The Mackinac Center: National Leader in Plan to End Unions

The Heritage Foundation was founded in 1973 with money provided by Joe Coors of the Coors Brewing Corporation. Joe wanted to create an outside operation to supply corporate-friendly “research” as well as testimony-ready experts for Republican politicians.

In 1975, ALEC was created to do the same on the state level by supplying model legislation written by corporate lobbyists, ready made for introduction. A few years later, in 1984, the Mackinac Center was founded by insurance companies to bring this corporate policy-making machinery to Michigan.

ALEC promises corporate funders that “winning the public policy debate will … have a tremendous effect on the bottom line of your company.”

A 1991 ALEC fundraising letter.

The handful of conservative think tanks then in place had enough success that by 1992 a franchising operation known as the State Policy Network was founded. Run in tandem with the Mackinac Center’s Think Tank School, the SPN has managed to create 63 conservative think tanks in every state except North Dakota.

In 2016, SPN launched a new program to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the union “stranglehold” on the country. It intends to do this by providing the resources necessary in each state to “defund and defang” the only organized opposition to its pro-corporate agenda.

A 2016 SPN fundraising letter.

Many of the techniques will sound familiar to those of us in Michigan who have been fighting most of these proposals for years.

With the Janus case soon to be decided by the United States Supreme Court, Right To Work will almost certainly be imposed nation-wide. While it has had only limited effect in Michigan, it has long been a Republican goal, with the hope to massively suppress union membership.

Ending payroll dues deduction serves to cut off any union’s life blood. Gutting certification requirements serves to unprofessionalize teaching and in turn, justify lower salaries. And ending collective bargaining kills any union’s greatest power to help its members and justify the payment of dues.

SPN also thoughtfully provides a Toolkit to help conservative think tanks across the country avoid the mistake of revealing their union-killing intentions, and instead use focus group approved messaging.

“Using terms like ‘union fat cats,’ ‘corrupt union bosses’, and other overly negative language reduces support for reform.” Instead, use terms like “workplace freedom” and “worker’s choice.”

One of the proposals addressed by the Toolkit, “Worker Voting Rights,” is an ALEC-written model bill that would require every local union to recertify every year. The MEA has 1,130 such local unions.

This proposal has been on the Mackinac Center’s wish list for many years. The intent is to tie up union time and resources that would otherwise be available to provide services to its members (reducing yet again opportunities to earn dues) and in the process cutting the number of local units and therefore, members. Defang and defund.

Its appearance in both the Toolkit and the Mackinac Center’s wish list is no coincidence. SPN gives the Mackinac Center props for its role in providing this anti-union propaganda (“intellectual ammunition”).

For each of its proposals, the Toolkit provides expected objections together with ready-made responses. For Worker Voting Rights, it suggests countering anyone exposing its union-busting purpose by pleading that it is instead simple democracy. “…just like voters have the opportunity to vote to elect lawmakers.”

SPN think tanks eagerly regurgitate these talking points. F. Vincent Vernuccio, until very recently the Mackinac Center Director of Labor Policy, wrote a guest editorial shilling for the same ALEC bill: “Just like we vote for our representatives in Washington…”


The Toolkit is careful that its think tank members not mistake these Fifth Avenue selling points for the ultimate motivation behind these union-killing proposals. It makes this clear on the very next page :

Charter School Closes 1 Month Before School Year Ends

On May 31st, a full month before the end of the school year, the Taylor International Academy charter school in Southfield, Michigan closed its doors. The death knell sounded when its New Jersey-based management firm removed the school’s principal and other managers. The school board had been dissolved and revenue to the firm had dried up.


Taylor International Academy was a publicly-funded charter school. It was located inside the Christian Tabernacle Church and opened in 2010 thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation, founders of Walmart and Sam’s Club.

Michigan’s charter schools are famously loosely regulated. A status that is not accidental.

In June of 2016, the Michigan Senate passed a bill to respond to the wildly inconsistent charter schools in Detroit. Described as “free-for-all charter environment”, the bills would have put the city’s charter schools under the same authority as the neighborhood public schools. Then the Devos family stepped in.

The provision was gutted and the bill was signed into law without it, taking with it the hope that anything similar would be adopted statewide. Soon thereafter, the quid for that quo:

Five days later, several members of the DeVos family made the maximum allowable contributions to the Michigan Republican Party, a total of roughly $180,000.

