Under Scott Walker’s reign in Wisconsin, multinational corporations are given undue influence over public policy. Nowhere is this more evident than in public education. Some of the largest corporations in the world – GE, Caterpillar, Koch Industries – have privileged seats at Walker’s policy table, but they don’t necessarily show up themselves. Instead, they activate a whole network of local actors to do their bidding.
In his seminal work, Propaganda (1928) , the “Father of Public Relations” Edward Louis Bernays wrote:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.
On Thursday morning, dozens of people you’ve probably never heard of gathered at Waukesha County Technical College to work on one piece of a dense, multi-layered strategy to manipulate the organized habits and opinions of Wisconsin school kids, parents and teachers.
This “invisible government” of opinion leaders consists of a group of manufacturers, mainly from southeastern Wisconsin, led by Tim Sullivan, former CEO of mining equipment manufacturer Bucyrus International, and allies from the public relations, lobbying and philanthropic industries. Sullivan recently released a report entitled, “The Road Ahead: Restoring Wisconsin’s Workforce Development” in which he recommends major changes to state k-12 and higher education systems.
A parallel effort has been led by Jim Wood of the PR firm Wood Communications, and Bill McCoshen, lobbyist and former Wisconsin Commerce Department secretary under Tommy Thompson with their pro-business group Competitive Wisconsin. Though Competitive Wisconsin describes itself as a nonpartisan policy group, the interests they serve are easily discovered by a perusal of their policy papers. In their document BE BOLD: The Role of Capital in the Building and Maintaining of Wisconsin’s Entrepreneurial Economy , they spelled it out:
“The public and private sectors must also focus now on encouraging and enabling current employers who have expansion and growth potential to maximize that potential as quickly as possible. Strong exporting cluster industries, such as defense manufacturing, medical devices, and minerals, would fall into this category.”
Slide of Event Sponsors
The Be Bold campaign resulted in the elimination of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce and the creation of the semi-private Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) by Governor Scott Walker in January, 2011.
Competitive Wisconsin organized the Thursday morning gathering to bring together leaders in government and manufacturing businesses to discuss recommendations from their latest document, “Be Bold 2: Growing Wisconsin’s Talent Pool.” A linchpin to this strategy is orienting the k-12 public education system toward the needs of manufacturing businesses .
Even though the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s own employment projections don’t put any manufacturing-related jobs in the top 15 fastest growing occupations in the state, an enormous amount of political attention and public resources are being poured into promoting the sector.
According to event co-host Suzanne Kelley, president of the Waukesha County Business Alliance, an important tactic in this strategy is to “create a positive image for manufacturing, and make it a career of choice for young people.” Her organization already sponsors a program called “Schools 2 Skills,” a day-long manufacturing program for students and teachers, and supports the National Association of Manufacturer’s “Dream It. Do It” campaign “designed to re-brand the manufacturing industry as a great place to work and specifically targets young people.”
In her remarks given in a building less than a mile away from the global headquarters of GE Health Care Technologies, Kelley, who also serves on the state legislature’s Special Committee on Improving Educational Opportunities in High School , said, “Ensuring a pipeline of qualified workers is critical for economic development in our community.”
Tim Sullivan did not attend the meeting in person, but sent his awkward, two-minute message to the group via YouTube . In it, he calls for a return to “the American dream of 25 years ago of having a good-paying job.” In order to do that, Sullivan says, “We have to correct our educational system to make sure we’re creating a pipeline to workforce development.”
Both “The Road Ahead” and “Be Bold 2” recommend the dissolution of existing workforce development councils and committees and the formation of a single “Talent Council” and the establishment of a $100 million “Talent Development Fund” to go along with it. While Sullivan thinks the Talent Council should reside in the Department of Workforce Development, Wood and McCoshen think it would fit better in the semi-private WEDC, for typically business-friendly reasons.
“The reason why we put it at WEDC is because they are the most flexible agency in the state today,” said McCoshen of the agency that he had a hand in creating. “If you went with an existing state agency bound by all the rules and regulations you might have something in place six months from now, whereas this could be done with an Executive Order signed by the Governor immediately if it was in WEDC.” He added, “This also automatically forces an alignment of DWD with the state’s economic development plan.”
Lee Swindall, vice president of Business and Industry Development of WEDC, spoke plainly about the state’s promotion of manufacturing using the typically high-handed methods of the Walker regime. “WEDC does not want to see a retail-level redistribution of those funds to local, highly differentiated workforce development initiatives,” he said. “The funds need to align with key industry priorities in Wisconsin. Not every profession should be equally underwritten by those funds.”
Reggie Newson, DWD Secretary said, “We agree with WEDC that there should be coordination between our agencies.” He added, “A lot of other states have done this – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma. They have pulled in k-12 and public college systems to collaborate. But we have to put job creators in the driver’s seat. Then other entities will be in place to assist the employers of Wisconsin.”
The suggestion for Wisconsin to follow the educational and economic development models of those four states is alarming, to say the least.
Going further by directly linking the needs of business with larger public education reform goals, Jim Wood said, “There is a tectonic shift going on in k-12 education. It is important that Wisconsin is part of the Common Core.” Referring obliquely to a new law passed earlier this year allowing local school boards to count industry-recognized certifications toward high school graduation requirements, Wood added, “It is important that this becomes project-based and achievement-based education. As part of that, kids will be experiencing the real world earlier and earlier.”
Scott Jansen, former vice president for public policy strategy at AT&T, a member of the Wisconsin Technology Council, executive director of Talent Dividend, a project of the Greater Milwaukee Committee , and chairman of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Tech High School Commission said, “I want to talk about a bottom-up approach – reaching down into the k-12 education pipeline to offer employers skilled workers.”
Jansen just received a $30,000 grant from DWD to promote his “My Life! My Plan!” project in Milwaukee schools. “We’re trying to track the freshman class into career pathways.” Discussing the difficulties in getting kids on board with the program Jensen said, “We have a long ways to go in terms of aligning parents, students, teachers, to what workforce needs are in the future.”
The morning ended with an appearance by Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who apparently understands her role as a public servant to develop and sell the people and resources of the state for the benefit of corporations and their investors. “We are raising up the children of today to be the workforce of tomorrow,” said the mother of two. “As I go out there and sell our economic development climate in Wisconsin, I want to say that we have the best workforce in the entire country.”
She went on, “We need to reform government to have the stability, certainty and predictability so that employers will be willing to take money out of the bank and invest it in WI. I’m here to ask you 3 things:
1) We need to know what tools the private sector needs and what inhibits job growth.
2) We need to change the mindset of parents and students about what success looks like.
3) We need everyone’s buy-in. We hear from job creators that there are problems out there and they need to be solved. We need full engagement and to have job creators give us suggestions. It’s all hands on deck, all ideas counted. Consider the Lt. Governor’s office an open door for your ideas. We react with great customer service to job creators and those who train people who are employed in the state.”
Her office reacts with a different kind of customer service to citizens who bring to their attention problems with plutocratic government that need to be solved. But that’s another story.
Sullivan, Wood and McCoshen hope that their final recommendations will be ready for lawmakers to act upon when the Republican-dominated legislature returns to session sometime in January.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.
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