Art Levine

The VA Fueled the National Opioid Crisis, Killing Vets

Close Late one summer night in 2014, Kevin Keller broke into his best friend’s home. Keller was a U.S. Navy vet wracked with constant pain, and because his right arm had been crippled by a stroke, he had to use his left hand to scrawl a note of apology to his buddy: “Marty, Sorry I broke…

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Pundits Focused on Trump's Craziness Are Ignoring His Threat to Mentally Ill People and Addicts

Even as pundits and political observers, including former intelligence director James Clapper and some House Democrats, are increasingly questioning President Trump's mental stability, they're not paying nearly as much attention to the threat he poses to people already proven to be grappling with mental illness, addiction and chronic pain. In early August, our mercurial president declared that the opioid crisis that plays the dominant role in roughly 60,000 overdose deaths a year is a "national emergency," yet no meaningful response has yet been set in motion.

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The Battle Against Letting Wall Street Continue to Make a Killing on Derivatives

Early in the morning, outside the House Financial Services Committee hearing room in the Rayburn office building last week, there were scruffy ex-homeless and other low-income folks, wearing their dreadlocks or sloppy jeans, mixed in with the pinstriped reps for the financial industry.

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Private Equity Fund Would Rather Shut Down a Plant Than Pay Its Workers a Fair Wage

Every morning at 6 a.m, starting in August 2008, a group of striking workers came to stand outside the Stella D'Oro cookie and biscuit factory in the Bronx, N.Y. They were fighting for what they saw as their right to a fair contract, and the middle-class way of life they spent decades building with their loyal work.

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Why the GOP Really Hates Unions

The Hoover-like GOP has been working overtime to oppose President Obama's stimulus package while hoping he fails. Meanwhile, a report released yesterday by the Center for American Progress Action Fund essentially underscores the real reasons Republicans and the business community have taken another equally short-sighted economic stance: fighting workers' right to organize. As Unions Are Good For the American Economy points out with irrefutable statistics, unionization raises wages and boosts the economy because it puts more money in the pockets of American workers.

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Is the GOP Risking the Economy to Win a War Against Unions?

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States Fail to Offer Voter Registration to Millions of Low-Income Voters

Millions of low-income and minority voters are being denied opportunities to register to vote by state agencies that are violating a federal voting law, according to members of Congress and voting rights groups.

The ongoing failure has led to a nearly 80 percent drop-off in registering low-income applicants at state social services agencies over a decade, according to a recent report by the non-partisan voter advocacy research groups Project Vote and Demos.

"This noncompliance means the disenfranchisement of millions of low-income citizens, and a widening of the gap between the registration rates of high and low-income individuals," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the chairwoman of a House elections subcommittee that held hearings this spring on the widespread violations of Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

The under-enforced 1993 law is better known the "motor voter" law. Minority citizens lag behind white voter registration by as much 10 percent for blacks, and roughly 20 percent for Hispanics and Asian-Americans, in part because they are disproportionately low-income.

If minorities voted at the same rate as whites, there would be 7.5 million more minority voters on Election Day, Project Vote reported last fall. Just as troubling, 40 percent of adults in households with less than $25,000 in annual incomes are unregistered, compared to only 20 percent from those with family incomes above $100,000.

These disparities are worsened by other state and federal actions that limit access to voter registration and voting.

Battleground states such as Florida also impose draconian restrictions on voter registration groups seeking to register low-income voters. VA hospitals bar on-site voter registration drives of wounded soldiers. And states have toughened voter ID requirements, led by Indiana's photo ID law that was upheld by the Supreme Court in April.

In addition, some states, including Louisiana, are facing challenges to their efforts to hastily purge many thousands of often minority voters from their rolls. In response to these alarming trends, Project Vote declared last week, "Voter purges are one of several problems in the administration of elections that could not only bar legal voters from the polls, but could potentially influence the outcome of close races," including the tight Presidential race.

Some Progress Made

Although there has been relatively little cause for optimism on voting rights, a few recent legal actions have offered some rays of hope amid a generally grim picture of widespread barriers to voting. Unfortunately, this pattern of vote suppression has too often been abetted by a partisan Department of Justice. Yet just two weeks ago, the grass-roots advocacy group ACORN, backed by Project Vote and the public policy research group Demos, won an important victory for disenfranchised poor voters. A federal court ordered Missouri's Department of Human Services to finally comply with the NVRA, that federal law requiring the state's social welfare offices to provide voter registration applications and assistance to their clients. "This order could lead to more than hundred thousand new voters from low-income communities that have historically been under represented in the political process," said Jeff Ordower, Missouri ACORN's head organizer.

