But he did confirm that he uses the Prosperity 101 textbook as a way to discuss his employer's interests with its employees. "We have found Prosperity 101 to be useful in educating employees with an interest in economics, tax policy, and legislative initiatives," he wrote. "We have made P101 materials available in common areas for voluntary selection."
Of all the executives listed by Prosperity 101 as endorsers of the program, only Tom Schuette, owner of Wausau Homes, agreed to be interviewed about his company's participation in the program. I reached him in April by telephone at his office. Schuette and members of his family donated a total of $25,000 to Scott Walker's gubernatorial campaign and even hosted Walker at company headquarters during a campaign stop last year.
Schuette is also active with the Wisconsin AFP chapter. Last year, he joined Kwik Trip's Steve Loehr and Oldenburg's Nerenz, along with Cain, Moore, Fund and Hansen, as a presenter at the Wisconsin Defending the American Dream conference, co-sponsored by the Wisconsin chapter of the AFP Foundation and the Wisconsin Prosperity Network. The team addressed a session for high-level donors on the topic of Prosperity 101.
Wausau Homes is by far the smallest of the companies publicly associated with Prosperity 101. With the bursting of the housing bubble, Schuette said, he was forced to lay off 500 people, yielding him a remnant workforce of 54. Schuette sees the government as the culprit in the housing market's demise — not because of deregulation, but because of, as he sees it, government's "meddling in our free-enterprise system." He believes that government changed mortgage rules to encourage "disadvantaged" people to buy homes, creating a bubble that was destined to burst. (Actually, deregulation of the mortgage industry in 1980, and changes to the tax code in 1986 — the latter signed into law by President Reagan — had much to do with creating the conditions for the bubble.)
When he had to lay off 500 "innocent" people, as he described them, Schuette made a vow, he said, to "do something about it." That's when he began working with AFP, he said, and it was how he met Hansen, who allowed him to use Prosperity 101when it was still "in the development level" without paying a fee. So, Schuette said, he implemented the program himself, convening small groups over the course of last summer at Wausau Homes headquarters to study Moore's charts. The small groups, he said, allowed them to "have better discussions." Schuette said that the sessions did not place undue political pressure on his employees, and insisted that the workers who participated were not told how to cast their votes last November.
"Let's face it," he added, "the press is typically biased, so how do they get information if we're not providing it to them as an employer?"
Research assistance by Neima Jahromi.
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Notorious Wisconsin Retailer Backs Anti-Union Program
In June of last year, as the 2010 election campaigns gained steam — just five months before Wisconsin elected its famously anti-union governor, Scott Walker — Linda Hansen, executive director of the Walker-allied Wisconsin Prosperity Network, stood, beaming, behind a podium bearing the logo of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. She was there at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester to introduce her new “employee education” program, Prosperity 101, to a lively group of conservative activists. (See the video here.)
During the question-and-answer session that followed, Hansen offhandedly mentioned one company whose participation in her AFP-linked workplace program was likely a big coup: Menards, a major retailer one of the nation's largest privately held companies. The firm would join a list of other local firms working with Prosperity 101 to educate the retailer's employees on policies Hansen contended could negatively impact their jobs. The policies Hansen listed — including energy and healthcare reform — just happen to be endorsed and advanced by Democrats. As the nation's third-largest home improvement retail chain — just behind Lowes and Home Depot —Menards, based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, operates more than 250 retail stores, mostly in the Midwest,and employs more than 40,000. It was now poised to become one of Prosperity 101's largest participants.
Set up as a for-profit company, Prosperity 101 preaches an anti-union, anti-government gospel to workers right in their own workplaces. Of the known participating firms, Menards is perhaps the most notorious. The subject of a 2007 exposé in Milwaukee magazine, Menards is known throughout Wisconsin as a particularly bad operator, abusive to its employees and dismissive of environmental protection laws. Reporter Mary van de Kamp Nohl found that the company docked employees' pay for circumstances beyond their control, such as a customer failing to pick up an order within ten days. Menards store managers were penalized for failure to inspect employees' lunch boxes before they left the premises and were prohibited from hiring anyone who had at any time been a union member. One store manager told Nohl that he was “forced to fire two promising management trainees because they'd been baggers at a unionized grocery store while in high school.” Another Menards manager told Forbes in 2003 that his contract contained a provision for “a 60 percent cut in pay should his store be unionized.”
Menards and CEO John Menard have been cited for dozens of environmental code violations; in 1997 Menard and his company were fined $1.7 million when Menard himself was found to have used “his own pickup truck to haul plastic bags filled with chromium and arsenic-laden wood ash to his own home for disposal along with his household trash,” according to Milwaukee. Earlier this year, Menard, Inc. was ordered by a judge to pay $30,000 to resolve a complaint of illegal hazardous waste disposal in Onalaska, Wisconsin.
Menards has also run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service, which in 2004 billed Menard, Inc. for $5.9 million in back taxes and penalties, claiming that a substantial part of John Menard's $20 million salary and bonus actually constituted a dividend that had been improperly reported as employee compensation. And in 2005, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against the firm for its failure to submit required reports documenting the number of women and minority employees.
Since 2009, John Menard has contributed $10,500 to state Republican Parties ($10,000 to the Minnesota GOP and $500 to the Republican Party of Wisconsin), and a total of $10,800 to the campaigns of a number of Republican candidates for national office, including $3,400 to the Senate campaign of Ron Johnson, who went on to defeat Russell Feingold.
Menards' company spokesman Jeff Abbott referred queries about Menards' relationship to Prosperity 101 to the firm's executives, who failed to respond to requests for information.
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute; research assistance by Jed Bickman.
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