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United Negro College Fund's acceptance of millions from Koch brothers leads to Union split

Education Today

7/17/2014, 10:38 a.m.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the largest labor unions in the country, has ...
The United Negro College Fund, the creator of the pageant.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the largest labor unions in the country, has decided to end their relationship with the United Negro College Fund because the group accepted $25 million from the Koch brothers, who have used billions of dollars to support conservative causes, candidates and laws to threaten the Voting Rights Act.

The president of the union, Lee Saunders, said in a letter to UNCF President and CEO Michael Lomax last week that it is “with the deepest regret that I write to notify you that we must sever our partnership.” Saunders wrote that UNCF’s move to collect the funds is “a profound betrayal of the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement.”

“Like many supporters of the UNCF, I was deeply troubled by your decision to accept $25 million from David and Charles Koch. But I assumed that in accepting those funds you were in no way supporting or lending the name of the UNCF to the political or social causes or substantive views of the Koch brothers,” the letter reads. “So I was truly stunned to learn that less than two weeks later, you attended and spoke at the Koch brothers’ summit in California. This was a betrayal of everything the UNCF stands for.”

Saunders further argued that the Koch brothers and the organizations they funded have devoted themselves for decades to attacking the voting rights of African-Americans and for the implementation of voter identification laws.

UNCF is the largest minority education organization in the nation. For more than a decade, AFSCME and UNCF have been running a joint scholarship program, the AFSCME/UNCF Union Scholars Program, for college sophomore and junior students of color to work with the AFSCME during the summer and receive scholarship money to support their junior and senior year in college.  

In early June, UNCF announced their $25 million donation from Koch Industries Inc. and the Charles Koch Foundation. They said $18.5 million will be used to support their merit-based scholarship program for African-American students and $6.5 million will be used to provide general support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the UNCF’s loan assistance program.

In a statement, Lomax said he was saddened by AFSCME’s decision, but it “will not distract us from our mission of helping thousands of African-American students achieve their dream of a college degree and the economic benefits that come with it.”

“UNCF has over 100,000 donors with a wide range of views, but they all have one thing in common: They believe in helping young students of color realize their dreams of a college education,” Lomax said.

Lomax further defended his move to collect the funds and told PBS that since the inception of the organization in 1944, they have reached out to people without having an “ideological lens.” He said he is prepared to take criticisms from those who have different political ideology from the Koch brothers.

“Criticism is a small price for helping young people get the chance to realize their dream of a college education, and if I’ve got to bear the brunt of someone else’s criticism to ensure that we have the resources to help those students, then I can handle it, and I can take the heat,” Lomax said.

He argued that the funds were greatly needed because the organization often turns away nine out of every 10 applicants (about 100,000 students) annually. He said UNCF has awarded $100 million in scholarships to more than 12,000 students at 900 schools for this academic year alone.

Saunders further criticized Lomax for speaking at a conference hosted by the Koch brothers last month. The Nation reported that at the conference, attendees—many worth at least a billion dollars each—discussed “strategy on campaign finance, climate change, health care, higher education and opportunities for taking control” of the U.S. Senate in this year’s midterm election.

Saunders said his union will continue to “work directly with historically Black and other colleges and universities, faculty members, student organizations and other allies to make internship, scholarship and job opportunities available to students of color.