Inspired by Ronald Reagan and funded by the right’s richest donors, a web of free-market think tanks has fueled the nationwide attack on workers’ rights.
From New Hampshire to Alaska, Republican lawmakers are waging war on organized labor. They’re pushing bills to curb, if not eliminate, collective bargaining for public workers; make it harder for unions to collect member dues; and, in some states, allow workers to opt out of joining unions entirely but still enjoy union-won benefits. All told, it’s one of the largest assaults on American unions in recent history.
Behind the onslaught is a well-funded network of conservative think tanks that you’ve probably never heard of. Conceived by the same conservative ideologues who helped found the Heritage Foundation, the State Policy Network (SPN) is a little-known umbrella group with deep ties to the national conservative movement. Its mission is simple: to back a constellation of state-level think tanks loosely modeled after Heritage that promote free-market principles and rail against unions, regulation, and tax increases. By blasting out policy recommendations and shaping lawmakers’ positions through briefings and private meetings, these think tanks cultivate cozy relationships with GOP politicians. And there’s a long tradition of revolving door relationships between SPN staffers and state governments. While they bill themselves as independent think tanks, SPN’s members frequently gather to swap ideas. “We’re all comrades in arms,” the network’s board chairman told the National Review in 2007.
Occasionally, SPN think tanks boast of their clout. Such was the case when the Tennessee Center for Policy Research bragged on its website recently that it “leads the charge against teachers’ union” and “laid the groundwork” for the bills now in the Tennessee legislature to restrict, and possibly eradicate, bargaining for public school teachers. More often, though, the fingerprints of SPN’s members are less apparent.