It’s no mystery what will happen if we rush to reopen the economy and send people back to work before epidemiologists say it is safe to do so. A model produced in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March projected a worst-case scenario of 1.7 million Americans killed. Another estimate by the Imperial College London put this number at 2.2 million. We know that COVID-19, which has already taken more than 40,000 U.S. lives, is disproportionately killing African Americans. Poor people are already bearing the brunt of this crisis — and will die in even larger numbers if they are prematurely sent back to wait tables and crowd together in warehouses and factories.
Amid this climate, a small army of right-wing think tanks and conservative organizations is cynically invoking the plight of the downtrodden to make the case for swiftly reopening the economy and sending workers into deadly conditions. Some of the organizations beating this drum the loudest — the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — are behind the most anti-worker measures of our times, from the anti-union Janus Supreme Court ruling to the Trump administration’s work requirements for food stamps. As Trump, the GOP, CEOs and now billionaire-backed “protesters” call for the economy to reopen, these think tanks are working fervently behind the scenes, crafting talking points, speaking with legislators and building coalitions aimed at boosting Wall Street’s profits, at the expense of ordinary people.
“The people running these organizations are going to remain safely ensconced in gated mansions with little danger of getting infected themselves, while they make millions of Americans go back to work standing shoulder to shoulder,” Carl Rosen, general president for the UE union (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America), told In These Times.
On April 16, Kay Coles James, the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, praised President Trump for issuing guidelines for states to reopen their economies in three phases. “The administration is rightly working to restore livelihoods in the midst of catastrophic job losses while also taking care to balance Americans’ health and safety,” said James. “The Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission is also working quickly to deliver additional recommendations to governments at every level, the private sector, and churches, charities, and other parts of civil society on a pathway to reopen America.”
James was listed as a thought leader on Trump’s dubious “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups” — likely at least partially a P.R. stunt, but nonetheless, a measure of influence and power. For the Heritage Foundation, it’s a sign that the organization’s campaign to reopen the economy might be paying off. The group announced a “National Coronavirus Recovery Commission” on April 6 and, soon after, issued a five-phase plan for reopening America. According to the Washington Post, the Heritage Foundation is working with other conservative groups including FreedomWorks and ALEC as part of an informal “Save Our Country” coalition aimed at reopening the economy. With funding from the Koch Foundation, ExxonMobil and a bevy of wealthy donors, the Heritage Foundation is at the center of political efforts to prematurely restart the economy.
Remarkably, the organization is citing the well-being of the poor people it wants to send into treacherous conditions when issuing this call. On April 13, James declared, “Keeping the American people at work and prosperous is what will produce better health outcomes for our citizens. A growing economy has the money for research and development into new medical innovations and cures; has more resources to better educate and train medical personnel; and creates greater capacities of beds, equipment, medicines, and personnel to handle the sick. It’s also an economy where abundance allows us to have the resources to help poorer citizens get the medical help that they need.” In other words, she is arguing that reopening the economy will make people sick, but market forces will somehow offset this catastrophe by providing the things we need to treat them—a claim made without evidence, and against the advice of epidemiological experts.
This insistence on sending workers into treacherous conditions “for their own good” stems directly from the organization’s history. The Heritage Foundation was heavily influential in the Reagan administration and right-wing Tea Party movement, and was a major influencer in the Trump administration’s transition team. It is vehemently anti-union, a fierce opponent of a $15 minimum wage, a fervent supporter of the 2018 Janus ruling, which pummeled public-sector unions, and a proponent of so-called right-to-work laws, which say workers don’t have to pay dues to the unions that represent them. Heritage has made gutting public programs for the poor a central focus throughout its existence, and opposes expanding healthcare access.
The organization saw one of its cruelest agenda items come to fruition in December of 2019, when the Trump administration placed further restrictions on who can receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, declaring that able-bodied adults without children in places that have an unemployment rate below 10% have to work 20 hours a week to qualify. This rule was approved by Trump despite warnings that 700,000 people would lose their food stamps. Maggie Dickinson, a researcher who studied SNAP in New York City from 2011 to 2013, wrote that “work requirements have been shown to not help unemployed people find work and to make it more difficult for them to feed themselves. But taking people who are unemployed off SNAP often does harm to more than just those who directly receive food assistance.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the rule change “appears to base its intellectual underpinning on policy developed at the conservative Heritage Foundation, experts say.” The Heritage Foundation, for its part, claimed credit in an article titled “Heritage Research Influences Food Stamp Eligibility Rule.”
According to Rosen of UE, “The only thing these corporations want to achieve is corporate profits as usual. That’s their real goal—not making sure working people have an income, not to make sure health and economic needs were taken care of. If those were their goals, they would support much more robust policies right now that make sure everyone has a full income and full healthcare through Medicare for All. These are the steps that have been taken in many European countries.”
“People need to be paid to stay home right now — that’s the only way we can recover as a country,” Rosen added. “Attempts to force people to go back to work when it’s not safe for them to do so is a horrendous, murderous policy.”
When it comes to the push to reopen the U.S. economy, the Heritage Foundation is not going it alone. As the Associated Press notes, the Koch-backed AFP was “one early shutdown opponent,” making the case that business should be allowed to “adapt and innovate.” Intercept reporter Lee Fang noted on March 26 that AFP, which calls itself a political advocacy group, “wants employees to return to work despite desperate pleas from public health officials that people should stay home as much as possible to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.” State chapters of AFP have also joined in the effort.
Like the Heritage Foundation, the AFP cites the hardships of poor people when pushing for the economy to reopen. “We can achieve public health without depriving the people most in need of the products and services provided by businesses across the country,” the organization said on March 20. “If businesses are shut down, where will people who are most in need get the things they need to care for themselves and others? Rather than blanket shutdowns, the government should allow businesses to continue to adapt and innovate to produce the goods and services Americans need, while continuing to do everything they can to protect the public health.”
Yet AFP, described by In These Times writer Mary Bottari as “the Kochs’ ‘grassroots’ lobbying arm,” has played a tremendous role in gutting public programs aimed at protecting ordinary people, including the CDC, and social welfare programs, particularly Medicaid. In recent years, the organization has gone on a blitz trying to pass right-to-work laws, seeing some success.
Before the COVID-19 crisis began, AFP was mobilizing against the PRO Act, which passed the House in February. This legislation would strengthen the right to strike, override “right-to-work” laws, and punish bosses who retaliate against workers for attempting to form a union. While the legislation is not perfect, it would “go a long way toward reversing decades of GOP-backed efforts to grind unions into dust,” Jeremy Gantz wrote in February for In These Times. AFP is presently circulating a letter which declares, “This legislation would turn back the clock on workers’ rights by undermining many pro-worker successes of recent years, just one year after the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision that affirmed union membership is a choice for all government workers nationwide.” AFP is not only pushing to send workers into dangerous conditions: It also wants to erode their right to collectively fight back.
But perhaps the biggest villain of all is ALEC, the Koch-backed “nonprofit” model-legislation shop that has devoted its nearly half-century of existence to eroding workers’ rights. ALEC has been active in efforts to reopen the economy. Its CEO Lisa B. Nelson told Newt Gingrich on March 27, “We believe preparations need to be made for a clarion call to get Americans back to work, and so the economy can start its rebound.” ALEC hosted a March 21 conference call featuring ALEC Board of Scholar Member Art Laffer, a right-wing economist and key figure behind the Reagan-era tax cuts for the rich. “We need to get production back — period,” declared Laffer, who was awarded the presidential medal of freedom by Trump last year.
As ALEC has called for policies that would endanger society’s most vulnerable, the organization has sought to portray itself as a victim. On an April 1 legislators call, ALEC Chief Economist Jonathan Williams said: “I think we all know how times of crises like these can be very dangerous times for those of us who believe in the ALEC principles of free markets and limited government and federalism.” Meanwhile, the organization is pushing for a host of other goals, including deregulation of telecommunications and supporting “federalism” and “state’s rights.”
In an interview, Laffer cited the plight of poor people when staking out his political positions. Reuters paraphrases, “‘I think it’s really important to balance out the economic consequences with the health consequences,’ Laffer said, adding that increased poverty from an extended shutdown could mean lower life expectancy, more suicide and a jump in child abuse.” (Notably, robust social programs, which Laffer opposes, are proven to reduce suicides during times of economic downturn.) And in a podcast interview, Nelson cited “working” as a public good: “Open america and get America working again,” she declared.
ALEC’s current advocacy emanates from a long history. As Mary Battari noted in a February 2018 story for In These Times, “ALEC was founded in 1973 as a venue for politicians and corporate lobbyists to meet behind closed doors and draft cookie-cutter legislation, known as ‘model bills,’ that promote corporate interests.” Today it boasts a massive network of 2,000 legislative members and 300 or more corporate members, according to The Center for Media and Democracy, which says, “ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that.” Aided by funding from corporations, corporate trade groups and the Koch Foundation, its bills have aimed to undermine unions, criminalize protests and privatize public goods. Over the past 15 years it has worked closely with conservatie advocacy groups, including AFP, to undermine unions.
According to Rosen, groups like ALEC are a big reason why we are so ill-prepared to meet the COVID-19 crises. “Over the last 50 years,” he says, “we’ve allowed corporate forces to systematically destroy the social safety net. There was no preparation done for a pandemic like this, even though it was clear that something like this could happen. The groups demanding we reopen are the ones that destroyed the social safety net, thereby creating the pressures making some people want to start up again.”
These three think tanks are pillars of a much broader effort to “reopen the economy,” which is another way of saying “treat workers as disposable widgets in service of corporate profits.” The oversized role of wealthy people in pushing this effort calls into question any claims that local protests for reopening constitute an organic, working-class movement. As the Guardian reports, “The Michigan Freedom Fund, which said it was a co-host of a recent Michigan rally against stay-at-home orders, has received more than $500,000 from the DeVos family, regular donors to rightwing groups.” The DeVos family is one of the richest in Michigan.
Joining in the cacophony are individual CEOs, who occasionally put conservative organizations’ talking points in cruder and more honest terms. Billionaire Tom Golisano, founder and chairman of Paychex Inc., told Bloomberg in late March, “The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people. I have a very large concern that if businesses keep going along the way they’re going then so many of them will have to fold.” He added, “You have to weigh the pros and cons.”
Of course, for him, the “pro” is that he will not be the one serving tables, stocking warehouses or struggling to get healthcare once the economy reopens: When he talks about the costs, he’s talking about other people. The same can be said about the leaders of the conservative think tanks and organizations that are leading the push to send workers into danger: It will cost them nothing. The price for ordinary people will be immeasurable.
Lu Zhao and Indigo Olivier contributed research to this report.