Koch-Funded Think Tanks Are Lobbying to Send Workers to Their Deaths

Sarah Lazare

President Donald Trump smiles while delivering a speech on tax reform at the Heritage Foundation's President's Club Meeting at a hotel in Washington, DC, on October 17, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s no mys­tery what will hap­pen if we rush to reopen the econ­o­my and send peo­ple back to work before epi­demi­ol­o­gists say it is safe to do so. A mod­el pro­duced in con­sul­ta­tion with the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC) in March pro­ject­ed a worst-case sce­nario of 1.7 mil­lion Amer­i­cans killed. Anoth­er esti­mate by the Impe­r­i­al Col­lege Lon­don put this num­ber at 2.2 mil­lion. We know that COVID-19, which has already tak­en more than 40,000 U.S. lives, is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly killing African Amer­i­cans. Poor peo­ple are already bear­ing the brunt of this cri­sis — and will die in even larg­er num­bers if they are pre­ma­ture­ly sent back to wait tables and crowd togeth­er in ware­hous­es and factories.

Amid this cli­mate, a small army of right-wing think tanks and con­ser­v­a­tive orga­ni­za­tions is cyn­i­cal­ly invok­ing the plight of the down­trod­den to make the case for swift­ly reopen­ing the econ­o­my and send­ing work­ers into dead­ly con­di­tions. Some of the orga­ni­za­tions beat­ing this drum the loud­est — the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­i­ty (AFP), and the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil (ALEC) — are behind the most anti-work­er mea­sures of our times, from the anti-union Janus Supreme Court rul­ing to the Trump administration’s work require­ments for food stamps. As Trump, the GOP, CEOs and now bil­lion­aire-backed pro­test­ers” call for the econ­o­my to reopen, these think tanks are work­ing fer­vent­ly behind the scenes, craft­ing talk­ing points, speak­ing with leg­is­la­tors and build­ing coali­tions aimed at boost­ing Wall Street’s prof­its, at the expense of ordi­nary people.

The peo­ple run­ning these orga­ni­za­tions are going to remain safe­ly ensconced in gat­ed man­sions with lit­tle dan­ger of get­ting infect­ed them­selves, while they make mil­lions of Amer­i­cans go back to work stand­ing shoul­der to shoul­der,” Carl Rosen, gen­er­al pres­i­dent for the UE union (Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca), told In These Times.

On April 16, Kay Coles James, the pres­i­dent of the con­ser­v­a­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion think tank, praised Pres­i­dent Trump for issu­ing guide­lines for states to reopen their economies in three phas­es. The admin­is­tra­tion is right­ly work­ing to restore liveli­hoods in the midst of cat­a­stroph­ic job loss­es while also tak­ing care to bal­ance Amer­i­cans’ health and safe­ty,” said James. The Her­itage Foundation’s Nation­al Coro­n­avirus Recov­ery Com­mis­sion is also work­ing quick­ly to deliv­er addi­tion­al rec­om­men­da­tions to gov­ern­ments at every lev­el, the pri­vate sec­tor, and church­es, char­i­ties, and oth­er parts of civ­il soci­ety on a path­way to reopen America.”

James was list­ed as a thought leader on Trump’s dubi­ous Great Amer­i­can Eco­nom­ic Revival Indus­try Groups” — like­ly at least par­tial­ly a P.R. stunt, but nonethe­less, a mea­sure of influ­ence and pow­er. For the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, it’s a sign that the organization’s cam­paign to reopen the econ­o­my might be pay­ing off. The group announced a Nation­al Coro­n­avirus Recov­ery Com­mis­sion” on April 6 and, soon after, issued a five-phase plan for reopen­ing Amer­i­ca. Accord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Post, the Her­itage Foun­da­tion is work­ing with oth­er con­ser­v­a­tive groups includ­ing Free­dom­Works and ALEC as part of an infor­mal Save Our Coun­try” coali­tion aimed at reopen­ing the econ­o­my. With fund­ing from the Koch Foun­da­tion, Exxon­Mo­bile and a bevy of wealthy donors, the Her­itage Foun­da­tion is at the cen­ter of polit­i­cal efforts to pre­ma­ture­ly restart the economy.