Even the Bush Department of Justice told Senate Democrats in a letter in mid-July that it was probing other state agencies with poor registration rates, and in May, it reached a settlement with the state of Arizona to enforce social services outreach to low-income voters.

"We are actively investigating a number of jurisdictions which have admitted to low voter registration rates at state public assistance agencies," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Keith Nelson said, without disclosing them.

The Justice Department letter was, in part, an apparent response to mounting pressure from Congress and advocacy groups over the continuing law-breaking by states that won't enforce the NVRA. The House elections subcommittee hearings chaired by Rep. Lofgren were followed by letters in April from leading House and Senate Democrats, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., to the Department of Justice demanding that the agency take far more aggressive action to enforce Section 7. Instead, the DOJ has been using another provision of the law to force states and localities to enact widespread voter purges. "This creates the impression, whether founded or not, that the Department is more concerned with removing names from the voter rolls than adding them," said Sen. Whitehouse and other liberal colleagues.

Advocacy groups, led by Project Vote and Demos, have also been writing to the worst-performing states, warning them that they had to obey the law. This is a required prelude to potential lawsuits by these groups against such states as New Mexico, Colorado, and Florida. Indeed, a Project Vote follow-up survey released in early May of clients at 63 offices in Arizona, New Mexico and five other NVRA-violating states found that most social services clients weren't offered an opportunity to register. (One of those states, Arizona, has since reached a settlement with DOJ, agreeing to implement such major reforms as offering registration assistance to all clients.) The results from this latest survey were shocking: Only 18 percent of nearly 420 clients surveyed received any voter registration services. "Because of noncompliance with the NVRA," as Project Vote and Demos reported in Unequal Access earlier this year, "the rights of thousands of low-income citizens are violated daily."

A 'New' Justice Department?

Surprisingly, in only its second Section 7 enforcement action in eight years, the new John Mukasey-led DOJ actually has begun responding to all the increased pressure. In mid-May the department reached the agreement with Arizona to provide registration assistance. And the department's recent letter to Sen. Whitehouse and other Senators claims it is "committed to ensuring compliance" with federal voting laws, despite its notoriously poor record in civil rights under Bush.

Although DOJ hasn't publicly announced other enforcement actions since settling with Arizona, Congressional staffers see welcome initial signs of progress at the Justice Department. "We're encouraged by the Arizona settlement," says an aide to Sen. Whitehouse. "It's a positive step forward, and we certainly hope to see aggressive enforcement of the law so that Americans' rights to vote are protected."

If the Justice Department doesn't take further actions, Project Vote and other voting advocacy groups are likely to sue the worst-performing states if their negotiations with them fail. These include New Mexico, Colorado, and Florida, according to Doug Hess, a Project Vote consultant on NVRA. "There are only a few states that do it well," he says.

Those few states have often responded only to enforcement actions and the threat of lawsuits, leading to major reforms that have dramatically increased voting by poor voters. For instance, in his Congressional testimony, Project Vote's Deputy Director, Michael Slater, pointed to the turnaround in Tennessee resulting from a DOJ lawsuit in 2002 -- the only section 7 lawsuit brought by the department in the last eight years. With the state's welfare agencies now filing over 50,000 registration applications a year, Slater stressed, "During the 2006 election cycle, one in five voter registrations from public aid offices in the nation came from Tennessee."

A few other state officials, including those in Virginia and North Carolina, have actively embraced reforms after being presented with the disturbing Project Vote and Demos findings of low voter registration by their aid agencies. A 2006 survey, for instance, found that in some North Carolina welfare offices, not a single voter registration form was offered to any client. Within months, that state's board of elections, working with the governor, demanded that agency officials boost registration results, and backed it up with random, unannounced investigations. Annual registration by recipients then jumped six-fold. It's not just civic duty at work, however: In her testimony before Congress, Johnnie McLean, the deputy director of the North Carolina board of elections, observed, "We are appreciative of advocates' willingness to work with us, rather than file litigation against us."

Problem States Persist

New Mexico, on the other hand, denies any wrongdoing and will probably be sued before November's election. Matthew Henderson, New Mexico ACORN's head organizer, points to registration numbers that "continue to be horrible" from New Mexico's Human Services Department. Although improving in some local offices since January, the agency's own figures have shown as few as six registered voters in one social service office in Albuquerque, according to Doug Hess, an NVRA specialist with Project Vote. As Henderson observes, "They're passing up an opportunity to register people who are walking in their door, and it's very difficult for us to go out and find them." Paul Ritzma, the general counsel for the state's Human Services Department, blames poor quality reporting for any low numbers, and insists, "We're doing everything we're supposed to do."

