Another funder of this work is the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a trade association affiliated with ALEC and SPN that filed anti-union briefs in Friedrichs and Janus. Why should private-sector NFIB care about public-sector unions at all? In his book The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America, One State at a Time, political economist Gordon Lafer quotes a 2015 NFIB blog post: “Because … if unions are dealt a blow in the public sector, private sector businesses might see decreased pressure from pro-labor forces on issues ranging from the minimum wage to paid sick leave and other employee benefits.”
Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, insists the corporate money behind these institutions should not be overlooked. “Who are the most serious opponents to the corporate agenda on the minimum wage, paid sick leave, health insurance and NAFTA free trade?” Lafer asks. “[Corporations] think they will get rid of their best-funded opponents on a whole range of issues.”
DEFUNDING THE DEMOCRATS
Grover Norquist is excited about a potential Janus victory for another reason. “Seven million public-sector employees who pay between $4 billion and $8 billion a year in dues—a third of them will quit [paying],” he told The Atlantic. “Now try funding the modern Democratic Party without union dues—good luck.”
While fair share fees do not directly fund union political activity, any loss of funding could weaken a union’s organizational capacity, ultimately undercutting electoral clout. According to FollowTheMoney.org, unions contributed an estimated $602 million to state and federal races and ballot initiatives in 2016. Slightly more than half of that ($319 million) came from public-sector unions. In 2016, labor was the largest contributor to state-level Democratic candidates, accounting for at least 18 percent ($128.7 million) of their total fundraising. Unions also mobilize their workers as persuasive door knockers at election time who can explain who they are and what they fight for.
Research by academics like Columbia’s Hertel-Fernandez suggests that the erosion of public-sector union membership by ALEC bills has also dampened political participation. His most recent study, based on data from 1980 to 2016, shows that right-to-work laws decrease Democratic presidential vote share by 3.5 percent and depress overall turnout.
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
It would be imprudent for Bradley or SPN to be as blunt as Norquist in public (given their tax-exempt status as charitable organizations), but internal Bradley and SPN documents are clear about their goal of bleeding the Democratic Party of funding.
Norquist has long described unions, public-sector workers and trial lawyers as the funding “pillars” of the Democratic Party. In internal documents prepared for its board of directors, Bradley staff channels Norquist and recommends continued funding for the NRTDLF because “big Labor and trial attorneys … are the two principal funding pillars of the Left.” Bradley has gifted the anti-affirmative action Center for Individual Rights, which represented the Friedrichs plaintiffs, with more than $1.5 million.
Materials prepared for the Bradley board track Friedrichs and the cases leading up to it. A map from the pro-worker Economic Policy Institute is included to show states that allow fair share fees, annotated to show the potential monetary losses for unions at $500 million to $1 billion per year. Bradley staff quote “the leftist In These Times,” which characterized Friedrichs as a case “that could decimate public-sector unions.”
Another case leading up to Janus was Bain v. California Teachers Association, which attacked the way the union processed political fees. Bradley staff called Bain and Friedrichs combined a “powerful ‘one-two’ punch” against unions, predicting that “all that would remain to fund the unions’ political apparatus would be the hardcore teacher members.”
For Bradley, the anti-union work was a twofer. Bradley has long been a proponent of the privatization of America’s schools; America’s public school teachers and powerful teachers unions stand in the way. Internal documents show Bradley staff bluntly advocating projects to “defund teachers unions and achieve real education reform” at the same time.
“Teachers unions are at the heart of all this,” says Harvard’s Theda Skocpol. “Teachers exist in every community across the country. They are educated, they speak up, and they care about public schools. Break the teachers unions and you break the organizational power that exists in and around the Democratic Party at the state and local level.”
In an April 2016 fundraising letter obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy and published in the Guardian, SPN CEO Tracie Sharpe asks her readers to help strike “a major blow to the Left’s ability to control government.”
I am writing you today to share with you our bold plans to permanently break the power of unions this year. … I am talking about the kind of dramatic reforms we’ve seen in recent years in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and now West Virginia—freeing teachers and other government workers from coercive unionism—and spreading them across the nation. … I’m talking about permanently depriving the Left from access to millions of dollars in dues extracted from unwilling union members every election cycle.
SPN’s secret union-busting toolkit even celebrates this February 2016 quote from a Wisconsin AFSCME leader talking about the devastating impact of Walker’s Act 10 bill: “Do we have less boots on the ground? Yeah. Do we give the same amount of money to candidates? No.”
The Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Wash.—a featured and feted SPN member—has been equally explicit in its fundraising letters. One 2014 letter obtained by the Guardian reads, “The Freedom Foundation has a proven plan for bankrupting and defeating government unions through education, litigation, legislation and community activation.”