Remark­ably, the orga­ni­za­tion is cit­ing the well-being of the poor peo­ple it wants to send into treach­er­ous con­di­tions when issu­ing this call. On April 13, James declared, Keep­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple at work and pros­per­ous is what will pro­duce bet­ter health out­comes for our cit­i­zens. A grow­ing econ­o­my has the mon­ey for research and devel­op­ment into new med­ical inno­va­tions and cures; has more resources to bet­ter edu­cate and train med­ical per­son­nel; and cre­ates greater capac­i­ties of beds, equip­ment, med­i­cines, and per­son­nel to han­dle the sick. It’s also an econ­o­my where abun­dance allows us to have the resources to help poor­er cit­i­zens get the med­ical help that they need.” In oth­er words, she is argu­ing that reopen­ing the econ­o­my will make peo­ple sick, but mar­ket forces will some­how off­set this cat­a­stro­phe by pro­vid­ing the things we need to treat them — a claim made with­out evi­dence, and against the advice of epi­demi­o­log­i­cal experts.

This insis­tence on send­ing work­ers into treach­er­ous con­di­tions for their own good” stems direct­ly from the organization’s his­to­ry. The Her­itage Foun­da­tion was heav­i­ly influ­en­tial in the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion and right-wing Tea Par­ty move­ment, and was a major influ­encer in the Trump administration’s tran­si­tion team. It is vehe­ment­ly anti-union, a fierce oppo­nent of a $15 min­i­mum wage, a fer­vent sup­port­er of the 2018 Janus rul­ing, which pum­melled pub­lic-sec­tor unions, and a pro­po­nent of so-called right-to-work laws, which say work­ers don’t have to pay dues to the unions that rep­re­sent them. Her­itage has made gut­ting pub­lic pro­grams for the poor a cen­tral focus through­out its exis­tence, and oppos­es expand­ing health­care access.

The orga­ni­za­tion saw one of its cru­elest agen­da items come to fruition in Decem­ber of 2019, when the Trump admin­is­tra­tion placed fur­ther restric­tions on who can receive assis­tance from the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram, known as food stamps, declar­ing that able-bod­ied adults with­out chil­dren in places that have an unem­ploy­ment rate below 10% have to work 20 hours a week to qual­i­fy. This rule was approved by Trump despite warn­ings that 700,000 peo­ple would lose their food stamps. Mag­gie Dick­in­son, a researcher who stud­ied SNAP in New York City from 2011 to 2013, wrote that work require­ments have been shown to not help unem­ployed peo­ple find work and to make it more dif­fi­cult for them to feed them­selves. But tak­ing peo­ple who are unem­ployed off SNAP often does harm to more than just those who direct­ly receive food assis­tance.” The Philadel­phia Inquir­er report­ed that the rule change appears to base its intel­lec­tu­al under­pin­ning on pol­i­cy devel­oped at the con­ser­v­a­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion, experts say.” The Her­itage Foun­da­tion, for its part, claimed cred­it in an arti­cle titled Her­itage Research Influ­ences Food Stamp Eli­gi­bil­i­ty Rule.”

Accord­ing to Rosen of UE, The only thing these cor­po­ra­tions want to achieve is cor­po­rate prof­its as usu­al. That’s their real goal — not mak­ing sure work­ing peo­ple have an income, not to make sure health and eco­nom­ic needs were tak­en care of. If those were their goals, they would sup­port much more robust poli­cies right now that make sure every­one has a full income and full health­care through Medicare for All. These are the steps that have been tak­en in many euro­pean countries.”

Peo­ple need to be paid to stay home right now — that’s the only way we can recov­er as a coun­try,” Rosen added. Attempts to force peo­ple to go back to work when it’s not safe for them to do so is a hor­ren­dous, mur­der­ous policy.”

When it comes to the push to reopen the U.S. econ­o­my, the Her­itage Foun­da­tion is not going it alone. As the Asso­ci­at­ed Press notes, the Koch-backed AFP was one ear­ly shut­down oppo­nent,” mak­ing the case that busi­ness should be allowed to adapt and inno­vate.” Inter­cept reporter Lee Fang not­ed on March 26 that AFP, which calls itself a polit­i­cal advo­ca­cy group, wants employ­ees to return to work despite des­per­ate pleas from pub­lic health offi­cials that peo­ple should stay home as much as pos­si­ble to help con­tain the spread of the coro­n­avirus.” State chap­ters of AFP have also joined in the effort.

