Teachers union members holding signs that read "We Need Smaller Class Sizes" and "Fully Staffed Schools Now"

Rocio Rivas, center, a parent, joins the United Teachers Los Angeles union protesting LAUSDs lack of urgency around core contract demands, staff shortages and vacancies, holds a pre-school picketing at Bravo Medical Magnet High School on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA.

(Photo: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Who Are These Nice People Who Want Me to Get a Raise?

An in-depth look at the Freedom Foundation and its campaign against public unions.

One day, I received a very nice card in the mail. It had a picture of Uncle Sam pointing out at me over the words “Give yourself a raise,” and included a tear-off mailer addressed to “UESF Membership Specialist.” It read, “Effective immediately, I resign any membership I may have in all levels of United Educators of San Francisco (UESF).” All I needed to do to get my raise was sign it and send it back to that membership specialist, c/o Freedom Foundation in Orange, California.

Just who were these nice people, I wondered, who were looking out for my financial well-being—and even had a specialist devoted to my local union? The answer turned out to be quite the story.

Heading to the Freedom Foundation website, I found a prominently placed video telling how “Los Angeles high school teacher, Glenn Laird, reached his breaking point after his teacher (UTLA) demanded we defund the police.” Given that Glenn is a teacher himself, I gathered that the questionable grammar and the mistake of referring to United Teachers of Los Angeles as a “teacher” rather than a union were likely typos on the part of the freedom folks. Odd though, I thought, that such an obviously well-funded organization would not employ the services of a proofreader, but then the website quickly makes it quite clear that it’s not the education business that these folks are in.

The Freedom Foundation is hardwired to hard-right money.

The business they are in is union-busting. In their words: “The Freedom Foundation is more than a think tank. We’re more than an action tank. We’re a battle tank that’s battering the entrenched power of left-wing government union bosses who represent a permanent lobby for bigger government, higher taxes, and radical social agendas.”

“Why We Fight,” the organization’s statement of purpose, proclaims that “government unions are a root cause of every growing national dysfunction in America.” (Every one of them!) And the mailing I had received, I learned, was part of the organization’s Nationwide Opt Out Project, aimed at “taking on government union bosses and defunding their radical unconstitutional agenda” because “GOVERNMENT UNIONS ARE THE SINGLE GREATEST OBSTACLE TO A FREE AMERICA” (All caps on the website) that “REPRESENT NOTHING LESS THAN A LOBBY FOR NATIONAL DECLINE AND DESTRUCTION. WE MUST DEFEAT THEM FIRST BEFORE THEY DESTROY OUR COUNTRY.” The website’s interactive 50-state map will allow you to locate the specific local union that the foundation would like you to leave, and its “dues calculator” allows you to compute how much you will have saved in union dues—compounded at 6%—by the time of your retirement.

While government employee unions are the organization’s particular bugbear, they’re not really too keen on unions of any sort. While conceding that “organized labor began as a way for workers to improve their standing in our country,” the foundation believes that “slowly it transformed into a weapon to destroy it.” And then there’s those darned “Liberal state governments” that are “like cockroaches eking out survival amid the fallout of a nuclear war.”

The freedom folks find evidence of this “national decline” pervasive throughout American society, extending to the “fiscal crisis” that “has forced government to take increasingly perverse actions to keep the system afloat, including multi-trillion bailouts of state government in the form of ‘Covid Emergency’ funds that were airdropped across America in 2020 at the height of mass hysteria over the virus.” For their part, they look forward to “a day when opportunity, responsible self-governance, and free markets flourish in America because its citizens understand and defend the principles from which freedom is derived.” As far as the foundation itself goes, “We accept no government support.”

What never? Well, hardly ever. It would appear that even these hardcore free marketeers were not immune to the Covid “mass hysteria.” Noting that at the time “unions specifically weren’t eligible for the paycheck protection program, so they were left to fend for themselves,” the July 8, 2020, Seattle Times reported, “Not so the Freedom Foundation, though—it got between $350,000 to $1 million from the federal relief fund, records show.” ProPublicareports the exact figure was a $644,125 Paycheck Protection Program loan given to protect the jobs of 82 campaigners against excess government spending. (The amount subsequently forgiven the resolutely anti-government bailout organization was $651,157, the difference representing accrued interest.)

