News / Publications » Publications

Not Your Cup of Tea

If you like the "tea party," maybe you should think again. Originally a grassroots movement, it is now controlled by wealthy businessmen and right-wing ideologues who want to privatize many public services, and cut taxes that support those services.

By Clyde Weiss

If you like the "tea party," maybe you should think again. Originally a grassroots movement, it is now controlled by wealthy businessmen and right-wing ideologues who want to privatize many public services, cut taxes that support those services and make it harder for workers to build strength through collective bargaining.

By Clyde Weiss

The tea party is a grassroots political movement that began as an understandably angry response to an economic meltdown. But it has been hijacked. Today, a network of organizations funded by wealthy, anti-worker, right-wing ideologues sets its agenda - and they're coming after public service workers.

Unlike the Democrats or Republicans, the tea party is not a recognized political party. It has no official leadership organization or adopted policy platform. Yet, under the direction of right-wing organizations like FreedomWorks, tea partiers have taken up the banner of smaller government. They also want to privatize Social Security and phase out Medicare - the safety nets Americans depend upon for a secure retirement and well-being.

One of the tea partiers' biggest goals is repealing the new health reform law that AFSCME members fought so hard to enact. Millions of Americans already benefit from its provisions, such as allowing young Americans up to the age of 26 to remain on their parents' health insurance policies.

The tea party movement has even targeted public service workers' pensions and health care benefits.

Behind the Curtain

Once lit, the tea party's flames spread quickly, fanned by an existing network of well-funded, right-wing organizations and individuals with their own anti-worker agendas.

"There's no doubt that the infrastructure and the financing of the tea party come from some very traditional, very powerful, special-interest lobbies," President Obama said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine published last October.

Obama specifically singled out FreedomWorks as one of those "special interest" groups behind the tea party movement. Headed by Dick Armey, former U.S. House Republican majority leader, FreedomWorks sponsored a big rally on the Mall in Washington, DC, in September 2009 and later contributed to the campaign coffers of tea party candidates running in the November 2010 elections.

But perhaps the most influential - and certainly the wealthiest - tea party financiers are billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch (pronounced "coke"). Although they are not well-known names to most Americans, within the established conservative movement they are rock stars.

Their vast wealth - estimated to be $35 billion - stems from Koch Industries, America's second largest privately owned company. It is a conglomerate of oil, natural gas, chemical, manufacturing, land development and other interests. They make well-known products like Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups and Stainmaster carpet. The Koch empire stands to gain much if the tea party's goals of smaller government, lower taxes and fewer federal regulations succeed.

Koch family foundations established the libertarian Cato Institute, which advocates limited government (David Koch is a board member), Citizens for a Sound Economy (later reborn as FreedomWorks), the Federalist Society and Americans for Prosperity, whose website offered talking points for a "Taxpayer Tea Party."

It should be no surprise that the Koch brothers are backing tea party candidates and organizations with their wealth. Government regulation and oversight is their enemy. In 2000, for instance, the Clinton administration hit them with a 97-count indictment that accused their company of covering up the discharge of the carcinogen benzene from a Texas oil refinery. They faced paying more than $350 million in penalties, plus prison terms for four of their employees. Under a more lenient Bush administration, which also opposed tough environmental regulation, the case was settled for $20 million and the four employees avoided jail time.

David Koch, who ran for Vice-President on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980, does not hide his intentions. He told the National Journal, "My overall concept is to minimize the role of government and to maximize the role of the private economy to maximize personal freedoms."

Pulling the Strings

"By giving money to 'educate,' fund, and organize Tea Party protesters," the Koch brothers "have helped turn their private agenda into a mass movement," wrote journalist Jane Mayer in "Covert Operations," a major exposé of the Koch brothers' political empire, published last August in The New Yorker.

That's not to say those who hold tea party views are all following someone else's script. There is a legitimate anger, President Obama acknowledged in his Rolling Stone interview, "but their anger is misdirected."

The hard right has hijacked the public's rage over an economic catastrophe caused by the excesses and corruption of Wall Street and Big Business. These shadow financiers have directed that rage away from themselves and aimed it toward government and dedicated public service workers who provide the essential services that make our country run.

That's the best reason why this "party" should not be your cup of tea.

Get news & updates from AFSCME