Like the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, the AFP cites the hard­ships of poor peo­ple when push­ing for the econ­o­my to reopen. We can achieve pub­lic health with­out depriv­ing the peo­ple most in need of the prod­ucts and ser­vices pro­vid­ed by busi­ness­es across the coun­try,” the orga­ni­za­tion said on March 20. If busi­ness­es are shut down, where will peo­ple who are most in need get the things they need to care for them­selves and oth­ers? Rather than blan­ket shut­downs, the gov­ern­ment should allow busi­ness­es to con­tin­ue to adapt and inno­vate to pro­duce the goods and ser­vices Amer­i­cans need, while con­tin­u­ing to do every­thing they can to pro­tect the pub­lic health.”

Yet AFP, described by In These Times writer Mary Bot­tari as the Kochs’ grass­roots’ lob­by­ing arm,” has played a tremen­dous role in gut­ting pub­lic pro­grams aimed at pro­tect­ing ordi­nary peo­ple, includ­ing the CDC, and social wel­fare pro­grams, par­tic­u­lar­ly Med­ic­aid. In recent years, the orga­ni­za­tion has gone on a blitz try­ing to pass right-to-work laws, see­ing some suc­cess.

Before the COVID-19 cri­sis began, AFP was mobi­liz­ing against the PRO Act, which passed the House in Feb­ru­ary. This leg­is­la­tion would strength­en the right to strike, over­ride right-to-work” laws, and pun­ish boss­es who retal­i­ate against work­ers for attempt­ing to form a union. While the leg­is­la­tion is not per­fect, it would go a long way toward revers­ing decades of GOP-backed efforts to grind unions into dust,” Jere­my Gantz wrote in Feb­ru­ary for In These Times. AFP is present­ly cir­cu­lat­ing a let­ter which declares, This leg­is­la­tion would turn back the clock on work­ers’ rights by under­min­ing many pro-work­er suc­cess­es of recent years, just one year after the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court deci­sion that affirmed union mem­ber­ship is a choice for all gov­ern­ment work­ers nation­wide.” AFP is not only push­ing to send work­ers into dan­ger­ous con­di­tions: It also wants to erode their right to col­lec­tive­ly fight back.

But per­haps the biggest vil­lain of all is ALEC, the Koch-backed non­prof­it” mod­el-leg­is­la­tion shop that has devot­ed its near­ly half-cen­tu­ry of exis­tence to erod­ing work­ers’ rights. ALEC has been active in efforts to reopen the econ­o­my. Its CEO Lisa B. Nel­son told Newt Gin­grich on March 27, We believe prepa­ra­tions need to be made for a clar­i­on call to get Amer­i­cans back to work, and so the econ­o­my can start its rebound.” ALEC host­ed a March 21 con­fer­ence call fea­tur­ing ALEC Board of Schol­ar Mem­ber Art Laf­fer, a right-wing econ­o­mist and key fig­ure behind the Rea­gan-era tax cuts for the rich. We need to get pro­duc­tion back — peri­od,” declared Laf­fer, who was award­ed the pres­i­den­tial medal of free­dom by Trump last year.

As ALEC has called for poli­cies that would endan­ger society’s most vul­ner­a­ble, the orga­ni­za­tion has sought to por­tray itself as a vic­tim. On an April 1 leg­is­la­tors call, ALEC Chief Econ­o­mist Jonathan Williams said: I think we all know how times of crises like these can be very dan­ger­ous times for those of us who believe in the ALEC prin­ci­ples of free mar­kets and lim­it­ed gov­ern­ment and fed­er­al­ism.” Mean­while, the orga­ni­za­tion is push­ing for a host of oth­er goals, includ­ing dereg­u­la­tion of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and sup­port­ing fed­er­al­ism” and state’s rights.”

