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Union Stands Up for Principle Against Kochs' Attempt to Buy off Criticism on Race and Voter Suppression

AFSCME ends a partnership over a controversial donation.

Rush Limbaugh attacked them as  “lunatics” running a “plantation” for black “slaves.” Another right-winger claimed a “white” union president was out to hurt “disadvantaged black youth,” even though the union president in question is black.

It’s no surprise AFSCME’s decision to end its partnership with United Negro Colllege Fund, in the wake of UNCF accepting a $25 million contribution from the Koch brothers to establish a “Koch Scholars” program, as well as participating in their annual right-wing strategy summit, has conservatives trashing the influential public sector union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. It fits their favorite story line: Liberals are the real racists.

But even some non-wingnuts have piled on. The Root’s Keli Goff blasted the decision as “progressive intolerance,” insisting the Kochs’ support of public sector union busting “has nothing to do with educating African-American students.” That’s led to renewed interest in AFSCME’s move, which president Lee Saunders announced two weeks ago.

In a letter to UNCF president Michael Lomax, AFSCME’s Saunders called the Kochs “the single most prominent funders of efforts to prevent African-Americans from voting.” Lomax’s appearance at the Koch brothers’ annual summit, where they plot conservative strategy – this year’s focus was taking back the Senate in 2014 — was “a betrayal of everything the UNCF stands for.” Members of AFSCME, a union that supports Democrats with money and people power, voted unanimously to back Saunders’ decision at their annual convention in Chicago last week.

“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue,” Saunders told Salon, in his first interview since the fracas. “It’s an issue of right and wrong.”

Still, the critics keep coming. Just this week, in the right-wing Daily Caller, Raynard Jackson called it “a stunning move that should anger every black in America.” In the  backyard of Koch-critic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Las Vegas Review Journal called the decision “ridiculous,” complaining that “Democrats and their supporters are quick to and fond of accusing conservatives and Republicans of being racists, but when Republican supporters such as the Kochs aim to demonstrate otherwise, a government employee union responds by causing direct harm to blacks.” The Review Journal is a conservative paper, but the African-American newspaper South Florida Times, which is not, likewise insisted “AFSCME must restore UNCF funding,” though it called Lomax’s decision to join the Koch summit “a mistake.”

It should be noted that AFSCME has always said it would continue the scholarship program for students of color it began with UNCF, but will find different partners.

Clearly the controversy, which involves two venerable organizations, has African-Americans on both sides of the issue. Founded by Mary McLeod Bethune and others in 1944, the UNCF offers scholarships to black students and funds important but embattled historically black colleges and universities. AFSCME, the union Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was supporting when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, now has its first black president, Saunders, and African-Americans make up 15 percent of its membership.

“It was a very difficult decision for me to make as an African-American,” says Saunders, the AFSCME leader who first approached former UNCF president Bill Gray with the notion of partnering on a scholarship program for students of color interested in labor movement careers, more than 10 years ago. Saunders says he personally raised money for UNCF for years.

He adds that if the Kochs had donated $25 million to UNCF “and said ‘here it is, do what you want to do with it,’ maybe we would have taken a different tack. Maybe I would have swallowed it.” But Lomax’s participation in the Kochs’ annual summit made the union draw “a line in the sand,” he said.