Yet while state agencies in New Mexico and Florida have registered relatively few poor citizens, those states also try to thwart non-profit groups that try to register those same voters. They've passed draconian registration laws that threaten to punish canvassers and groups such as ACORN and the League of Women Voters with stiff fines and jail terms if they run afoul of petty rules, such as failing to turn in registration forms within 48 hours

In New Mexico, as a result of the restrictive law, registration plunged to 2,000 new applicants in 2006 from 35,000 two years earlier. This year, ACORN managed to comply with the law and register 40,000 voters so far this year, but at a very heavy cost of adding over a dozen quality-control staffers to meet the 48-hour deadline. Henderson says. "We'd rather be spending our money on doing more follow-up with new voters to get them thinking about issues and hiring more full-time organizers."

To top it all off, while voting rights groups are draining their resources because state agencies fail to register low-income and minority voters, some states, in essence, are also targeting those voters by indiscriminate purges of voter rolls. Nearly 500,000 black voters were purged from voting rolls in Ohio in the last two election cycles. Now, in Louisiana, Project Vote is challenging allegedly illegal state efforts to drop thousands of voters -- many of whom are minorities -- because they appear to be duplicates of voters registered in other states, based solely on similarities in birthdates and names.

Campaign Impact Unknown

Despite the array of barriers to registration and voting, the Democratic Party and Obama campaign still seem to be counting on massive voter registration drives to help sweep their candidates into office. Neither the Obama campaign nor the DNC would comment on their "voter protection" plans. But if past history is any guide, leading voting rights activists aren't counting on Democrats to go beyond registering voters to effectively protecting voting rights.

"Democrats don't get it," says Matthew Henderson of ACORN. The grass-roots advocacy organization has faced GOP-led smears over voter fraud -- and state laws restricting registration -- because of its success nationally in registering over 1.6 million voters since 2003.

ACORN has ramped up new quality controls over canvassers and challenged assorted voting restrictions as it pushes to add 1.2 million new voters in this year's election. But it's not clear that the well-funded Democratic registration drives will do the same.

Proof of Citizenship? Missouri Vies for the Worst Voting Law in the Country

Missouri's Republican-controlled legislature is rushing to pass one of the country's most draconian voter ID requirements less than two weeks after the Supreme Court upheld Indiana's similarly restrictive photo ID law -- a law that's best known for serving as a vital bulwark against nuns voting. Missouri trumps that: It now seems that the state that brought us the likes of GOP anti-voting fraud zealot "Thor" Hearne and became "Ground Zero" for GOP vote suppression schemes in 2006 could take the brass ring from Florida and Ohio as the state most hostile to its own voters' rights.

There's a good reason that the Republicans are moving so quickly to pass a proposed constitutional amendment that could thwart at least 240,000 Missouri citizens from voting in November. The state is a presidential battleground state where recent gubernatorial and Senate races have been decided by margins as little as 21,000 votes.

"If you exclude 240,000 people from the electorate, that is plenty to swing the election in Missouri," says John Hickey, the executive director of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition (ProVote). He and other advocates are urging Missouri residents to contact their legislators to protest.

Last week, the House passed a resolution on a strict party-line vote that would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot demanding documentary requirements to vote. It is now up for debate in the state Senate and could go before voters as early as August. An amendment to the state constitution is necessary since the legislature's 2006 voter ID was struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The vaguely-worded amendment will, if approved by voters, permit the legislature to enact laws requiring documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote and current photo ID to cast a ballot. By blocking tens of thousands of U.S. citizens from either registering or voting, Missouri's pending bill could become, if passed, the toughest law in the country. Only five states require voters to show government-issued photo ID to vote and just one state -- Arizona -- requires would-be voters to prove their citizenship, according to research by Project Vote.

The resolution's sponsor, State Rep.Stanley Cox, is peddling the claim that this demand for photo ID was "not taking away rights."

"When anybody fraudulently votes, it diminishes all of our votes," he said last week when the resolution passed the state House. But there hasn't been a single proven case of voter impersonation at the polls in the state's history. And based on the experience of Arizona, between seven and 30 percent of citizens lack the citizenship documentation needed to register to vote.

But protecting voters from fraud isn't the real goal of this measure -- it's just helping GOP officials hold on to political power by blocking Democratic-leaning voters, critics say. "Their spin is that the elections are overrun with fraud," says the non-partisan Missouri ACORN's legislative director, Julie Terbrock. "But this measure effectively disenfranchises all these voters," she says, citing the Secretary of State's report on citizens without ID.

At a fair-election coalition press conference at the League of Women Voters' headquarters in Jefferson City, a few nuns came forward to express their concerns that the Catholic sisters in their convents lack the required ID. In fact, before the news conference, Sister Sandy Schwartz of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary in St. Louis reported the results of an informal survey of nuns in her order. "Fifteen [of 35 voters] did not have state-issued photo IDs," she observed. "This may sound like a good idea at first, but once you stop to think about who would really be affected, this is going to keep a lot of our loved ones from being able to vote."

The strict documentary requirements can be hard for Missouri nuns and other senior citizens, even married women of all ages, in obtaining their birth certificates. A survey by NYU's Brennan Center for Justice found that 52 percent of married woman don't have a birth certificate in their current name, and 17 percent of citizens age 65 and over don't have access to any citizenship documents.

At the press conference, Lillie Lewis, an elderly African-American woman, told how she struggled to get a birth certificate in order to secure a state-issued photo ID under the state's rigid "Show Me Proof" law passed in 2005. "I have tried everything to get a copy of my birth certificate," Lewis said, "but Mississippi says they have no record of my birth." So she likely won't be able to obtain a new driver's license, and, as a result, she declared, "My right to vote will be denied."

She was joined at the press conference by the Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who strongly opposed the previous photo ID law. "As Missouri's chief elections official, it's my job to ensure fair elections, and elections cannot be fair if eligible voters are not allowed to vote," said Carnahan. "What we heard today is that getting copies [of the documents needed to obtain a government ID] can be costly, time consuming and sometimes impossible."

The harsh reality of disenfranchisement has already been felt in Arizona, with its sweeping proof-of-citizenship registration requirement passed as part of the anti-immigrant Proposition 200 referendum in 2004. According to Arizona ACORN's Monica Sanschafer, who is heading up an effort to help 20,000 Arizonans register to vote, they have seen the effectiveness of their voter registration efforts cut in half because between 10 percent and 30 percent of low-income and minority citizens don't have the documents needed to register. The law, which has led to more than 38,000 voter registration applications being rejected, is now being challenged in court.

On top of all that, confusing ID requirements and poorly trained poll workers lead to countless voters being turned away: "It's a crapshoot which polling place workers will allow you to vote," notes Linda Brown of the Arizona Advocacy Network.

"All the discourse here is about immigration," Sandschafer observes. "But we're really talking about Arizonans who are Americans and whose legal right to vote is being denied. And while Latino citizens are hit hard, we're finding that all Arizonans are at risk of being disenfranchised by this requirement."

Perhaps no one knows that as well as 97-year-old Shirley Freeda Preiss. She was born at home in Clinton, Kentucky in 1910, before women had the right to vote, and never had a birth certificate. Shirley has voted in every presidential election since FDR first ran in 1932, and proudly describes herself as a "died-in-the-wool Democrat." After living in Arizona for two years, she was eagerly looking forward to casting her ballot in the February primary for the first major woman candidate for President, Hillary Clinton. But lacking a birth certificate or even elementary school records to prove she's a native-born American citizen, the state of Arizona's bureaucrats determined that this former school-teacher who taught generations of Americans shouldn't be allowed to vote.

"I have a constitutional right to vote, don't I?" she asks with her soft Southern drawl. "I didn't get to vote because of a birth certificate. What am I going to do now?"

Her strong-willed 78-year-old son, Nathan "Joey" Nemnich, a World War II veteran, is infuriated. "I'm pissed. She's an American citizen who worked her whole life and I want her to vote," he says. He went down to the local Motor Vehicle Division to get her an Arizona ID and register her to vote, armed with copies of his mother's three drivers' licenses from her previous home in Texas, along with copies of her Social Security and Medicare cards. All that wasn't good enough for the state of Arizona. "The sons of bitches are taking away our Constitution," Nemnich says.

In Arizona and now as seems likely in Missouri, Kafkaesque rules blend with right-wing ideology to block American citizens like Shirley Preiss from voting, collateral damage in the Republican-led war on democracy. "I was very disappointed," she says of the state's roadblocks to voting. "It's not acceptable. I've always voted."

The Republican War on Voting

One week before the close of voter registration in Kentucky last fall, in an election that culminated with the victory of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Beshear, Johanna Sharrard, a fresh-faced 26-year-old national organizer for the low-income advocacy group ACORN, gathered her canvassers in a run-down Louisville office and told them some good news: "We got 396 people yesterday -- that's really great!" Then she added what could have seemed a jarringly discordant note: "We know it's getting harder to reach people with the cards in this area. It's really important that you guys are not slipping up and turning to filling out your own applications or other fraudulent activity. Just yesterday we had to let another person go because she did not follow protocols." Sharrard continued sternly, "What's important is that we get 15,000 new voters. We're not out there to get 10,000 new voters and 5,000 false applications."

Indeed, the voter registration waged by ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) in Kentucky was also an effort to test the group's new system for rooting out any fraud. The organization is readying itself for the challenges to voter participation that the poor and minorities -- and Democrats -- are sure to face in 2008.

Sharrard's cautionary tone was a response to the Republican Party's ongoing nationwide campaign to suppress the low-income minority vote by propagating the myth of voter fraud. Using various tactics -- including media smears, bogus lawsuits, restrictive new voting laws and policies, and flimsy prosecutions -- Republican operatives, election officials, and the GOP-controlled Justice Department have limited voting access and gone after voter-registration groups such as ACORN. Which should come as no surprise: In building support for initiatives raising the minimum wage and kindred ballot measures, ACORN has registered, in partnership with Project Vote, 1.6 million largely Democratic-leaning voters since 2004. All told, non-profit groups registered over three million new voters in 2004, about the same time that Republican and Justice Department efforts to publicize voter fraud and limit voting access became more widespread. And attacking ACORN has been a central element of a systematic GOP disenfranchisement agenda to undermine Democratic prospects before each Election Day.

Revelations that U.S. attorneys were fired for their failure to successfully prosecute voter fraud have revealed how fictitious the allegations of widespread fraud actually were -- but the allegations haven't gone away. They live on in all the vote-suppressing laws and regulations that will likely affect this year's election, in GOP rhetoric and, most recently, in the arguments presented by champions of Indiana's restrictive voter-identification law in a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, progressives have tended to pay more attention to Election Day dirty tricks and to electronic voting machines than to a more systemic threat: the Republican campaign to suppress the votes of low-income, young, and minority voters through restrictive legislation and rulings, all based on the mythic specter of voter fraud. Those relatively transient voters, drawn to the polls this year by the Obama and Clinton campaigns, could find themselves thwarted in November and thereafter by the GOP-driven regime of voting restrictions -- particularly if, as many observers believe, the Court upholds Indiana's restrictive law before it adjourns this June.

Voter fraud is actually less likely to occur than lightning striking a person, according to data compiled by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. As Lorraine Minnite, a Columbia University professor, observed in the Project Vote report, The Politics of Voter Fraud, "The claim that voter fraud threatens the integrity of American elections is itself a fraud." In October 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft launched an intensive "Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative" that required all U.S. attorney offices to coordinate with local officials in combating voter fraud. Yet even after the Justice Department declared the war against voter fraud a "high priority," only 24 people were convicted of illegal voting in federal elections between 2002 and 2005 -- and nobody was even charged by Justice with impersonating another voter. (The Justice Department declined to answer questions about more recent fraud prosecutions.) And despite the anti-immigrant frenzy fueling photo-ID laws, only 14 noncitizens were convicted of illegally voting in federal elections from 2002 through 2005 -- mostly because of their ignorance of election law.

Unfortunately, the public hasn't heard just how nonexistent the voter fraud epidemic actually is. While progressives have successfully challenged some of the most restrictive laws in court, they're still playing catch-up when it comes to combating the glib sound bites of voter-fraud alarmists. Republicans and the Bush Justice Department have cloaked their schemes under such noble-sounding concepts as "ballot integrity." The GOP's vote-suppression playbook features everything from phony lawsuits to questionable investigations to authoritative-seeming reports, all with the aim of promoting restrictive laws. These tactics were first perfected in the hotly contested swing state of Missouri.

The roots of John Ashcroft's passion on this issue go back to the chaos of Election Day 2000 in St. Louis, when hundreds, if not thousands, of mostly inner-city voters were turned away from polling places because their names were not on voting rolls. The resulting last-minute court battle kept some polling places open for 45 minutes after their scheduled closing time of 7 P.M. Ashcroft, then the Republican U.S. Senate nominee, lost his race to the dead Democratic governor, Mel Carnahan, whose name stayed on the ballot weeks after he died in a plane crash. At an election-night party, an infuriated Republican Sen. Kit Bond pounded the podium and screamed, "This is an outrage!" -- and subsequently charged that Republican losses were due in part to dogs and dead people voting. As one local government official observed, "In St. Louis, 'dogs and dead people' is code for black people [voting fraudulently]."

That election night gave birth to the new right-wing voter-fraud movement, while Missouri became a proving ground for the vote-suppression campaigns that later spread to other key states. Missouri's then-Secretary of State Matt Blunt, now governor, launched a trumped-up investigation that concluded that more than 1,000 fraudulent ballots had been cast in an organized scheme. A Justice Department Civil Rights Division investigation, started before Ashcroft shifted the department's priorities, found no fraudulent ballots, however. Instead, it discovered that the St. Louis election board had improperly purged 50,000 voters from the rolls.

Nonetheless, the template for smear campaigns, groundless lawsuits, and politicized prosecutions used across the country had been set in Missouri. Key roles were played by many of the same GOP zealots who later made their mark on the national drive to fight voter fraud, among them St. Louis attorney Thor Hearne, the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign election counsel who later launched the GOP front group, the American Center for Voting Rights (ACVR). And as early as 2002, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party pioneered a new dirty trick: publicly "filing" with the Federal Election Commission a 26-page complaint against the state's leading registration group, known as Pro Vote, that charged it with secretly conspiring with Democrats in the Senate race -- but then failing to sign the document so the agency never considered it.

The goal of such complaints and allegations was to create a barrage of negative publicity about voter-registration groups and the voter-fraud menace that could pave the way for restrictive laws. In Missouri, the Republicans' cries for a new state photo-ID law began in 2002, before the GOP blitz in most other states. The legislature passed such a bill in early 2006, before it was struck down that September by a Missouri state court as unconstitutional.

The GOP in Missouri also turned to prosecutions and lawsuits, most either overblown or groundless. In November 2005, Bradley Schlozman, then the Justice Department's acting civil-rights chief, insisted on filing a lawsuit that accused Missouri's secretary of state, Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, of failing to purge supposedly ineligible voters under federal law. (U.S. Attorney Todd Graves was forced out in March 2006 for having balked at filing the suit.) A federal judge, who found that the Justice Department did not produce any evidence showing fraud justifying the purges, dismissed the lawsuit in April 2007. The department continues to appeal the ruling.

The fraud-obsessed Schlozman was then moved into Graves' old post without Senate confirmation, through a loophole in the Patriot Act. In an apparent effort to discredit both Democrats and ACORN, just five days before the tight Senate election in 2006 between incumbent Republican Jim Talent and Democrat Claire McCaskill, Schlozman announced, in violation of the department's own standards, the indictment of four former ACORN workers who had been fired by ACORN for filling out false voter-registration forms. The indictments were part of a broader effort to tilt the campaign against Democrats by bashing ACORN and limiting voter access. St. Louis' Republican election director, Scott Leiendecker, sent out a chilling letter shortly before the election to 5,000 mostly African-Americans registered by ACORN, asking them to verify to the election board that they were eligible to vote. Leiendecker backed off after he faced the threat of a voting-rights lawsuit and received a warning letter from Secretary of State Carnahan.

What began in Missouri soon went nationwide. Starting in 2003, the Justice Department's civil-rights division issued a flurry of advisory letters, rulings, and lawsuits under the guise of fighting fraud that appear designed to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. Federal and state courts have struck down some of the laws shaped by policies promoted by the Justice Department, such as strict database-matching laws limiting new voters in Washington state and Florida. Even so, Justice Department-backed secretive purging policies have targeted voter-registration applicants and current voters in several key states: In Ohio in 2006, 303,000 voters were purged in three major urban counties, while the Brennan Center reported that Pennsylvania's rigid database rules, later loosened, had excluded up to 30 percent of eligible registrants. Karl Rove aide Tim Griffin played a major role in state GOP voter "caging" operations (that is, challenging the eligibility of registered voters) in such states as Ohio and Florida. These schemes, Project Vote reports, challenged the right of 77,000 mostly minority voters to cast ballots between 2004 and 2006, under the pretext that non-forwardable letters sent by GOP activists to their addresses were returned as undelivered. Thor Hearne's now-vanished ACVR lobbied for strict voter-ID laws in nine states, according to McClatchy and other news organizations. Voter-ID laws in states such as Georgia, Arizona, and Indiana have, for now, been allowed to stand. All these campaigns have created a kind of GOP vote-suppression playbook that aims to limit voting rights in the states and attack registration groups such as ACORN. In most states where ACORN wages ballot-initiative and voter-registration campaigns, Republican lawyers, officials, and some prosecutors routinely file dubious lawsuits and complaints to generate bad press for the voter-registration drives. The lawsuits seldom if ever succeed, but the bad press they engender creates a climate to pass restrictive voting laws.

In New Mexico by the summer of 2004, ACORN's effort to register voters in advance of the closely fought presidential election was a stunning success: The organization registered 35,000 voters, mostly in the Albuquerque area. "Republicans were freaking out," recalls John Boyd, an attorney for the state Democratic Party. Republicans accused ACORN of "manufacturing voters," conflating error-plagued cards with fraud while trumpeting one registration card filled out in the name of a 13-year-old boy. The boy's card became the centerpiece of the lawsuit Rep. Joe Thompson, an Albuquerque Republican, filed in August 2004 demanding that the state government require photo ID for voters registered by ACORN and other nonprofits. The lawsuit claimed that the Republican plaintiffs' votes were "diluted" by supposedly false registrations.

