On March 18, 2011, the Cleveland Leader reported that Charles and David Koch -- billionaire owners of Koch Industries, an energy conglomerate that also makes a list of familiar household products like Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Lycra and StainMaster carpet -- are funneling $5.6 million to the corporate astroturf group FreedomWorks to run a television ad campaign in Ohio that scapegoats public workers. The ad depicts public workers and their unions as enemies and blames them for budget deficits in Wisconsin and Ohio. It features a discredited and deceptive Fox News video clip of protesters taken in a different state to try and depict Ohio's public-sector union workers as being mean and aggressive.
Crossroads GPS, a secretive political group that hides its corporate funders, is also running ads nationally, on CNN, CNBC and the Fox Channel, that pit workers against each other. As a 501 (c)(4) organization, Crossroads GPS doesn't legally have to disclose its donors, but in November, 2010, NBC News reported that Crossroads GPS is largely funded by "a small circle of extremely wealthy Wall Street hedge fund and private equity moguls."
These ads all scapegoat public-sector workers, blame them as the cause of state deficits and portray them as greedy and overpaid. But there's something else these ads have in common: they are all funded by wealthy financial sector and corporate donors.
Why Paint Public Workers as Enemies?
There are several reasons why portraying public workers as enemies benefits corporate interests. The first reason is political.
Of the top ten outside groups that poured the most money into influencing the 2010 elections, seven supported Republicans and corporate interests, while just three -- all labor unions -- supported Democrats. Getting rid of the three labor unions that comprise the last bastion of potent, grassroots advocacy for lower and middle class workers' interests will turbo-charge the power of Wall Street moguls and wealthy corporations to influence election outcomes. Their last remaining opposition at the ballot box would be gone. It would be "game over."
The "public sector-workers-as-enemies" idea also benefits corporations' bottom lines.
Public-sector employees generally work in a helping capacity. They are public school teachers, garbage collectors, policemen and women, firefighters, and city and county workers who fix potholes, round up stray animals and keep the traffic lights working. They are nurses at public hospitals and the emergency medical technicians who respond when you call 911. They are the people society depends on to keep local and state governments operating, and who provide needed services to communities.
None of these jobs is particularly glamorous, and some are especially difficult and dangerous. If a garbage worker, policeman or woman, fireman or nurse makes a decent wage and has a good benefits package, most of us don't begrudge them that. These folks are doing tough jobs that many others would rather not, and, in addition, their wages and benefits set the bar for the rest of us. If their wages are pushed down, it will help depress wages for everybody, helping corporations improve their bottom lines.
Corporate America's Strategy: Divide and Conquer
So why are so many corporate-funded ad campaigns pushing the idea that public sector workers are Public Enemy Number One, and why now?
As with so many other PR tactics corporations are using right now, we need to look to the tobacco industry -- the original authors of corporate America's PR Playbook -- to better understand the persuasive efforts filling the media landscape that are designed to shape public sentiment towards various sectors of American workers.
A previously-secret, internal Philip Morris (PM) presentation from 1996 reveals that company's long-term plan to divide the ranks of anti-smoking advocacy groups, like the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society the American Heart Association and others, to weaken their joint efforts to reduce smoking rates. Just like public sector workers, these organizations command tremendous credibility with the public. When these groups join together to advance a single cause, they muster significant power to sway public and legislative opinion. When these organizations unite to advocate effective policies, like public smoking restrictions, together they can really make a difference. Thus these nonprofits were formidable opponents for tobacco companies, and a force that PM needed to hobble.
To hamper the effectiveness of these groups, PM developed a long-term plan to increase in-fighting among them by "enhancing internal conflicts." PM developed a divide-and-conquer strategy aimed at pitting these groups against each other so they wouldn't -- or couldn't -- work effectively against tobacco industry interests. PM carried these plans out over many years. You can find out more about how they did this by reading the SourceWatch articles Anti-Tobacco Industry Plan and Project Sunrise, among others.
Divisive Tactics Help Maintain Control
PM's plot is instructive: turning groups who would normally be allies against one another is a political strategy that corporations use to neutralize enemies. By telling lies to one side or another, those who seek power can create the impression among targeted groups that one side threatens the other. In other words, if you can keep your strongest enemies fighting amongst themselves, they cannot unite to fight YOU.
The very same corporate-backed, divide-and-conquer strategy is now being applied against American workers nationally. Republican governors' efforts around the country to eliminate unions are being bolstered by corporate-backed astroturf groups, like FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and secretive political groups, like Crossroads GPS, that are funded by wealthy Wall Street interests.
The ads try to pit workers against workers, so they won't band together to advance their common interests. Here, corporate interests have chosen the dividing lines, pitting private sector workers against public sector workers. The ads on TV, radio and the Internet that demonize public-sector workers are designed to manufacture petty jealousies between groups of workers where there usually are none, and pit the two groups against each other so they won't unite to advance their common interests.
The ads' narrative encourages a line of thinking that constructs a race to the bottom for wages and benefits, which helps companies' bottom lines. They obscure the idea that if workers join together to demand better wages and benefits from employers, they can be far more effective against the corporations that dominate them, and much more likely to improve their lot. The ads push workers towards accepting -- even advocating -- a global downward spiral in wages and benefits, rather than encouraging disparate workers to look for effective ways to improve their lot.
Don't Take the Bait
Corporations' biggest dread is that workers across the U.S. won't take the bait these ads are offering. They fear that workers will do the opposite: see through the ads' divide-and-conquer strategy. They fear what would happen if people started paying renewed attention to how unions have vastly improved the lot of American workers over the last century. They fear that lower and middle-class U.S. workers, who are more downtrodden now than they've been in decades, will see that America actually needs unions now quite desperately and more than ever, to act as a counterbalance to rapidly-growing corporate power, and to help reverse the race to the bottom that American workers have been experiencing over the last three decades.
Here's an idea: don't take the bait.