Written by Adele M. Stan, AlterNet
If you live in the Midwest and you’re working on a home-improvement project, you’re as likely to do your shopping at a Menards store as at a Lowe’s or Home Depot. With 270 stores and 40,000 employees , Menards is the third-largest home-improvement chain in the U.S., and one of the largest privately held corporations in the country. But Menards stores sell more than just lumber and building supplies; their employees are sold a bill of goods in the form of right-wing ideology.
This January, as the Iowa Caucuses were underway, Menards began encouraging employees to take an at-home online “civics” course that characterizes the economic policies of President Barack Obama as a threat to the success of businesses such as Menards, and by extension, to the employees’ own well-being.
The course, titled “Civics 101: The National Self Governing Will In-Home Training,” incorporates much of the material comprising the Prosperity 101 program that AlterNet, working in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, exposed last year — a program concocted by Koch-linked political operatives Mark Block and Linda Hansen, late of the now-defunct Herman Cain presidential campaign. In March, Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the FBI is investigating possible financial improprieties involving two non-profit organizations founded by Block that are linked to Prosperity 101, which is a for-profit venture.
Menards employees who sign up for the course are graded on their knowledge via a multiple choice pass-fail test, and those who pass the test are acknowledged in company publications and bulletins. While workers are not required to take the course, those who hope for promotions may feel pressure to do so, since it is clear that management is paying attention to who is or isn’t taking the at-home classes, which are conducted on the employees’ own time. The civics course is offered as part of a battery of courses, most of which pertain to products sold by the company, or other aspects of working at Menards.
AlterNet has obtained the online textbook for the Menards civics course. The third part of the textbook, subtitled ” American Job Security,” imparts a message similar to the letter sent by Koch Industries CEO Dave Robertson to retirees and employees of the company’s Georgia Pacific subsidiary, as well as the e-mail sent to employees of Rite-Hite, a Milwaukee equipment manufacturer, by company owner Mark White, urging them to vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. While the Menards course doesn’t offer an explicit candidate endorsement, it describes Obama policies in threatening terms, while policies that echo Romney’s proposals are portrayed in a positive and uplifting light.
In our June 2011 exposé, we reported that Herman Cain and Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore conducted more than a dozen Prosperity 101 seminars for the employees of companies in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states during the campaign season for the 2010 congressional midterm elections. Hansen, we reported, was looking to create an online Prosperity 101 program for the Wisconsin-based Menards, and it appears as if something like that happened just in time for the 2012 presidential campaign season.
While it remains unclear whether the current Menards program was sold to the retailer by Prosperity 101, what is clear is that several sections of the program come directly — sometimes with minor edits — from the textbook, also called Prosperity 101, that was distributed during a breakout session that took place at an Americans for Prosperity Foundation conference in Las Vegas in July 2010. The conference, called RightOnline, took place at the opulent Venetian, owned by right-wing super-PAC funder Sheldon Adelson, and billed by AFPF president Tim Phillips as “the only non-union hotel on the [Las Vegas] Strip.”
The Americans for Prosperity Foundation is chaired by David Koch, the multi-billionaire funder, with his brother, Charles, of numerous right-wing think tanks and interest groups, and co-owner of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held corporation in the U.S. Block is the former state director for the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the foundation’s sibling organization, and was deeply involved in effecting the sharp turn to the right that took place in Wisconsin politics in 2010 with the election of Governor Scott Walker, Sen. Ron Johnson, and Tea Party-allied members of Congress and the state legislature. (During the course of that campaign, Block was implicated in a vote-caging scheme apparently designed to suppress turnout of young people and African Americans at Milwaukee polling places. He also enjoyed a brief moment of fame as the “smoking man” in a bizarre Herman Cain campaign ad.)
Menards, as we reported last year, is notorious not just as a polluter, but as a virulently anti-labor company. One former manager told Milwaukee magazine reporter Mary van de Kamp Nohl that he wasn’t allowed to hire two job candidates because, while in high school, they had worked as baggers in a union-organized grocery store. Menards threatened store managers with a 60 percent pay-cut, according to a 2003 Forbes article, if a union managed to get a foothold in a Menards store on that manager’s watch.
So it was not surprising to learn that Menards’ voluntary at-home civics course is part of a broader training program in which employees are encouraged to take part, unpaid, on their own time, often to simply learn about products sold in various store departments. After completing any of these courses with a passing grade, the employee is given a certificate, and sometimes a prize, such as an item of apparel bearing the Menards logo.
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