The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a research institution funded, chaired, and promoted by labor unions and labor union supporters. The Institute distributes research studies supporting the labor union agenda by promoting international trade restrictions, substantial increases in minimum wages, and claims that public sector union employees are underpaid.
While it asserts that it is nonpartisan for tax reasons, Economic Policy Institute has close ties to current and former Democratic Party officeholders. Its founders include two Democratic Secretaries of Labor, Ray Marshall and Robert Reich, who continue to sit on EPI’s board. A third, Alexis Herman, also sits on EPI’s board. Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, a firm ally of organized labor, is also an EPI board member. Democratic National Committee chair and Obama administration Secretary of Labor Tom Perez has also been added to the EPI board.
The Institute aligns so closely with labor unions in large part because it is a creature of the labor movement. EPI’s board of directors included 10 international union presidents as of 2014, and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka serves as EPI’s chairman. The connections with labor also come in funding: In unions’ 2015 fiscal years, contributions from labor totaled $1,648,993. According to EPI, 29 percent of its contributions from the 2013-2016 period came from labor unions.
In the mid-1980s, left-wing labor union-aligned economic policy advocates sought to counter the growing influence of free-market-based policy in the Reagan Administration. By 1986, a group of left-wing economists led by Jeff Faux of the National Center for Economic Alternatives had founded the Economic Policy Institute as a think tank to advance an agenda closely aligned with that of the international labor unions.
EPI’s founders are major players in left-Democratic economic thinking and labor policy making. Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Labor, Ray Marshall; future Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton Robert Reich; American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner; and university professors Barry Bluestone and Lester Thurow were all part of EPI’s founding.
Since that time, EPI has been a reliable mill for labor union, Democratic Party, and left-wing talking points on fiscal and economic issues. EPI has promoted the idea that public employees are underpaid, that international trade kills employment, and that minimum wage increases will not lead to job loss.
Ties to Radical Economists
In support of its heterodox positions on the minimum wage, the Economic Policy Institute frequently circulates letters signed by large numbers of economists that support EPI’s positions. However, upon further inspection, the economists supporting EPI’s views often come from far outside the economic mainstream.
The free-market Employment Policies Institute examined one such batch of letter signers and identified numerous outside-the-mainstream signatories. In addition to the usual cast of labor-union-aligned researchers, the letter was signed by at least 40 academics aligned with Marxism or other openly socialist economics doctrines. One of the signers, Paul Zarembka, edited a volume of “9/11 Truth” conspiracy literature.
The Economic Policy Institute releases some information on its funding. According to EPI, it received 79 percent of its funding from 2013-2016 from foundations and labor unions.
In 2014, foundation contributors to EPI included George Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society, the Ford Foundation, the Bauman Family Foundation, the Arca Foundation, the Nick and Leslie Hanauer Foundation, the Stephen M. Silberstein Foundation, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Energy Foundation, and the Public Welfare Foundation. EPI also received $525,000 from donor-advised funds, which can be used to anonymize the source of funding to groups.
Labor unions provided over $1.6 million to EPI in their 2015 fiscal years. The top union funders include the American Federation of Teachers; National Education Association; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); Service Employees International Union (SEIU); the AFL-CIO; the United Auto Workers National Capital Council; and the United Steelworkers, which each provided at least $100,000 to EPI.
The Economic Policy Institute is reportedly related to a 501(c)(4) organization, the EPI Policy Center. EPI is also associated with the Economic Analysis and Research Network, an alliance of over 60 liberal think tanks and state-level policy organizations.