If you want to know what awaits America's public education system under the Trump regime and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, you have to go no further than Grand Rapids, Michigan as a primary example.
Mid-century Michigan conservatives no doubt felt their ideological zeal ratcheting up because, for much of the post-war era, unions called most of the shots in the state’s political economy. Especially during the 1970s, when Amway was hitting its stride and the young DeVoses and Princes—whose ranks included Betsy’s brother Erik, who would gain plenty of infamy of his own as the founder of the private-army concern Blackwater—were coming of age, union power was peaking in the state. By 1974, unions represented more than 40 percent of workers in Michigan, the highest rate in the country. The shift in the balance of power between labor and capital, set off when the auto workers sat down in Flint in 1936, had been tilting steadily in the workers’ direction ever since. Worse still for free-market ideologues of the DeVosian stripe, public sector workers in Michigan—its teachers, police and firefighters—had collective bargaining rights too. Not only was the government “in our pockets,” it was handing over the money it confiscated to the Detroit Federation of Teachers.
The union tide that swept across Michigan never reached the western part of the state, though. As Jeffrey Kleiman documents in his history of the great Grand Rapids furniture strike of 1911, that action, which paralyzed the city’s major industry for six days, ended in a near total loss for labor. Not only did the thousands of workers who’d walked off the job fail to win a single concession from their bosses, the strike also concentrated the power of local businessmen, bankers and industrialists. In a pamphlet called “What’s the Matter with Grand Rapids?” the Industrial Workers of the World argued that ethnic tensions kept the city’s workers divided, while high rates of homeownership and churchgoing kept them conservative. Local historian Robert P. Swierenga has a more straightforward explanation: the west Michigan Dutch, with their legendarily strong work ethic, didn’t really go in for unions. Polish workers were the main force behind the furniture strike, and the Dutch crossed the picket line. “The aura of a willing labor force and strong work ethic has not been lost on industrialists coming into the region,” Swierenga writes.
In 2012, the DeVoses pulled off something that would have seemed unimaginable to their free-market forebears: they made Michigan a right-to-work state. Workers in the state are finally free; they can no longer be compelled to join a union as a condition of employment. A subsequent law has made it illegal for employers to process union dues, while simultaneously making it easier for corporations to deduct PAC money from employee paychecks. By 2015, just 15 percent of workers in Michigan were union members. “They won,” former state Rep. Ellen Lipton told me. “It may have taken them longer than they wanted, but they won.” Lipton was referring to the DeVoses’ remarkable success in shaping the state to conform to their hardcore laissez-faire vision over the past two decades. This improbable crusade was immeasurably aided by Michigan’s strict term-limit laws, which keep legislators beholden to donors and party apparatchiks rather than to their constituents.
The tourist motto for Grand Rapids these days is “cool city.” It’s a nod to a campaign by Michigan’s last democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, whom Dick DeVos tried and failed to unseat in 2006. Granholm donned sunglasses to dramatize her fealty to the trendy development counsel of urbanologist Richard Florida. Across Michigan the word went forth: the key to a bright future for the state’s battered cities was to make them cool, filling them with the sorts of amenities that the young and college educated find irresistible, such as farmers markets, lofts, and art. The right-wing Mackinac Center for Public Policy, funded by the DeVoses, mocked the concept, arguing that “cool cities” discriminated against the extractor class, people who “build things and use energy and emit pollution — things that are not considered environmentally correct by the political ruling class.” Success was mixed. Flint and Pontiac never made it onto the cool list, while Detroit was somehow too cool to be included. But Grand Rapids took the business of being cool seriously.
“It’s a cool place, for a company town,” Mary Bouwense told me over craft beers at one of the city’s many brew pubs. There are more than a dozen breweries in Grand Rapids—including one at Gerald Ford International Airport. Bouwense, who is the president of the local teachers union, offered to take me on a tour of DeVos-related sites, but the snow once more intervened. Founders, the brew pub where she brought me instead, was packed on a Sunday afternoon, a sign, perhaps, of the diminishing influence of the once all-powerful Dutch Christian Reformed Church that helped incubate the moral conviction of the DeVoses. Since the tour was off, Bouwense, who is of Dutch descent, was helpfully guiding me through the theological divides separating the Christian Reformed and the Dutch Reformed. She also confirmed that the DeVoses are apostles of a different sort of Protestant ethic altogether, where conspicuous consumption no longer provokes much anxiety on the part of the believer. “I can see their helicopter coming and going from my office window,” she says.
The DeVos family is selling the American dream as a pyramid scheme through Amway. Now they have control of America's entire education system with intent to do the same.
And it's your kids on the bottom of that pyramid. I guarantee it.