Their case fell apart in court, and by September, a judge dismissed the lawsuit. But Republicans were not deterred by their loss in civil court and pressed for a criminal investigation, a probe which U.S. Attorney for New Mexico David Iglesias started on the same day that the court ruled against the GOP. Iglesias was a true believer in the menace of voter fraud. As one of just two U.S. attorneys in the nation to form such task forces, he was invited to lecture other U.S. attorneys in 2005 as part of the annual Justice Department ballot-integrity conference.

Iglesias' efforts weren't enough for Patrick Rogers, the Republican National Lawyers Association point person in the state, who mounted a campaign to pressure Iglesias to bring criminal charges before the election, rather than form a task force. Indeed, even before Iglesias concluded in 2006 that there wasn't enough evidence to indict on voter fraud, major Republicans in the state had started asking the Bush administration for his removal. In early December 2006, Iglesias was one of seven U.S. attorneys whom the Justice Department fired.

Today, Iglesias says of voter fraud: "It's like the boogeymen parents use to scare their children. It's very frightening, and it doesn't exist. U.S. attorneys have better things to do with their time than chasing voter-fraud phantoms."

But the damage of chasing phantoms proved more substantial. In 2005, the state legislature, with the blessing of its Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, passed legislation that essentially crippled the ability of groups like ACORN to do mass voter registration. In 2006, ACORN had only 10 certified canvassers in the whole state, and registration plunged to 2,000 new applicants from 35,000 two years before, according to ACORN's top New Mexico organizer, Matt Henderson.

In Florida in 2004, ACORN's initiative to raise the state's minimum wage looked to be cruising to victory (it won with 71 percent of the vote), and brought in over 200,000 newly registered voters. That led business lobbies and the GOP to find a poster boy for fraud in a fired ACORN employee and ex-con named Mac Stuart, who spun elaborate tales of ACORN squirreling away hundreds of GOP voter applications it gathered but did not turn over to election officials. Republican attorneys filed two lawsuits featuring Stuart's claims. After the election, Stuart ultimately conceded that he made false statements about ACORN. In December 2005, federal judges dismissed both lawsuits.

But in the same month, the legislature passed one of the most restrictive voting-registration laws in the country. The new law fined every registration worker $5,000 for any lost application, potentially wiping out the entire budget of the state League of Women Voters if just 14 forms were lost and forcing the group to stop registering voters for the first time in over 70 years. It was not until August 2006 that a federal judge blocked enforcement of the law. However, a slightly revised version passed last year.

Responding to the GOP-generated hysteria over voter fraud, criminal investigations were launched in 2004 and 2005 in Wisconsin, Colorado, Florida, and Ohio, with ACORN often a target. But by the end of 2005, the investigations ended after finding either no evidence of wrongdoing by ACORN or any pervasive voter fraud. Nationally, only six former ACORN employees were charged with registration fraud or other election-related crimes in the 2004 election, offenses involving fewer than 20 forms. That's out of 1 million new voters registered by ACORN during that cycle.

Yet Thor Hearne, among others, took advantage of these assorted investigations and news accounts about fraud to create the fictional appearance of an epidemic, then added some fabrications of his own. Perhaps the wildest ACVR whopper -- seized on by The Wall Street Journal as late as November 2006 -- was the charge that ACORN and an affiliated group were under criminal investigation for "paying crack cocaine for fraudulent registration forms." Actually, the tale originated with the arrest of a Toledo-area man who may have received drugs while working for another volunteer for a now-defunct organization, not ACORN. Without substantiation, ACVR identified Democratic-leaning cities as hotspots for fraud. They were generally the same locations where U.S. attorneys later faced pressure over prosecutions, including Seattle, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. (The one exception to overblown investigations targeting ACORN was the indictment last year by a local Seattle prosecutor, welcomed by ACORN, of seven rogue ex-employees who had fabricated nearly 2,000 registration forms.)

The hyped reports, indictments, and hearings had their intended effect after the 2004 elections. Nearly 30 states considered bills to require photo ID or proof of citizenship to register or vote. While most of these measures haven't yet passed, those that have can be severe: An Arizona law requiring proof of citizenship to register has disenfranchised up to 60 percent of applicants in some counties.

Over the past few years, what began as local phony lawsuits and investigations escalated into a concerted drive by the Civil Rights Division to restrict voting. Since 2004, the goal of the state GOP vote-caging initiatives has become official Justice Department policy. The department has also promoted the equivalent of caging by pressuring 16 states and cities to speed up their purging of hundreds of thousands of voters through letters and lawsuits, as first reported by Alternet.

Alarmingly, the insubstantiality of the claims of pervasive voter fraud may not deter the U.S. Supreme Court from upholding Indiana's restrictive voter-ID law -- which, according to a new University of Washington study, could disenfranchise the more than 20 percent of the state's African-American voters who lack the ID required by Indiana's law. Amazingly, Indiana has admitted that there hasn't been a single alleged case of in-person voter fraud in the state's history. Instead, Indiana's attorneys and legal allies, including the federal government, have submitted virtually nothing but unverified newspaper clippings and right-wing claims about fraud allegations in other states.

