Sticking Up for the Big Guys
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Page through a recent copy of the New York Times or Washington Post , and you're likely to find quite a few articles on the unethical goings-on of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But the great irony is that those articles are often sandwiched between misleading ads funded by an even more brazenly corrupt lobbyist who has evaded the law for decades.
One of these full-page ads proffers something called "the new union label." The graphic features a "closed" sign hanging over a padlocked fence. "Brought to you by the union 'leaders' who helped bankrupt steel, auto, and airline companies." In the bottom right corner is the website "UnionFacts.com," with the slogan, "The facts they don't want you to know."
If you missed the quarter-million-dollar ad campaign, perhaps you caught the giant, inflatable dinosaur installed outside AFL-CIO headquarters, with picketers sporting signs: "AFL-CIO: Colossal Fossil," "Smart Union Leaders: Extinct?" and "Labor Leaders: Dis-organized."
Who is behind the campaign? It's actually nearly impossible to tell who's behind the Center for Union Facts. While you can read extensively about the nonpartisan, educational motives of the site, what appears only once on the site, buried in a press release is Richard Berman's name. Yet it is Berman, the Washington lobbyist for the tobacco, restaurant and beverage industries, who is behind the high-visibility campaign.
A former labor law director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Berman served as vice president of the restaurant chain Steak and Ale as well as the Pillsbury Restaurant Group before founding his own lobbying group, Berman & Co.
Berman's work on behalf of his clients -- among them Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Tyson Foods, Philip Morris and Hooters -- includes opposing the Americans with Disabilities Act and arguing against increases in federal minimum wage. Berman also helped defeat legislation that proposed a lower blood-alcohol threshold to qualify as drunken driving (In response to the MADD campaign, Berman said, "I don't believe that having a glass of anything makes it unsafe to go behind the wheel.") And his clients? Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Tyson Foods, Philip Morris, Outback Steakhouse, Hooters, Red Lobster, just to name a few.
Berman is talented enough that he can apparently serve as both an industry lobbyist and "consumer advocate," protecting our rights to ingest whatever those industries send our way.
But the AFL-CIO labor union believes UnionFacts.com is in fact a front group designed to stealthily aid business groups. AFL-CIO spokeswoman Esmerelda Aguilar sent AlterNet a document stating in part:
Unionfacts.com is a project of the Chamber of Commerce, according to an anonymous source. In a meeting of the State Chambers of Commerce National Conference held on Sanibel Island in Florida on Jan. 26, the Chamber announced it was spending $8 million a year to launch this anti-union website.
Berman's rebuttal to this charge, as reported by the New York Times , is that "when he spoke at the conference, [Berman] neither asked for nor received contributions. Rather, he said, he asked chamber officials to recommend that businesses in their states donate to his efforts."
It's this kind of sly language, hinging on technicalities, that has kept the origin of the anti-union smear campaign under wraps. And though Berman has come under considerable criticism, he carries on undeterred, telling the press:
This is just the beginning of a major education campaign about union leadership ... We're going to tell everyone the facts that labor leaders don't want you to know.
The allegedly nonprofit Center for Union Facts is not the first front that Berman has established to advance his clients' cause. While Berman runs the for-profit Berman & Co., he is simultaneously at the helm of his nonprofit called "The Center for Consumer Freedom" (CCF). CCF is the group behind FishScam.com, a site that purports to tell you, based solely on your weight, how much albacore tuna (FDA and EPA be damned) you can safely eat. "We'll tell you what the scaremongers won't," proclaims the site.
The CCF started as the "Guest Choice Network," which got off the ground thanks to nearly $1 million in funds from Philip Morris. In the next two years, the tobacco titan pumped $2.1 million more into the "nonprofit" to keep it rolling. From this consumer advocate platform, Berman put out newsletters that gave consumers the "real facts" -- promoting the safety of EPA-opposed pesticides.
The nonprofit fronts that Berman has established funnel money into his for-profit Berman & Co. Raw Story columnist Nancy Goldstein reports on the CCF's finances:
Its top expenditure in 2003 was the $1.5 million in consulting fees and employee benefits it paid to Rick Berman's firm, which it describes as its "management company." You heard right. Rick Berman has set up a PR machine on behalf of the restaurant, tobacco and alcohol industry that presents itself as a consumer protection group, tries to discredit any kind of investigation or legislation that might cut into industry profits ... enjoys tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization, and pays its largest yearly fees into Rick Berman's pockets."
The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the IRS about CCF's nonprofit status, laying out the damning facts (For starters: CCF has no employees -- aside from Berman -- and makes payments to the for-profit Berman & Co.) CREW received no response. With the advent of the new nonprofit front "Center for Union Facts," CREW has again filed a complaint. As long as Berman's centers are afforded nonprofit 510 (c)(3) status, they are considered "charities" that "don't have to report their contributors to the Federal Election Commission, the IRS or any federal agency."
Although the UnionFacts.com site encourages any members of the press to contact them, repeated phone calls from AlterNet were never returned. Conveniently, there is a FAQ section featuring questions such as "Are you against unions?" The nonprofit, charitable and educational reply? "No. We are against union leaders' abuse of power, often at the expense of their own rank-and-file members. We are against corruption, violence, and intimidation. We are against the misuse of union dues."
It's no secret that unions are imperfect entities. But the UnionFacts site is dedicated more to demonizing unions than offering employees any legitimate alternatives or help. Under the eight-point "What Employees Should Know About Their Rights," is the question, "Isn't there any way of getting rid of a union if the workers become dissatisfied with it?" which then links to a how-to on "Kicking Out Your Union."
Beyond the illegitimacy behind the anti-union campaign, perhaps the most deceitful aspect of the UnionFacts site is its claim to be providing information that can't be found elsewhere or that has somehow been kept from American employees.
But organizations such as The National Right to Work (NRTW) and American Rights at Work have been providing legitimate and useful information for years. NRTW's Legal Foundation provides "free legal aid to thousands of employees nationwide whose human and civil rights have been violated by compulsory unionism abuses."
The trick to the anti-union ads is painting the union as completely unrepresentative of employees. The message behind Berman's ads is that unions put people out of business. But as Jay Heath, a former field representative for SEIU, tells AlterNet:
It's ridiculous to suggest that unions bankrupted the airline and auto industries. Keep in mind, a contract is signed by both parties. It's an agreement between both the employer and the union. Employers love making the union out to be a third party when in reality the workers are the union. The union leaders are elected ... and members vote on everything ... Workers strike because they want to strike, and it's one of their most valuable weapons.
But Richard Berman is not in the business of finding solutions. He's a generator of PR smear campaigns to benefit the many corporations to which he is beholden. Indeed, Berman himself stated in a restaurant trade publication, "Activists drive consumer behavior on meat, alcohol, fat, sugar, tobacco and caffeine, so our strategy is to shoot the messenger."
Without any apparent sense of irony, Berman claims, "We've got to attack their credibility as spokespersons ..."A call he repeated in his new UnionFacts campaign in which he announced, "It's time that someone hold these people accountable." (U.S. Newswire)
Perhaps its time we listen to Berman. It's telling that, while the media digs up the dirt on a handful of unethical lobbyists, people like Richard Berman are publishing right alongside them. The most dangerous assumption that Americans and the media can make is that catching a public figure "red-handed" necessarily dissuades others from unethical practices.
Stay tuned for more from Mr. Berman: He's got a whole lot of connections and even more money (he said he hopes to spend some $5 million a year on the campaign). In the days ahead, we can look forward to more op-eds (" The AFL-CIO Sweatshop") and ads comparing union leaders to Kim Jong-Il.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an editorial fellow at AlterNet.