plan. Snyder and the GOP leadership were still queasy, fearing a Wisconsin-style revolt; where the protesters in Madison had ultimately failed, in Michigan, a labor stronghold, they just might prevail. “There was all this hemming and hawing,” says one attendee.
“What do you guys need to hear?” DeVos asked. “What can we do to help?”
A plan, came the reply. A plan showing that they wouldn’t be committing political suicide.
[Greg] McNeilly, DeVos’ political adviser, took the floor. He had recently formed a nonprofit group called the Michigan Freedom Fund. It planned to raise millions from the DeVos family and other donors. McNeilly’s pollster was testing DeVos’ “freedom-to-work” message statewide. And the group was plotting a statewide ad blitz to give air cover to Republican lawmakers. By the time McNeilly finished talking, the mood in the room had shifted from apprehensive to optimistic. “Sitting around that table we felt like a rag-tag grouping of Davids, in the historic Biblical story,” DeVos told me in an email. “But we left the table committed to doing our best to change Michigan’s future for the better.” […]
In early December, the Michigan Freedom Fund unleashed its freedom-to-work ad campaign. The group also enlisted GOP pollster and communications guru Frank Luntz to help craft a message “bible” that was distributed to every Republican state lawmaker for use during the right-to-work push; it included prepackaged answers to potential questions from constituents and reporters.
The Guardian‘s piece spells out SPN’s potential violation of federal tax law:
SPN’s disclosure of its political and partisan objectives in the new documents could arouse the interest of investigators from the Internal Revenue Service. The group is constituted as a 501(c)(3) organisation, which renders it exempt as a charity from taxation.
Marc Owens, a partner with Loeb & Loeb who worked as an IRS lawyer specializing in charitable tax exemptions, said that the provision was designed for charitable purposes, not for lobbying against public sector unions or for activities to influence the outcome of elections. “A charity that does those things is not engaging in charitable activities and that puts its tax exempt status in jeopardy,” he said.
If you want to see how the SPN is training people around the country to attack and destroy unions, have a look at their 24-page “State Workplace Freedom Toolkit” HERE.
If you want to know more about the SPN, I encourage you to read Lee Fang’s piece, “The Right Leans In”. For an even more in-depth look into this vast corporatist network, read Fang’s book The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right. I reviewed this important book HERE and interviewed Fang about it HERE.
It’s important to understand what we are up against. Democrats and progressives in general are being massively outspent by corporate front groups funded by families like the Kochs and the DeVoses. More importantly, they have been at this for so long that they have created a massive network that pervades our media and our government. While I am not particularly hopeful that it will happen under the Trump administration, perhaps this audacious SPN fundraising letter that shamelessly admits their political goals and approaches will lead to them eventually losing their favorable tax status.
Here’s how Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, characterizes the situation, particularly as it pertains to Michigan and the SPN affiliate Mackinac Center:
Hopefully this report will give some clarity to citizens and the press in Michigan about what the Mackinac Center is really about. They are part of a national, anti-union front group designed to build power for the right-wing in this country. They claim to stand for ‘freedom,’ but they’re no better than the strikebreakers and union busters of generations past. They represent wealthy corporate interests like the DeVos family who don’t want working people banding together and gaining power. Now we have proof of that in their own words.
The Mackinac Center likes to pretend they’re about advancing liberty and choices for people in Michigan. But they’ve been on the front lines of breaking unions, pushing disastrous emergency manager policies, and forcing ineffective charter school experiments on our kids for years. They’ve made life harder for working people so their wealthy bosses can live just a bit more comfortably. We’ve known they are a corporate front group for years, but now there is no denying it with a document saying so in their own words.
For now, you can expect the SPN to continue to pitch their anti-union messages in terms that make them sound like they are FOR workers when, as Lonnie Scott spells out so well, it is very clear they don’t give a damn about workers. What they care about is corporate profits. But they’ll use pro-worker rhetoric to convince union members that there is a distinction between themselves and the unions that represent them at the bargaining table when the truth is the unions ARE the workers and any attack on unions is an attack on workers themselves. At the end of the day, the SPN’s goal is to diminish those who support workers – Democrats – and to make sure they don’t have the political power to represent workers’ interests at any level of our government or our society.