To be fair, though, this government “airdrop” by no means represents the core of the organization’s funding. The June 28, 2018, Los Angeles Times reported that although the group’s labor policy director “declined to identify any of the group’s donors, which he said include businesses, foundations, and individuals ‘from all different walks of life,’” the group’s “tax filings reveal a who’s-who of wealthy conservative groups. Among them are the Sarah Scaife Foundation, backed by the estate of right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife; Donors Trust, which has gotten millions of dollars from a charity backed by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch; from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, backed by the family of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos; and the State Policy Network, which has received funding from Donors Trust and is chaired by a vice president of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.”

They are people whose job is specifically to reduce the resources available to support economic equity campaigns, and to reduce the resources available to oppose the careers of rich men’s friends in government.

Who are these individuals and organizations? According to SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, the Sarah Scaife Foundation gives “tens of millions of dollars annually to fund right-wing organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, and anti-immigrant and islamophobic organizations such as the Center for Immigration Studies and the David Horowitz Freedom Center.”

In her August 23, 2010, New Yorker article “Covert Operations,” Jane Mayer described the billionaire Koch brothers as “longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation.” DeVos, of course, we know from the Trump administration, as well by association with her brother Eric Prince, who founded the mercenary organization formerly known as Blackwater. SourceWatch says that “Harry Bradley was one of the original charter members of the far right-wing John Birch Society, along with another Birch Society board member, Fred Koch, the father of Koch Industries' billionaire brothers and owners, Charles and David Koch.”

In other words, the Freedom Foundation is hardwired to hard-right money. In a 2016 fundraising letter, Tracy Sharp, president and CEO of the State Policy Network—which counts the Freedom Foundation as an affiliate—was quite clear as to the orientation and policy goals of these organizations: “The Big Government unions are the #1 obstacle to freedom in the states” because, among other things, they support “a universal $15 minimum wage” and “defend Obamacare at all costs,” and—here we cut to the prime motivation behind the expenditure of all this hard right money—“They want to redistribute wealth.” She concludes, “And yes, they are the funding arm of the Progressive Left.”

The letter also touts the network’s victories in defunding the left in a number of states including Wisconsin and Michigan. Close followers of the Electoral College map will remember that in 2016 Donald Trump won Wisconsin by 23,000 votes and Michigan by 11,000, as well as the fact that his failure to repeat those narrow wins caused his eviction from the White House four years later. (State Policy Network donors include Philip Morris, Kraft Foods, Facebook, Microsoft, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and Comcast. Its Indiana affiliate was once headed by former Vice President Mike Pence.)

Although the Freedom Foundation operates as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charitable organization, a status requiring abstention from partisan politics, it’s not shy about expressing its views in the political arena. The 2018 Supreme Court decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME ended the ability of public sector unions to collect “agency fees” from non-members, a practice designed to reimburse a union for the costs accrued in their representation of non-members as part of the bargaining unit. This decision, long sought by right-wing organizations, would not have happened had Donald Trump not recently appointed Neil Gorsuch to the court, an appointment with a specific political history.

As the foundation recounts on its website, “the liberal Judge Merrick Garland—who would later serve as attorney general under President Biden—was handpicked by President Obama to succeed Scalia” (Antonin Scalia, the Justice whose sudden February 13, 2016, death opened a seat on the court) but “conservatives stood and fought—and it made all the difference. The U.S. Senate, under the leadership of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, refused to debate the Garland nomination until after the 2016 presidential election. As we all know, that fateful election ultimately put Donald Trump in the White House. And it ended any chance of Judge Garland moving to the high court. Shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, Judge Neil Gorsuch ultimately was confirmed as a conservative successor to Justice Scalia.”

But the foundation cannot be accused of Trump loyalism, in that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his opponent in the bitterly contested Republican presidential nomination race, also came in for high praise when he signed legislation further restricting the ability of his state’s public employee unions to collect dues. Rusty Brown, the foundation’s southern director, thanked him for “standing up for government employees who have been held hostage by their unions,” declaring that “The Freedom Foundation applauds... Gov. DeSantis for ending this government union charade against public employees.”

So, back to the question of who those nice people who want me to get a pay raise actually are. They are people who oppose a $15 an hour minimum wage, expanded publicly funded health insurance coverage, and the redistribution of wealth. They are people who admire Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, and Ron DeSantis. They are people funded by right-wing, dark money networks. They are people whose job is specifically to reduce the resources available to support economic equity campaigns, and to reduce the resources available to oppose the careers of rich men’s friends in government.

Should you decide to help them on their way by opting out of your union, you’ll probably want to avail yourself of their “dues calculator,” because if they have their way, the gap between their major funders and the rest of us is going to just keep growing.

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