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Anti-labor email barrage targets union members

New York Teacher

Anti-worker forces tied to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers didn’t waste a minute.

Teachers and other government workers in New York and neighboring states were deluged with emails about opting out of their unions immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 27 ruling that government employees who choose not to join a union may not be required to help pay for collective bargaining.

“We knew this would happen,” said Kara McCormick-Lyons, the president of the White Plains Teachers Association in Westchester County. “I just didn’t think it would be before the ink was dry.”

Don Carlisto, the president of the teachers association in upstate Saranac Lake, eight miles from Lake Placid, said, “It’s clear that this was a well-planned strategic move. And I’m sure this is the first in what will be many attempts to distance members from the union.”

The Janus case was bankrolled by right-wing billionaires out to strip government workers of their pay, rights and benefits and squash the power of the unions that fight for them. The emails have come from organizations funded by those same right-wing billionaires — the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Oklahoma-based Americans for Fair Treatment.

The Mackinac Center, a conservative nonprofit that filed briefs backing Janus, played a prominent role in making fair-share fees illegal in Michigan and gets hundreds of thousands of dollars from foundations tied to Betsy DeVos and her husband.

The Mackinac Center launched a $10 million campaign to spread its message across the country after oral arguments in Janus in February. The center had traditional mailers and a digital barrage ready to release in the wake of the decision.

Americans for Fair Treatment is tied to the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers through the State Policy Network, a limited-government nonprofit. While it has been operating mostly in Pennsylvania, Americans for Fair Treatment announced a new website on July 5 targeting New York public sector workers.

One of the group’s board members is an executive at the Mackinac Center, according to NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. And the spokesman for the website lists among his clients many pro-charter groups as well as the Albany-based Empire Center for Public Policy, a major anti-labor player in New York State that, according to UFT President Michael Mulgrew, has raised $6 million to attack public sector unions in the state.

Showing just how coordinated these groups are, the website of the Americans for Fair Treatment’s New Choice New York campaign uses the same 800 number as the Mackinac Center’s My Pay My Say campaign that was advertised the day after the Janus decision.

“Our members will be sticking with their union, despite right-wing efforts to undermine their profession and attack teachers’ hard-won rights and benefits,” said Mulgrew.

The digital onslaught following the court ruling was fast and far-reaching.

“We’ve been bombarded,” said Steve Baker, the New Jersey Education Association’s communications director. “It started 10 minutes after the decision.”

Carlisto said both his Saranac Lake Central School District and the neighboring Lake Placid School District were flooded with the Mackinac Center missive within 24 hours of the Janus decision, as were more than 50 local districts throughout New York State.

“Two hours after the decision I got an unsolicited email that came from the Mackinac Center,” said Mark Stanton, a calculus teacher at White Plains HS. “I grew up in Michigan and I recognized the name” and its connection to DeVos. “You couldn’t try to reach teachers at any worse time because most of us have scattered” for the summer, he said. “In that regard, I was grateful. But it’s insidious, the fact that they did it the same day as the decision.”

Teachers’ unions are unmasking these organizations so employees know who is behind these disinformation campaigns. NYSUT, the UFT’s state affiliate, produced a video, “Say No to Betsy,” that the UFT shared with its members on social media. The video accuses DeVos’ “anti-union friends at the Mackinac Center” of a “massive effort to undermine unions and public schools to divide working people.”

The American Federation of Teachers has also used Facebook and Twitter to highlight the connection between DeVos and the Mackinac Center.

And when people use Google to search for Mackinac and other keywords, they see union-paid search ads that direct them to news stories that point out the DeVos connection.

White Plains teacher Ray Drach said the right-wing effort to prod public school educators to abandon their unions may have had the opposite effect. “I’ve seen a lot of activism because of this,” Drach said.

McCormick-Lyons, the White Plains union president, said the audacity of the attack has “confirmed everything we had been telling members and has caused people to feel defiant. It creates a stronger sense of solidarity.”