Last month, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees voted to sever its ties with the United Negro College Fund over the UNCF’s decision to accept a $25 million grant and to participate in a summit with the billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch.
The Koch brothers, with a combined wealth of $72 billion, are tied for fourth place on Forbes magazine’s list of the richest Americans. Their businesses include refining and distribution of petroleum, forest and consumer products, fertilizers, polymers and fibers, ranching, and commodity trading and investment services.
However, it is how they use their riches—through foundations and organization such as the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity—that concerns AFSCME and anyone who believes our nation’s direction should not be determined by the highest bidder.
The Kochs not only seek to weaken government, their goal is to completely dismantle it. No individuals have done more to destroy hard-fought gains and to turn back the clock in our nation than they. Their fingerprints can be detected on the overwhelming majority of pro-big business and anti-people legislation throughout the nation. The templates for most of the recently passed far-right legislation have been produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Their charitable donations provide an avenue for them to enter the marketplace of ideas while providing a form of absolution for their assault on democracy and people’s rights. They give millions to Memorial Sloan Kettering to fight cancer, yet fight against Medicaid and Medicare, opposing any legislation to protect our environment or the health and safety of working people. They provide millions to the arts but oppose a minimum wage that would make it possible for low-wage parents to take their kids to a movie. They fund the Museum of Natural History, yet also fund the climate change deniers.
We in 1199SEIU and the New York State Nurses Association are familiar with the game plan. David Koch has made a multimillion-dollar gift to New York Presbyterian Hospital, which is to be used to help complete a $900 million ambulatory care center, to be named after David Koch, and to be staffed by some 300 non-union workers, which is both an affront and challenge to the hospital’s unionized workforce.
What is happening at New York Presbyterian is just the tip of the Koch brothers iceberg. Robert Greenwald, through his excellent film, “The Koch Brothers Exposed,” has given us a clear view of the Kochs’ attempt to crush democratic rights while transferring greater and greater power to the corporations.
The first segment describes how the American Legislative Exchange Council funded a campaign to take over the Wake County school board in North Carolina, with the ultimate intention of resegregating schools that had thrived under integration. Central to the Kochs’ policies is to spread their extremist ideas by gaining greater control of our school system. The segment ends on a high note, as the progressive forces in the county organize to take back the board.
Another segment describes agreements with 150 colleges and universities that have received Koch contributions. Those agreements include the power to hire and fire and to include in the curriculum ideas that are consistent with the Kochs’ ultra-conservative beliefs. We see clearly that their charity comes with strings attached.
The Kochs have a major stake in the Keystone XL pipeline, which each day would carry 830,000 barrels of tar sand—one of the dirtiest fuels on earth—from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast. The pipeline will endanger nearby populations and our climate. Climate activists refer to Keystone XL as a “carbon time bomb.”
An especially moving segment of the film describes the cancer deaths of Crosett, Ark., residents, poor African-Americans who lived downstream from the Koch-owned Georgia Pacific power plant. For years, residents breathed toxic fumes that rose from a nearby stream contaminated by the factory’s waste.
Koch Industries have been fined multiple times for environmental crimes, but the Kochs and their congressional allies have weakened environmental regulations and regulatory agencies. When the Kochs have been found liable, their fines have amounted to gentle slaps on the wrists.
A telling graphic in the segment on the Kochs’ opposition to any minimum wage explains that for today’s minimum wage worker to earn what the Kochs earn in a day, he or she would have to work for 690 years. Also featured are attempts to reduce and privatize Social Security, suppress the vote and require voter ID, pass “Stand Your Ground” laws, repeal the Affordable Care Act and enact a boatload of anti-union legislation. It was Koch money that financed the Citizens United suit that permits unlimited political funding for corporations.
The list goes on. No contribution can obscure the Kochs’ attempt to create a nation to serve the 1 percent. We won’t let it happen. They may have the money, but we have the people.