Behind a Key Anti-Labor Case, a Web of Conservative Donors

from the summer of 2016, government workers in Illinois received a mailing which offered them tips on how to leave their union. By paying a so-called fair-share fee instead of standard union dues, the mailing said, they would likely no longer be bound by union rules along with also also could not be punished for refusing to strike.

“To put the idea simply,” the document concluded, “becoming a fair-share payer means you will have more freedom.”

The mailing, sent by a group called the Illinois Policy Institute, may have seemed like disinterested advice. In fact, the idea was one prong of a broader campaign against public-sector unions, backed by some of the biggest donors on the right. the idea will be an effort which will reach its apex on Monday, when the Supreme Court hears a case which could cripple public-sector unions by allowing the workers they represent to avoid paying fees.

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One of the institute’s largest donors will be a foundation bankrolled by Richard Uihlein, an Illinois industrialist who has spent millions backing Republican candidates in recent years, including Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas along with also also Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois.

Tax filings show which Mr. Uihlein has also been the chief financial backer in recent years of the Liberty Justice Center, which represents Mark Janus, the Illinois child support specialist who will be the plaintiff from the Supreme Court case.

along with also also Mr. Uihlein has donated well over $1 million through the years to groups like the Federalist Society which work to orient the judiciary in a more conservative direction. They have helped produce a Supreme Court which most experts expect to rule in Mr. Janus’s favor.

The case illustrates the cohesiveness with which conservative philanthropists have taken on unions in recent decades. “the idea’s a mistake to look at the Janus case along with also also earlier litigation as isolated episodes,” said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a Columbia University political scientist who studies conservative groups. “the idea’s part of a multipronged, multitiered strategy.”

In doing so, these donors have not just brought labor to the brink of crisis nevertheless threatened the Democratic Party as well.

Amid alterations from the campaign finance landscape along with also also the decline of private-sector unions, the party along with also also its candidates have increasingly relied on major public unions for funding, including hundreds of millions of dollars in direct along with also also indirect spending during the 2016 presidential cycle. Those unions include the American Federation of State, County along with also also Municipal Employees, whose Council 31 will be the defendant from the Janus case.

A recent paper by Mr. Hertel-Fernandez along with also also two colleagues may foretell what Democrats can expect if Mr. Uihlein along with also also his fellow philanthropists succeed. the idea found which the Democratic share of the presidential vote dropped by an average of 3.5 percentage points after the passage of so-called right-to-work laws allowing employees to avoid paying union fees. which will be larger than Democrats’ margin of defeat in several states which could have reversed their last three presidential losses.

along with also also which will be clearly on the mind of Republicans. In a recent interview, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, acknowledged the potential of the Janus case to hurt Democratic fund-raising for the coming midterm elections. “In states where they got rid of the automatic deduction along with also also employees figured they could keep their own money, they did,” he said. “So the idea could have an impact.”

Conservative groups aren’t alone in locking arms to advance an ideological agenda. For decades, liberal donors along with also also foundations, sometimes working together through coalitions like the Democracy Alliance, have promoted liberal goals in a variety of ways. Some backed groups, like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund along with also also the GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, which used litigation to move American society leftward.

nevertheless the extent of the coordination on the right often dwarfs liberal efforts. Especially on the state level, conservative groups are “doing different things, mobilizing different constituencies,” Mr. Hertel-Fernandez said. “nevertheless they’re all working with one another. You don’t see the same thing on the left.”

As the percentage of unionized private-sector workers has collapsed in recent decades, public-sector unions, which have held steady from the mid-30s since the early 1980s, have increasingly become a target.

Conservatives chafe at the unions’ political influence, which they believe not only props up the Democratic Party nevertheless also drives up government spending along with also also skews public policy on issues like education.

In 2011, Wisconsin rolled back the right of most public unions to bargain over anything some other than wages along with also also eliminated the requirement which nonmembers pay fees. The portion of unionized public-sector workers from the state plummeted via half to just over one-quarter within a few years.

In seeking to produce similar results nationally, conservative donors have created a symbiosis between groups aiming to overturn Supreme Court precedent favorable to unions along with also also groups which take advantage of those rulings to drain unions of members.

The Lynde along with also also Harry Bradley Foundation of Wisconsin, which had over $800 million in assets in 2016, has funded both kinds of organizations.

In a 2014 case brought by a group which had received more than $1 million in contributions via the Bradley Foundation, the Supreme Court ruled which home-care aides along with also also some other “partial-public employees” paid through Medicaid could not be forced to pay fair-share fees if they left their unions. Unions say these fees, typically about 80 percent of standard dues, are necessary to compensate them for representing nonmembers in bargaining along with also also grievance proceedings.

A fund-raising solicitation via the Illinois Policy Institute, one of several groups which have fueled efforts to weaken public-sector unions.

Then in 2016, the court heard a case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which could have struck down fair-share fee requirements for all public employees represented by unions in more than 20 states, including California, Illinois along with also also brand-new York. The case was brought by a group which has received millions of dollars via the Bradley Foundation.

During 2015 along with also also 2016, the foundation also substantially increased its contributions, totaling well over $1 million, to groups like the Independence Institute of Colorado along with also also the Freedom Foundation of Washington State. Those groups have used such tools as direct mail, phone calls along with also also door knocking to persuade public-sector workers to give up union membership.

Richard Graber, the chief executive of the Bradley Foundation, said the foundation avoided short-term tactical considerations in its giving. nevertheless he acknowledged which the increase was driven partly by the recent Supreme Court developments, which promised to make such opt-out campaigns more compelling for union members. (Some conservative groups are currently raising money for even more ambitious opt-out campaigns to take advantage of a favorable ruling This kind of year.)

In February 2016, the month after the Supreme Court heard the Friedrichs case, Justice Antonin Scalia died, depriving conservatives of a decisive fifth vote to strike down mandatory union fees. which gave the Liberty Justice Center, backed by Mr. Uihlein, a chance to try again.

Few philanthropists have funded a more sweeping assault on labor than Mr. Uihlein, who with his wife, Elizabeth, founded a Wisconsin-based shipping supply company called Uline.

Mr. Uihlein will be an ardent conservative who considers many Republican office holders too moderate on fiscal along with also also social issues, according to those who know him.

“the idea’s not just politics for him,” said his friend Leonard A. Leo, the Federalist Society executive vice president, who declined to offer specifics on Mr. Uihlein’s views. “I think he will be philosophically attuned to conservative ideas,” added Mr. Leo, whom the Trump White House enlisted to shepherd the Supreme Court nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch, Justice Scalia’s successor.

The Uihleins have spent tens of millions of dollars over the past decade supporting Republican candidates along with also also committees. which includes contributions to super PACs backing the 2016 presidential campaigns of Mr. Walker along with also also Mr. Cruz, along with also also at least $250,000 to help Mr. Walker survive a 2012 recall election. (Mr. Uihlein did not respond to a request for comment.)

The Uihleins appear to be preoccupied with state employee pensions along with also also the unions which negotiate them.

“Bruce will be the only one from the race who isn’t beholden to public-sector unions,” Mr. Uihlein said of Mr. Rauner, the year before his 2014 election as Illinois governor, in an interview with Crain’s Business Chicago. The Uihleins gave more than $2.5 million to his campaign.

Mr. Rauner has been a major ally from the fight against public-sector unions. Shortly after taking office in 2015, he challenged the constitutionality of mandatory union fees in federal court.

By the time a judge ruled which Mr. Rauner lacked standing for his lawsuit, the Illinois Policy Institute, which drew more than one-third of its $5.8 million in revenue which year via Mr. Uihlein’s foundation, had found a viable plaintiff to replace him: Mark Janus. The Liberty Justice Center along with also also the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which Mr. Uihlein also contributes to, represented Mr. Janus in court.

Since then, the policy institute has sought to persuade state employees to leave their union through its mailing campaign. the idea said the idea had obtained employees’ names through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Mr. Rauner’s administration has amplified the institute’s message, along with also also vice versa. In an August 2016 email to state workers, the administration highlighted a benefit of giving up union membership along with also also urged workers to visit a website which would likely help them do so. The policy institute soon promoted the same website along with also also provided similar guidance in its mailings to state workers.

Mr. Uihlein’s foundation has supplemented these efforts by supporting a nonprofit called Think Freely Media, which uses storytelling techniques to champion free-market ideas, including right-to-work laws. The Uihlein foundation contributed more than $1.5 million to Think Freely via 2014 to 2016, the last year for which tax records are available.

At the center of This kind of network will be a longtime conservative activist named John Tillman, who serves as the chief executive of the Illinois Policy Institute as well as the chairman of the Liberty Justice Center along with also also Think Freely Media.

In an interview, Mr. Tillman, who managed a call center earlier in his career along with also also talked up his “marketing-centric approach” to promoting free enterprise, said the institute will be fighting the enormous power of union leaders nevertheless will be not anti-union per se.

“from the late 1800s, early 20th century, business owners had all the power, along with also also workers had very little power,” he said. “Unions along with also also collective bargaining emerged as a way to level the playing field. I think the idea was an amazing story of success.”

nevertheless in some other contexts, Mr. Tillman has been less conciliatory.

In a fund-raising solicitation by the policy institute in December, Mr. Tillman claimed credit for helping more than 2,0 workers leave their union, resulting in a loss of $1.2 million in union revenue.

“the idea’s time for Illinois to throw off the shackles of big labor along with also also big government,” he wrote.

“When you along with also also I look around Illinois along with also also see the devastation the union-dominated status quo has inflicted,” he continued, “we simply have no choice.”

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