News Story

‘Goliath’ Unions Complain About ‘David’-Sized Think Tanks’ Worker Outreach Campaign

State-based think tank movement informing public employees they can stop paying union fees now

A nationwide battle is underway over state and local government employees, who since June 28, are no longer obligated to pay compulsory fees to a public sector union.

That was the date on which the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, holding that requiring public employees to pay the fees as a condition of employment violates their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association.

Since the ruling, a nationwide network of free-market think tanks has been reaching out to public employees in unionized workplaces and educating them about their newly recognized rights and freedom to stop paying union agency fees. At the same time, the unions that collect those fees are devising what The New York Times called aggressive recommitment campaigns.

One feature of the unions’ campaigns has been to misrepresent their financial advantage when compared to the state-based think tanks.

For example, the Ohio Education Association recently released a video identifying State Policy Network as part of the campaign to inform government employees about their rights under the Janus ruling.

“Most folks have not heard about the State Policy Network, but it is an $80 million nationwide dark money effort attacking public sector unions and attacking public education,” Nick Gurich, a researcher for the Ohio Education Association, said in the video.

State Policy Network includes dozens of independent organizations that are located in 49 states. The State Policy Network's total revenue in 2016 was $10.3 million, the most recent year financial data is available.

Their education campaigns are aimed at workers organized by several dozen government employee unions in a number of states, and represent just a small part of the groups’ overall activities and budgets.

The Ohio Education Association is just one public sector union, and its video did not disclose that this single labor organization had total revenue of $90.8 million in 2016, according to disclosures required by the U.S. Labor Department.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association is a similar union. It had total revenue of $70.0 million in 2016.

The California Teachers Association told The New York Times that the state think tanks’ national outreach was “bankrolled by the wealthy anti-labor forces looking to get richer on the backs of the middle class.”

The California union reported revenue of $190 million in 2016, according to its most recent filing.

“The Mackinac Center, which the teachers unions have snidely taken to referring to as the ‘DeVos-funded’ Mackinac Center, has sent emails to many teachers explaining their rights pursuant to the Janus decision,” said Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. “The California Teachers Association, especially, is in a snit over this, as they seem to think they own teachers and that anyone who has a different take on things should not dare mention it. Also CTA is aghast that Mackinac is spending $10 million on this project. In reality, this is chump change for CTA, which is the biggest political spender in California, spending $20 or so million a year – every year – on ballot initiatives, candidates for state and local office, and lobbying.”

The website is a project of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which also publishes Michigan Capitol Confidential. stated that about $10 million would be spent on the national outreach education effort in the first year.

The outreach campaign covers all 50 states. The biggest effect of the Janus ruling is on the 22 states that are not-right-to-work.