The next day, DeVos family members made another $475,000 in contributions to the party.

It was the beginning of a spending spree that would swell to $1.45 million in contributions to the party and to individual candidates by the end of July, according to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

CMU’s charter school office, Taylor’s authorizer and therefore responsible for “oversight” in exchange for keeping 3% of the charter’s state funding, stated that it is not responsible for ensuring teachers get paid. It’s communications manager said: “Really the board is responsible for the management of the school, and we contract with them giving them the opportunity to govern that school.”

Collateral damage in Michigan’s charter school wild west.

A teacher at the school sees the big picture:

“This is a new world that were seeing with Betsy DeVos,” said Jacqueline Robinson, a teacher at the school. “Businesses come in. They are businesses and they are coming into education, into our schools. They can’t make their money? Oh well. They will pull out and leave.”

Lawmakers ID Money to Pay For Pension Attack – ACT NOW!

Senate Republicans had a choice to make this week – fixing roads or gutting school employee pensions – and they decided their priority is to eliminate retirement security for the dedicated professionals who staff our public schools.

Remember that the next time you blow out a tire on a two-foot-deep pothole, but meanwhile – Join the fight to stop this latest attack on public education – Contact your lawmakers NOW.

Read all about it here.

Mackinac Center, Part of the National Koch Brothers Pension Attack

The Mackinac Center was created in 1987 in the image of the Heritage Foundation. Since then, thanks in large part to the Center’s Think Tank School, the Center has been duplicated in all but one state. And at last count, 67 other countries.

This sort of cloning extends to the work product of each think tank. Christopher Derry, who founded Kentucky’s Bluegrass Institute after graduating from the Mackinac school, described the “research” he recycles from other right wing think tanks:


Not only do these “propaganda mills” regurgitate each other’s work, they have a remarkable unity to the issues they pursue, which is directly related to the business interests of the corporations and foundations that fund them.

This is clear from the hair-on-fire headlines on view across the nation regarding public pensions:

Illinois Policy
Understanding Illinois’ Massive, Government-Worker Pension Crisis

State Pension Funds Fall Off a Cliff

Show-Me Institute (Missouri)
Public Employee Pensions in Missouri: A Looming Crisis

The Bluegrass Institute (Kentucky)
Pension Grinch likely to pilfer more from taxpayers

The Manhattan Institute (New York)
The Public Pension Problem: It’s Much Worse Than It Appears

Commonwealth Foundation (Pennsylvania)
Union Leaders Kill Critical Pension Reform at Members’ and Taxpayers’ Expense

The Heartland Institute (Illinois)
Massive Public Pension Liabilities Loom in Jacksonville

Yankee Institute (Connecticut)
Born Broke: Our pension debt problem

PR HandThe Reason Foundation in California serves as policy clearinghouse for other think tanks, to whom the smaller ones often contract out this work.

In 2014 Reason published a Pension Reform Handbook, which provides sage advice for right wing think tanks everywhere hoping to end defined benefit pensions.

A critical part of a successful campaign to close state pension systems is to work the media, something think tanks like the Mackinac Center have become increasingly adept at:


The handbook includes advice on how to get union members to help you kill their own pensions:

…you want them to know that it is your intention to remove the ability for politicians to play games with or raid their pension funds so that the jurisdiction never has to contemplate serious cuts to their retirement plans. You want to put them in control of their retirement.

One of its pieces suggests part of the solution requires that we all work longer:

The fact that people are living longer, healthier lives, however, means that they are able to contribute to the workforce—with greater wisdom and patience—later in life.

Sprinkled throughout these sources are the arguments we hear every day in the current Michigan pension fight.

Mercatus Center, George Mason University, (Funded by the Koch brothers) “…the state should close the current defined benefit plan to new workers and expand the existing defined contribution plans for all new state and local workers.”

Arnold Foundation: “The problem stems from the fact that many governments have failed to make the annual required contribution to their pension system. This chronic underfunding has caused the debt to increase dramatically.”

But the real bottom line comes from the National Taxpayers Union Foundation:

Defined-Contribution or 401k plans should be used since they place the investment risk and reward on the public employee

This coordinated nationwide think tank assault on public employee pensions would have us believe each franchise has on its own discovered a growing threat to the welfare of union members it pretends to care so much about. It is, in fact, a coordinated attempt to kill off yet another benefit of union membership in the hope that members will question their return on dues dollars.