In an inter­view, Laf­fer cit­ed the plight of poor peo­ple when stak­ing out his polit­i­cal posi­tions. Reuters para­phras­es, “‘I think it’s real­ly impor­tant to bal­ance out the eco­nom­ic con­se­quences with the health con­se­quences,’ Laf­fer said, adding that increased pover­ty from an extend­ed shut­down could mean low­er life expectan­cy, more sui­cide and a jump in child abuse.” (Notably, robust social pro­grams, which Laf­fer oppos­es, are proven to reduce sui­cides dur­ing times of eco­nom­ic down­turn.) And in a pod­cast inter­view, Nel­son cit­ed work­ing” as a pub­lic good: Open amer­i­ca and get Amer­i­ca work­ing again,” she declared.

ALEC’s cur­rent advo­ca­cy emanates from a long his­to­ry. As Mary Bat­tari not­ed in a Feb­ru­ary 2018 sto­ry for In These Times, ALEC was found­ed in 1973 as a venue for politi­cians and cor­po­rate lob­by­ists to meet behind closed doors and draft cook­ie-cut­ter leg­is­la­tion, known as mod­el bills,’ that pro­mote cor­po­rate inter­ests.” Today it boasts a mas­sive net­work of 2,000 leg­isla­tive mem­bers and 300 or more cor­po­rate mem­bers, accord­ing to The Cen­ter for Media and Democ­ra­cy, which says, ALEC is not a lob­by; it is not a front group. It is much more pow­er­ful than that.” Aid­ed by fund­ing from cor­po­ra­tions, cor­po­rate trade groups and the Koch Foun­da­tion, its bills have aimed to under­mine unions, crim­i­nal­ize protests and pri­va­tize pub­lic goods. Over the past 15 years it has worked close­ly with con­ser­vatie advo­ca­cy groups, includ­ing AFP, to under­mine unions.

Accord­ing to Rosen, groups like ALEC are a big rea­son why we are so ill-pre­pared to meet the COVID-19 crises. Over the last 50 years,” he says, we’ve allowed cor­po­rate forces to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly destroy the social safe­ty net. There was no prepa­ra­tion done for a pan­dem­ic like this, even though it was clear that some­thing like this could hap­pen. The groups demand­ing we reopen are the ones that destroyed the social safe­ty net, there­by cre­at­ing the pres­sures mak­ing some peo­ple want to start up again.”

These three think tanks are pil­lars of a much broad­er effort to reopen the econ­o­my,” which is anoth­er way of say­ing treat work­ers as dis­pos­able wid­gets in ser­vice of cor­po­rate prof­its.” The over­sized role of wealthy peo­ple in push­ing this effort calls into ques­tion any claims that local protests for reopen­ing con­sti­tute an organ­ic, work­ing-class move­ment. As the Guardian reports, The Michi­gan Free­dom Fund, which said it was a co-host of a recent Michi­gan ral­ly against stay-at-home orders, has received more than $500,000 from the DeVos fam­i­ly, reg­u­lar donors to rightwing groups.” The DeVos fam­i­ly is one of the rich­est in Michigan.

Join­ing in the cacoph­o­ny are indi­vid­ual CEOs, who occa­sion­al­ly put con­ser­v­a­tive orga­ni­za­tions’ talk­ing points in crud­er and more hon­est terms. Bil­lion­aire Tom Golisano, founder and chair­man of Pay­chex Inc., told Bloomberg in late March, The dam­ages of keep­ing the econ­o­my closed as it is could be worse than los­ing a few more peo­ple. I have a very large con­cern that if busi­ness­es keep going along the way they’re going then so many of them will have to fold.” He added, You have to weigh the pros and cons.”

Of course, for him, the pro” is that he will not be the one serv­ing tables, stock­ing ware­hous­es or strug­gling to get health­care once the econ­o­my reopens: When he talks about the costs, he’s talk­ing about oth­er peo­ple. The same can be said about the lead­ers of the con­ser­v­a­tive think tanks and orga­ni­za­tions that are lead­ing the push to send work­ers into dan­ger: It will cost them noth­ing. The price for ordi­nary peo­ple will be immeasurable.

Lu Zhao and Indi­go Olivi­er con­tributed research to this report.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH