Over two hundred people gathered in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio on Friday for the nation's first-ever organized mass protest against powerful right-wing think tank ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. Chanting slogans about defending democracy and the priority of people over profit, protesters marched peacefully several times around the block where ALEC was holding its "Spring Task Force Summit" at a Hilton hotel.
ALEC is an elite group of state legislators, corporations, and free market advocates who draft and introduce hundreds of pre-packaged right-wing bills into each state legislature yearly, bills restricting government regulation, encouraging privatization, and promoting (according to their mission statement) "Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty."
Although ALEC was founded over thirty years ago, it only recently began receiving major public scrutiny. Last March, University of Wisconsin professor Bill Cronon published a "study guide" citing ALEC’s role in recent legislation in Wisconsin that drastically limits the collective bargaining rights of public employees. (The Republican Party of Wisconsin promptly retaliated by filing a Freedom of Information Act request for e-mails sent from Cronon's school office computer, a move that only ended up drawing further public attention to ALEC.)
A year before Cronon's study guide exposed ALEC's ties to anti-union legislation in the Midwest, NPR explained that ALEC had drafted Arizona's infamous immigration law, SB 1070, which requires local police to enforce immigration laws through racial profiling; the bill sparked outrage, spawning a nationwide campaign to "Boycott Arizona."
ALEC has passed resolutions against increasing the minimum wage, against attempts by the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and against "comparable worth" legislation that would encourage equal pay for women. It drafted the Voter ID Act, which requires voters to present a photo ID, disenfranchising some youth and low-income voters. And, perhaps most importantly for many of the protesters in Cincinnati on Friday, ALEC supports right-wing education policies, such as a proposal to raise tuition for students who exceed a 140 credit hour limit.
According to ALEC's website (and fliers distributed at the protest), ALEC has a "Board of Directors" of state legislators, a "Board of Scholars" of think tankers affiliated with groups like the Heritage Foundation, and a "Private Enterprise Board" with representatives from Koch Industries (of Tea Party fame), AT&T, Pfizer, ExxonMobil, Bayer, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and other large corporations.
In 2010 In These Times estimated that fully one-third of all US state legislators are members of ALEC, while corporate members include the Koch Foundation and private prison industry giants Corrections Corporation of America, Geo Group, and Sodexho Marriott.
The connection between ALEC and the prison-industrial complex is of particular concern to Bob Sloan, a former prison employee turned activist blogger, who led one of the afternoon "teach-ins" following the march in Cincinnati. According to Sloan, ALEC's endorsement of Arizona anti-immigrant law SB 1070 was part of a plan to increase profits of private prison companies and create cheap prison labor by increasing detention of immigrants. Some immigrant detainees have been put to work without pay.
Although the majority of the protesters on Friday were Ohioans—many of them students, who have been galvanized by threats to education funding and are excited by the movement against the Ohio legislature’s anti-union bill, SB 5—the states of Illinois, Massachusetts, Kansas, Florida, Louisiana, and neighboring Kentucky were also represented by the protesters. Teach-ins were hosted on a range of topics, including building the antiwar movement, organizing students and campus workers, and collaboration with faith groups.
Friday's demonstration is the beginning of an ongoing campaign. The next major event will be a demonstration in early August in New Orleans, at ALEC's annual meeting. If the diverse populations affected by ALEC's policies—students, immigrants, workers, women, minorities, environmental activists and others—become aware of what this shadowy think tank is up to, a movement around this cause could be powerful. As an excited young delegate of the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) from Louisiana told me at the protest, "Workers and students from all over the United States are not going to take it any more."