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General News    H2'ed 1/7/14

Watch Out for a 2014 Conservative Foundation Strategy of Attacking Public Sector Unions

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Here is a prediction that you may not have seen anywhere else.  For conservative foundations and conservative think tanks, a major emphasis in 2014 will be to attack public sector unions.  

While Congressional Republicans have spent fruitless time following Tea Party political obsessions, at the state level Republicans such as New Jersey's Chris Christie and Wisconsin's Scott Walker have squared off against public sector unions as a more practical political agenda. Diminishing the power of public unions, especially teachers unions organized at the school district level, was a significant emphasis of the Walker administration, which it achieved in the 2011 passage of Act 10, the "Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill," which limited public union collective bargaining largely to wage issues.  Exempting police and other law enforcement unions, public sector employers were prohibited by the law from collecting union dues and public unions were prohibited from mandating the payment of union dues in collective bargaining units.  As a result, public union membership plummeted in the year following the Act (for example, AFSCME Council 24's count of dues-paying members dropped from 5,900 to 690 early in 2013, and  Wisconsin State Employees Union membership fell from 22,000 to less than 10,000), although challenges to Act 10's constitutionality are still in the courts. 

Taking a big hit have been the teachers unions.  The Wisconsin Education Association Council's membership is down about 30 percent from its pre-Act 10 total of 98,000.  As the WEAC loses members, an alternative organization is growing.  The Wisconsin chapter of the Association of American Educators is picking up members, though only on a pace to reach 1,000 members by the end of the school year.  AAE spokesperson Alexandra Freeze predicts a much larger infusion of members once the courts issue their final rulings on Act 10's constitutionality, which she thinks makes potential AAE members uncertain .

Unlike teachers unions, the AAE doesn't represent teachers in collective bargaining and claims to be free of any political agendas or political activism.  However, it does provide members with liability insurance, legal counsel in workplace employment issues, and teacher scholarships and grants, essentially services to teachers other than union representation--and at a membership dues cost of about $180 per year compared to a larger assessment typical of the teachers unions. Essentially, it is an alternative to what the AAE calls "forced unionism".

However, the AAE's non-political self-description is more than a little suspect.  The organization does take positions "if a certain percentage of its members vote to take a position," according to this article.  That means that the AAE has come out in support of Act 10 as well as Governor Walker himself as he fought a recall effort, lifting caps on fully funded charter schools, and expanding "virtual and blended education."  That is nothing less than a political agenda, no matter what the AAE calls it.

To be clear, the AAE is not simply a Wisconsin creation.  It has existed nationally for a couple of decades and is funded by several conservative foundations, based on these grant amounts listed in the Foundation Center online database:

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Source:  Foundation Center online grants database, " Foundation Directory "

AAE operates as a 501(c)(6) business league, distinguishing itself from 501(c)(5) labor unions, and as a 501(c)(3) public charity under the name of the AAE Foundation.  According to their Form 990s, the AAE isn't that big an operation in financial terms, given these annual revenues:


Source:  Form 990 data accessed through GuideStar 

The  AAE's website claims partners or affiliates in New Jersey, Indiana, Utah, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Kansas, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Colorado, and Louisiana.  Among the various people on the boards of these AAE entities are Becky Norton Dunlop, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation who has also served on the boards of the Virginia Institute of Public Policy, Defenders of Property Rights, and the Phillips Foundation, and Alan Dye, identified as an official with the American Legislative Exchange Council and having served on the boards of several conservative organizations. 

The AAE isn't a big operation yet, but it has room to grow given the increasing advocacy of conservative think tanks and conservative funders against public unions.  The results of this advocacy can be seen in public opinion polls turning against public unions, for example in more generally liberal California and other states, liberal and conservative, often prompted by a perception that the public unions are keeping government expenditures and taxes high, despite studies that suggest that the public unions, at least at the state level, are not correlated with state government spending and hiring trends one way or the other. 

Nonetheless, conservative think tanks are turning up the heat on public unions.  Last year, a conservative think tank in Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation, with an introductory campaign letter signed by Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA),  launched "Project Goliath" meant to "slay" public sector unions.  In California, the Christian Educators Association International filed suit challenging the constitutionality of teachers unions to collect fees from teachers who do not want to be presented by a union.  The Heritage Foundation maintains a constant barrage of articles blaming public sector unions for a range of economic privations, with special emphasis on challenges to teachers unions, such as the legislation introduced in Kansas

While the Ted Cruz wing of the Republican Party crusades against the Affordable Care Act, governors such as Walker and Christie have mobilized against an identified enemy in the form of public sector unions.  Watch in 2014 to see if conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, backed by foundations such as Bradley, Walton, Hume, and Anschutz, step up their efforts to attack public unions, especially in the 2014 elections. AEI may be the most interesting of the conservative think tanks to watch.  With consistent anti-public union commentary from the likes of Jonah Goldberg and others at AEI, headed by Arthur C. Brooks who is well liked in conservative philanthropic circles, it isn't hard to imagine conservative foundations following the AEI message on this topic.  Brooks himself has lauded Walker for his "willingness to tip over the apple carts of public sector unions"[and having shown] that standing up to entrenched and powerful interest groups is not a death sentence" .  

Brooks is a favorite of philanthropists, sometimes from both sides of the political aisle, because he writes extensively about charitable generosity, though in a way that suggests that government funding depresses or crowds out individual charitable giving.  In a recent article, he concluded that "the millions of Americans who believe in limited government give disproportionately to others", a distinctive paean to the supposed generosity of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.

But Brooks and AEI are also big promoters of the "education reform" agenda that so often targets the teachers unions.  Last year, in the Wall Street Journal, Brooks made "rapacious unions and bureaucrats" the straw enemies of "poor children and parents [who] deserve better schools".  The challenge to public sector unions isn't just from the ideologically conservative foundations such as Bradley and Walton, but from the purportedly "liberal" foundations that largely support the school choice and privatization movements. For example, just last year, the Philanthropy Roundtable, the conservative foundation association, presented Eli and Edythe Broad and their eponymous foundation with its William E. Simon prize for excellence in philanthropy.  Probably next to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation is a philanthropic touchstone for the education reform movement.  Not all that long ago, Broad made some education reform grants to New Jersey, but with the unusual condition that Chris Christie remain in office.

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Rick Cohen is a commentator on the politics of nonprofits and foundations, writer for Nonprofit Quarterly, editor of NPQ's Cohen Report, former executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

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