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The Right Leans In

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The strategy in Wisconsin—with several think tanks and nimble media outlets all coordinating to enact laws to weaken labor unions—also played out in Indiana, where Republicans enacted a right-to-work law, and in Ohio, where a bill to limit collective bargaining was passed (Ohio’s law was subsequently repealed by referendum in 2011). Then, in December 2012, Republicans in Michigan reversed a previous promise and enacted a right-to-work law during the post-election lame- duck session. Happening as it did in the cradle of private-sector union activism, this was perhaps the crowning achievement of the state-based conservative movement. (The Taft-Hartley Act allows states to enact right-to-work laws, which quickly erode unions by allowing workers to benefit from union contracts and negotiations without having to pay dues.)

This article was reported in collaboration with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, where Lee Fang is a reporting fellow. It is adapted from his new book, The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right, which is scheduled for publication on April 24 by the New Press.

About the Author

Lee Fang
Lee Fang
Lee Fang is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. He covers money in politics,...

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While many legislators were caught off guard by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s announcement, space in the front of the capitol had been reserved weeks in advance by Americans for Prosperity’s state chapter to set up a booth in support of the effort. Likewise, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy—the SPN affiliate in Michigan, with two recently opened media outlets, Michigan Capitol Confidential and Watchdog Wire Michigan—produced an array of content, from a Pinterest page to short videos on why the state should change its law governing labor unions. 

Labor unions, on the other hand, spend the majority of their limited resources on member services like bargaining; their political money is mostly spent on candidate donations rather than the kind of rapid-response permanent campaign now embraced by their opposition. The only labor-backed political group that could be compared to the SPN-affiliated Mackinac Center and its allies—an organization called Progress Michigan, which does political research and media outreach—has far fewer resources than its counterparts on the right. In 2010, according to the latest available disclosure for the three groups, the Mackinac Center and Americans for Prosperity’s state chapter outspent Progress Michigan by $4.6 million to a little over $700,000. 

MediaTrackers.org sites and news outlets mirroring Wisconsin Reporter now exist in states across the country, augmenting the advocacy of the expanded Americans for Prosperity and SPN chapters. “There’s no counterweight,” says Lisa Graves, head of the Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group in Madison. Graves notes that Wisconsin Reporter, among the other Franklin Center news sites set up in more than two dozen states, has acted as a syndication service, providing right-leaning news coverage to local media. “There’s no progressive wire service,” she adds.

Though many of the conservative groups involved in this strategy have claimed that their interest in promoting right-to-work laws or ending collective bargaining is about creating jobs or cutting spending, there is evidence to suggest that they are really seeking to eliminate unions across the board.

“Freedom is the issue at the core of this debate, and we want to ensure the citizens of Michigan understand this,” said Scott Hagerstrom, Americans for Prosperity’s state leader, in a press release following the passage of the right-to-work law. In a meeting for activists, however, Hagerstrom described his goals differently. “We fight these battles on taxes and regulation,” he said, “but really, what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees so they don’t have the resources to fight these battles.” 

Speaking at a panel discussion in Dallas a year before the right-to-work law’s passage in Michigan, Mackinac Center president Joseph Lehman conceded that his group’s campaign to promote government transparency through hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests was really an effort to hurt the unions. “The strategic idea we had in mind was defunding unions,” he said. And while it’s too early to predict the result of the Michigan law, new figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Wisconsin and Indiana recorded the sharpest decline in union membership in recent history. Last year, Wisconsin’s union membership rolls dropped by 13 percent. The only state with a higher decrease was Indiana, which reportedly declined by 18 percent. 

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In their aggressive effort take out the opposition, SPN and its allies have at times used unscrupulous tactics. A MediaTrackers.org story late in the campaign last November claimed that the husband of Mark Pocan, a Democratic candidate for Congress, “threatened and harassed” a Republican volunteer named Kyle Wood over text messages. Wood, who also claimed he was beaten in his apartment for not supporting Pocan, later recanted his entire story as a hoax. But the MediaTrackers.org reporter never viewed the alleged text messages before spreading the claim. 

MediaTrackers.org’s founder, Drew Ryun, the son of former Republican Congressman Jim Ryun, calls his group an “attack bloc component.” As he explained at an event with Sharp: “For so long, we as a conservative movement have thought good ideas will win the day. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Ryun added that public opinion could be shaped with technology like “search engine optimization” as well as with ”a little bit of pushing back and punching back.”

Before Ryun started working at MediaTrackers.org, his group American Majority had been training Tea Party activists to manipulate the rating systems on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Amazon and create lower ratings for left-leaning movies and books. “Literally 80 percent of the books I put a star on, I don’t read,” said a staff member at an American Majority training session. “That’s how you control the online dialogue.”

And before State Policy Network focused its attention in 2011 on eliminating unions, the group helped propel the campaign against the low-income advocacy group ACORN. In 2008, one of its affiliates filed a racketeering suit against ACORN, alleging it was a criminal gang designed to commit voter fraud in Ohio—though no evidence existed of any illicit voting.

After James O’Keefe’s edited tapes of ACORN brought the organization to its knees the following year, the conservative videographer was invited to speak at multiple events held by these state-level think tanks. And when O’Keefe was caught tampering with wires in Senator Mary Landrieu’s office some months later, it was revealed that he’d plotted the idea at the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, SPN’s Louisiana think tank, where he was scheduled to give a talk on “Exposing Truth: Undercover Video, New Media and Creativity.” Indeed, the Pelican Institute’s Robert Flanagan was one of his accomplices, dressing up as a telephone repairman in order to enter Landrieu’s office.

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