Who's Standing Behind This Progressive Think Tank In a Big Way?

Corporate though its origins may be, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is remarkably willing to back workers. And as a new push for labor rights gains steam around campaigns like the "Fight for 15," Kellogg has been a stalwart grantmaker funding grassroots activists and policy wonks alike.

Not long ago, we looked at the foundation's support for farmworkers groups in Florida. Here we take a look at some nice money going out the door to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a D.C. think tank that's among the premier advocates of stronger labor rights inside the Beltway.  

Kellogg has long funded EPI, and this latest grant, for $750,000 over two years, will finance EPI’s research into "growing race and gender inequities in the nature of work and the pay for work" as well as employers' use of forced arbitration to settle disputes out of court.

Looking back over a decade, Kellogg's early funding to EPI had an initial focus on early childhood. Further grants pivoted to jobs and workforce equity, especially when it comes to gender and race. EPI’s annual budget is relatively modest, around $6 million, making Kellogg’s latest grant comparatively sizeable. EPI notes on its website that the bulk of its funding from 2010-2014 came from foundations (57 percent) and unions (27 percent). Other organizations and corporations contributed only 7 percent.

Translation: it's wrong to simply describe EPI as a "union-backed think tank," as some media outlets do. 

Who else backs EPI? Besides Kellogg, major funders in recent years have included Ford, Annie E. Casey, the Open Society Foundations, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Public Welfare Foundation. As we've noted before, EPI's funders tend to stick around for the long haul, and you can understand why: it has a strong research staff of economists, all looking to advance the well-being of workers, which is a rarity in Washington. Many of the other think tanks that engage in high-level economic analyses are either conservative (like AEI) or have close ties to corporate funders (like the Peterson Institute for International Economics.) Meanwhile, most other progressive think tanks—say, like Demos—don't have EPI's scholarly muscle.

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While EPI's core work touches on class (mission: "to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions"), the current grant promises continued research into gender and race, the other big fault lines of structural inequality.

Check out EPI’s research on race and ethnicity here, and its research on wages and wealth here, which includes material on the female-male pay gap and abiding glass ceilings at work.

As you’re probably aware, Kellogg has been engaged in an ambitious effort to fund racial equity, calling itself an anti-racist organization. On top of supporting research on racial disparities, Kellogg has funded a number of direct initiatives to improve outcomes for young men of color, teachers of color, and chronically underprivileged Latino farmworkers.

We shouldn’t leave out forced arbitration, the other component of Kellogg’s research grant to EPI. While the issue is new and hasn’t gotten much attention from funders, a recent New York Times investigation raised awareness about corporate abuses in this area. So far, we’ve seen some action on this issue from Public Citizen, and since it’s legal in nature, groups like the American Association for Justice and the National Employment Lawyers Association have taken it up.

EPI has been working the forced arbitration issue for a while now, arguing that this practice "robs workers and consumers of basic rights." Now, with Kellogg's support, it should be able to ramp up such work. 

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