In the report Scott Walker Runs on Koch Money, the Center for Media and Democracy's Executive Director Lisa Graves pointed out how the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity helped elect Scott Walker as Wisconsin governor, and how his attack on public sector unions looks like a return on the Kochs' investment. While suppressing workplace democracy will certainly benefit corporate interests by allowing business managers to focus exclusively on increasing shareholder returns (and not getting distracted by employee demands for safe and productive working conditions), attacks on unions will also eliminate barriers to absolute corporate control of our political democracy.
The 2010 elections were the first held after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending. They were the most expensive in U.S. history. The Sunlight Foundation estimated that 40% of outside interest group spending was made possible by the decision, and much of the unlimited corporate money was channeled through newly-formed and closely-coordinated political advocacy groups, like Karl Rove's American Crossroads, the American Action Network, or the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity. Right-leaning groups were most successful in the post-Citizens United environment, with those supporting Republican candidates spending nearly $1 billion more than liberal groups in the 2010 election cycle. While nearly half of money spent came from secret donors, of the funds disclosed through October 21, 2010, just 0.12% of the individuals donating were responsible for 66.8% of the reported contributions.
The only countervailing force on the left came from the public employee union American Federation of State, County, and Municipal, Employees (AFSCME), who spent $87.5 million in 2010, a relatively small number when compared to the numerous and coordinated corporate-funded interest groups on the right. As we wrote before last November's election, unlike the right-wing groups funded by a small number of large, secret donations, "the vast majority of labor union funding comes from member dues, which are applied towards advocacy for member interests ... when an ad ends with "brought to you by AFSCME," viewers know what is motivating the message -- the interests of the union and its employees. ... In contrast, the innocuously-named conservative groups give no indication whatsoever about what is motivating the advertisement."
The AFSCME's election efforts are made on behalf of real working people, rather than a tiny minority of deep-pocketed funders, so it is no surprise that right-wing groups are trying to weaken the most powerful voice of the opposition.
The political power of public employees does raise some concerns, as pointed out by the Chicago Tribune editorial board:
Governments don't operate under the constraints of market forces. They operate under political forces. Public unions play an inordinate role in the selection of management ... Public officials who generously compensate workers tend to reap votes, contributions and campaign work from those same employees and their unions.
However, the Tribune's concerns ignore the fact that major corporate interests spend significantly more on elections than public employee unions, and public officials become far more accountable to their corporate benefactors than government employees, who are underpaid in comparison to their private sector counterparts. This dynamic Robert Reich points out in the Huffington Post that the right-wing,
would rather go after teachers and other public employees than have us look at the pay of Wall Street traders, private-equity managers, and heads of hedge funds -- many of whom wouldn't have their jobs today were it not for the giant taxpayer-supported bailout, and most of whose lending and investing practices were the proximate cause of the Great Depression to begin with. Last year, America's top thirteen hedge-fund managers earned an average of $1 billion each. One of them took home $5 billion. Much of their income is taxed as capital gains -- at 15 percent -- due to a tax loophole that Republican members of Congress have steadfastly guarded.
If the earnings of those thirteen hedge-fund managers were taxed as ordinary income, the revenues generated would pay the salaries and benefits of 300,000 teachers. Who is more valuable to our society -- thirteen hedge-fund managers or 300,000 teachers? Let's make the question even simpler. Who is more valuable: One hedge fund manager or one teacher?
Today's scapegoating of public employees looks like an organized effort to benefit a small number of people and divert attention away from the true roots of our economic woes. If the Koch brothers and other major corporate interests are successful in crushing unions like the AFSCME, middle-class America will lose the only political force powerful enough to counterbalance corporate interests and speak on behalf of real people in the election process. If that happens, who will be the next victim to follow the scapegoating of public employees? Here, an abbreviation of the oft-repeated words of Nazi-opponent Pastor Martin Niemoller seem especially appropriate:
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.