A Freedom Foundation-produced brochure, titled “Undue Influence: Public Unions’ Cycle of Power, Electioneering,” shows multiple charts and graphs on union spending in campaigns and elections. The graph “Democrats’ Dependence on Union Funds” lists 31 Washington state Democratic legislators and their union campaign contributions. The accompanying text argues that “the problem associated with union electioneering” could be solved by weakening unions and eliminating fair share fees.
SPN member groups have also cited their union-busting efforts as key to electing Trump. The Wall Street Journal profiled Tracie Sharpe in a post-election puff piece on its editorial page, titled “The Spoils of the Republican State Conquest.” She tells the paper that Wisconsin and Michigan were only “thinly blue” and that the destruction of the states’ unions has put the GOP on better footing. “When you chip away at one of the power sources, that also does a lot of get-out-the-vote,” Sharpe chirped. “I think that helps—for sure.”
Unions lost 136,000 members in Wisconsin; Trump won by 23,000 votes. “Did the labor reforms enacted in Wisconsin and neighboring Michigan help Donald Trump win those states?” asks Norquist associate Matt Patterson in the Daily Signal. “No question in my mind. Hard to fight when your bazooka’s been replaced by a squirt gun.”
Most of the groups pursuing this agenda, including Bradley and SPN, are tax-exempt charitable groups. After Citizens United ushered in a surge of dark money groups, the Obama administration’s IRS attempted to distinguish real charitable organizations from false ones, only to have the effort shut down by tremendous blowback from the Right. Ever since, the IRS has been reluctant to take action on these kinds of issues.
“There is simply no basis in law to find that defunding or attacking unions is a tax-exempt charitable activity,” says attorney Marcus Owen, former director of the IRS’s exempt organizations division. “On the contrary, such actions are deeply infused with private benefit to employer interests and political party interests—but not with community or public benefit, which is required under the law.”
DEGRADATION OF CRITICAL SERVICES
The Democratic Party is not the only loser in this scenario; real harm will be done to U.S. workers and their families. Following World War II, unions expanded dramatically, representing 35 percent of the workforce at their peak in the mid-1950s and helping to usher in an era of shared prosperity. According to the Economic Policy Institute, unionized workers make 20 percent more, on average, than other workers, but their ranks have shrunk to 6.5 percent of private-sector workers and 34.4 percent of public-sector workers in 2017. This decline has exactly tracked the decline of the American middle class.
The attack on public-sector workers is also an attack on women and African Americans, groups disproportionally represented in public-sector unions. According to a National Women’s Law Center analysis, women make up 55 percent of union-represented public-sector workers, and a 2010 analysis from the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that African Americans are 30 percent more likely than the overall workforce to hold public-sector jobs.
One silver-lining argument contends that an adverse Janus ruling presents an opportunity for unions to simply do their job better: Talk to every member, innovate on services and benefits, and do the kind of “deep organizing” needed to outmaneuver wealthier opponents. The data from Wisconsin, however, is not encouraging. Five years after Walker’s draconian Act 10 bill, Wisconsin’s union membership rate had dropped from 14.2 percent to 8.3 percent of the workforce. The impact of Januswould be less immediate but would snowball over time: Weaker, less effective unions have a harder time attracting members.
“If fair share fees are struck down, it simply won’t be possible to provide the expertise to bargain with employers to increase wages and benefits,” says John Matthews, the retired executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., a National Education Association affiliate in Wisconsin.
The erosion of public-sector unions means that public-sector jobs will pay less and become less attractive, degrading not just a source of good jobs but the critical public functions these workers serve. The average annual salary and benefits for teachers in Wisconsin dropped by $10,843 after Act 10 was passed, a 12.6 percent reduction. The result has been a staggering shortage of teachers, including an “extreme” shortage in math and science, forcing the state’s independent Department of Education to reluctantly issue “emergency” teacher’s licenses.
For the most part, the right-wing machine’s deeply financed, organized and focused attack on workers has rolled its agenda through without meaningful resistance from Democrats. To be sure, in Wisconsin, the union-busting plan was met with one of the largest sustained mass protests in labor history and a 16-day occupation of the Capitol. Fourteen Democratic state senators even fled to Illinois to block a vote on Act 10. But too often, the Democratic Party has been asleep at the switch. First Jimmy Carter, then Bill Clinton, then Barack Obama failed to pass a national “card check” program—a measure that would have made forming a union as easy as signing a postcard—while their party controlled both houses of Congress.
If the Janus verdict goes against public-sector unions, the great challenge for Democrats will not merely be one of funding, but one of leadership. Who will step up to push for the renewal of trade unions, not just for the party’s political future, but for a country that cannot progress toward economic and social justice without a prosperous and muscular labor movement?
MARY BOTTARI is the deputy director of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD’s award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation in 2011 and is a recipient of the Hillman Prize for investigative journalism.
This story was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. David Armiak and Elena Sucharetza provided research assistance.