This is the phase of the long-term drive to lower union membership beyond the point where school staff, through their unions, have the resources to resist the privatization of public education.

The Mackinac Center’s Online School Blind Spot

A recent communique from the Mackinac Center, Governor’s Cyber School Cuts Don’t Add Up, complained about a surprisingly progressive feature of Governor Snyder’s state budget proposal: pay online schools less for each of their students than neighborhood public schools get.

The reasoning is obvious (to most people): neighborhood public schools have costs that electronic schools don’t. Buildings for instance. And utilities.

And a rational number of teachers. As The Truth About K12, Inc. shows, the sky is the limit on teacher/student ratios at cyber schools:


K12 raio

This NPR report established that when a school, almost always a charter school, approaches K12, Inc. to provide its curriculum, the amount it pays varies with the student/teacher ratio. Which makes it pretty easy to make money when you employ so few teachers. Even with the smaller foundation grant proposed by Snyder.

This kind of performance data on cyber schools isn’t hard to find. If you’re really looking for it. For example, the Great Lakes Center just issued its yearly review of the research on online school quality. It said:

Policymakers slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and the size
of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have
been identified and addressed.

The Mackinac Center argument against the Snyder proposal is that neighborhood public schools can pay many of their expenses through local bond proposals, which cyber charters can’t do. Naturally, the Center ignores the major staffing differences between online schools and normal public schools and pretends the only difference is buildings.

Probably knowing that the local funding argument is thin, it moves on to rave about just how great online schools are, and points, as proof, to one of its own studies. Not surprisingly (especially if you remember that one of its board members founded a major charter school chain) its study found that charter schools are really great: “five of the seven cyber schools serving high schoolers performed on level with most of their peers.”

What, exactly does “performed on level” mean? Or “with most of their peers?” Most? Not exactly scientific language.

But it can’t stop. It says:


The Mackinac Center gave Connections Academy an A. Given its murky methodology, this isn’t too shocking.  Clearly, the Mackinac Center approach doesn’t include facts that most people would consider important. Like graduation and drop out rates.

We think they’re important:


Notice that all of the state’s cyber charter schools fall behind the state average for both dropout and graduation rate. Also notice that the state dropout rate is 8.9%, Connections Academy, 24.3%. The state graduation rate is 79.7%, Connections, 55.9%. Keep in mind that both state averages include all of the listed online school rates, and are therefore reduced by them.

All of this data is available to anyone with a computer. That is, a computer and an interest in actual facts.


Capitol Rumors Point to a Coming Pension Attack

From Capitol Comments:

MEA members need to be ready for another pension battle. Based on intel picked up around Lansing, we believe the state Senate may be on the verge of kicking off its latest effort to move newly-hired school employees to a 401(k)-type retirement system – similar to the threat we successfully beat back in last year’s lame duck session.

Sometimes we gather legislation information through sources other than bills being introduced. Last week, Business Leaders for Michigan issued a report that garnered media attention around the state saying all new hires at school districts should be forced into a 401(k)-type system. Then an article about the state budget appeared that talked about how the House and Senate are proposing cuts that spend less than the amount Gov. Rick Snyder proposed earlier this year. Next, in another article Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) says moving new hires to a defined contribution system is still his priority.

Read between the lines, listen to the rumors flying around the Capitol, and it’s pretty clear something is coming.

Right now, although there is no legislation introduced, we believe their plan would follow last year’s proposal for new hires to go into a defined contribution system, instead of the hybrid system implemented in 2011 (which Gov. Snyder supports). This change would cost the state at least $500 million for the first year – and as much as $1.6 to $3.8 billion over the next five years. The Senate has proposed a cut of $275 million from Snyder’s budget recommendations, which they could use to help pay for that $500 million this year, perhaps pulling the rest of the money from the state’s rainy day fund.

Right now, this is all based on rumor, media coverage and other intel. Please stay tuned to Capitol Comments and MEA’s Facebook page for more information as we learn more. In the meantime, get ready to make phone calls and emails – we will need your help to stop this latest attack on school employee pensions, which ignores the growing teacher shortage and the crumbling pay and benefits contributing to the problem.