As the Trump circus keeps people focused on daily scandals along with assaults on immigrants, transgender folks, and a myriad of other battles, the right is busy trying to quietly win the long war. Last week in my Labor Day column, I noted how the upcoming Janus v. AFSCME decision will help make it possible to gut public sector unions and the labor movement as a whole in order to change the power structure of the entire country and rig American politics in favor of the interests of the rich and our corporate oligarchy.
While many progressives take comfort in the fact that Trump’s incompetence and perpetually dysfunctional administration have made big legislative accomplishments difficult even with Republican majorities in both houses, it is important not to forget what a big win getting a Supreme Court majority was for right-wing interests long term. It sets the stage for a coming battle royal once the Janus decision hits.
What will they do once the new court majority rules against unions in the coming months? A recent report in the Guardian explains how the State Policy Network (SPN), “a network of right-wing think tanks with outposts in all 50 states” with a combined annual budget of $80 million is launching a “breakthrough campaign” to “deliver a mortal blow” to public sector unions in order to transform American politics and society.
According to the Guardian, Tracie Sharp, the CEO of the SPN sees this campaign as a way for the right to win not just a battle or two, but the long war against grassroots democracy. For her, the battle against unions is:
[T]he start of a war on progressive politics, with the ultimate goal of winning elections for rightwing candidates. “Big government unions are the biggest sources of funding and political muscle for the left – and a major obstacle to the ability of voters to reclaim control of American government. To win the battle for freedom, we must take the fight to the unions, state by state.”
The target of such union-bashing, she openly admits, is to “defund and defang one of our freedom movement’s most powerful opponents, the government unions”. The long-term objective is to “deal a major blow to the left’s ability to control government at the state and national levels. I’m talking about permanently depriving the left from access to millions of dollars in dues extracted from unwilling union members every election cycle”
This assault on public sector unions is driven by the fact that while private sector unions have declined dramatically, public sector unions have remained relatively stable and remain one of the last bastions of political power outside of the corporate elite. The states with the most union density like California and New York are centers of progressive politics and have advanced policies like taxing the rich to fund education and raising the minimum wage that are an anathema to the American right. Strategically, one need look no further than the last presidential election to see the effect of union busting on national politics.
As the Guardian piece again notes, after Scott Walker’s successful assault on public sector unions in Wisconsin and Michigan’s move to “Right to Work,” the loss in union density had very clear results:
[I]n Wisconsin, public sector union membership has slumped by 40%, or about 136,000 people.
Trump won Wisconsin last November by just 23,000 votes.
A similar pattern can be seen in Michigan where unions have shrunk steadily since a right-to-work law came into effect in 2013, with a loss of at least 30,000 members. Trump took Michigan, to the shock of Hillary Clinton and her supporters, by just 11,000 votes.
When asked whether anti-union laws in Michigan and Wisconsin had affected the outcome of the presidential race, Matt Patterson of the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform said: “No question in my mind. Hard to fight when your bazooka’s been replaced by a squirt gun.”
But of course, the folks at the State Policy Network have no plans of approaching union members honestly and outlining their political agenda or even their deep disdain for unions. The SPN “toolkit” advises them to disingenuously “be pro-worker, not anti-union . . . Frame union reform from the point of view of the members and how the reform helps them have a greater voice in their union. Don’t rant against unions. We’ve all been frustrated by the actions of public sector unions to block pro-freedom reforms, but publicly venting these feelings is counterproductive.”
In other words, lie about your agenda so you can bamboozle workers into thinking that you are in favor of union democracy rather than the elimination of unions and the hollowing out of American democracy as a whole. This stealth approach has long been a part of the effort of the far right. As Nancy MacLean observes in her seminal new history Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, “stealth became . . . intricate to this movement.”
Charles Koch, the central driver of America’s right wing think tank movement, “signaled his desire for the work he funded to be done behind the backs of the majority.” The fact is that the funders of networks like the State Policy Network know that a majority of the American people are against their effort to, as MacLean puts it, “save capitalism from democracy—permanently,” so they have made sure that open talk like Mitt Romney’s infamous “makers and takers” speech to wealthy donors usually only happens place behind closed doors.
But, as MacLean’s landmark book documents, folks like the intellectual godfather of what would become the Koch network, James Buchanon, saw any form of taxation to advance “social justice or the common good” as little more than “a modern version of mob attempts to take by force what the takers had no right to: the fruits of another person’s efforts. In his mind to protect wealth was to protect the individual against a legally sanctioned form of gangsterism.”
Thus the enemy for these folks is “the collective order” or all of the advances that we’ve made in American Democracy from the Progressive through the New Deal to the Civil Rights eras and on. Their ultimate goal is, in MacLean’s words, “the takeover of what was long public (schools, prisons, western lands, and much more) by corporations, a system that would radically reduce the freedom of the many. In a nutshell, they aim to hollow out democratic resistance. And by its own lights, the cause is nearing success.”
So when you hear “freedom” from the chorus on the right, think “oligarchy.” When you hear “liberty,” think “losing the commons.” When you hear talk about from them about the “rights of the individual,” think about the enshrinement of the 1% to a position of unparalleled political power into the unforeseen future.
And that’s why any progressive or for that matter any American who believes that our democracy should be real and not simply “one market under God” should care about the right-wing assault on public sector unions. It’s about a lot more than just union power. If progressives lose this part of their political base, they will find themselves wandering in the political wilderness, wondering what happened, for a very long time.