Indeed, the Supreme Court, in a little-noticed comment in an earlier ruling on Arizona's ID law, has already granted government the leeway to enact laws denying the vote based merely on fears of fraud, regardless of evidence. But outside of the world of voting experts, little attention has been paid to the lack of evidence in the federal court rulings leading up to the Indiana case. As Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center observes, "The way this case has been decided so far [in lower courts] is that a state doesn't have to justify measures to suppress the vote."

The Supreme Court is expected to issue its Indiana ruling in the next few months, and it's considered unlikely that the Court will strike down the law.

These days, weakened by the publicity over the U.S. attorneys scandal, the savvier voter-fraud propagandists are shifting their now-discredited arguments about massive voting by illegal immigrants to yet another "menace": "double voting." Republicans and some newspapers point to lists of the same names in different states to claim there has been large-scale double voting. Yet such sweeping double-voting claims are almost always due to administrative errors and the statistical probability that people with the same name and birth date will show up in large pools of voters.

Regardless of the facts, the drive for new voter-ID restrictions will likely be strengthened in the wake of the upcoming Supreme Court decision. There's little sign that progressives or Democrats are going to launch what the Brennan Center's Deborah Goldberg has called the "huge public education effort" needed to raise awareness about the problems with voter-ID laws. Democrats seemingly haven't yet grasped the political importance of fighting these restrictive policies, though they could prove a major impediment to minority voting (and if minorities voted at the same rate as whites, there would be 7.5 million more voters on Election Day).

But Johanna Sharrard and other ACORN leaders aren't going to be deterred by Republican obstacles and smears as they gear up for new registration drives this year that could be their most successful yet. Sharrard's campaign in Kentucky last year brought in over 14,000 new voters, a state record. And after seeing all the attacks against ACORN in Missouri and elsewhere, she realizes, "It's a good motivator; it showed us that that things we were doing are important." It's an open question, though, whether progressives will realize that it's worth fighting to make sure that the voters ACORN is trying to reach will actually have their votes count.

Reprinted with permission from Art Levine, "The Republican War on Voting," The American Prospect, Volume 19, Number 4: March 24, 2008. The American Prospect, 2000 L Street, Suite 717, Washington, DC 20036. All rights reserved.

The FBI Ignored Threats to Black Voters

Since the resignations of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others involved in the U.S. Attorneys and Civil Rights Division scandals, you might expect that the Justice Department would come clean and show a new commitment to voting rights.

Think again. At recent hearings before a House Judiciary subcommittee, new revelations emerged about how the Justice Department failed to investigate illegal mailers sent to African-Americans in Dallas threatening criminal punishment if they registered to vote through a community reform group called ACORN.

The House Judiciary Committee is launching a preliminary inquiry into the questionable way that the FBI office in Dallas -- after consulting with the Justice Department -- decided not to investigate the intimidating flier targeting Democratic-leaning blacks in a 2006 legislative race, purportedly because no federal laws were violated.

"That's nonsense," says Gerry Hebert, director of the reform group Campaign Legal Center and a former 21-year veteran of the Civil Rights Division. "That intimidation is a violation of the Voting Rights Act," he notes, which authorizes both civil and criminal penalties for any threats that aim to deter voting.

Hebert testified about the Dallas incident to challenge claims by the Justice Department's top civil rights official at February's subcommittee hearing that the agency was taking vigorous legal action to protect minority voting rights.

Under intense grilling by skeptical Democrats about DOJ's alleged vote-suppressing activities, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Asheesh Agarwal told the panel, "The department takes very seriously any allegations that voters are being discriminated on the basis of their race. And we have an outstanding record of bringing lawsuits when necessary to protect the rights of minority voters."

Hebert countered by revealing the apparent Dallas voting rights violations. His voice rising, he declared, "Black voters in Dallas, Texas in 2006, after Mr. Agerwal joined the Justice Department, received a letter that said if you were registered by ACORN, they're a fraudulent organization, and if you try to vote, you'll be prosecuted and arrested at the polls." He testified that he had alerted the Justice Department, but no action was taken. Project Vote, ACORN's partner in managing voting registration drives, also contacted the Dallas FBI, which declined to investigate the intimidating mailers sent to thousands of African-Americans.

The FBI belatedly responded to Project Vote in late December 2006, asserting that "no factual predication of voter intimidation was established." The FBI's decision not to investigate, critics say, is the latest sign that politicization appears to have compromised the nominally non-partisan law enforcement agency.

Moreover, the Justice Department's response was part of a striking pattern of indifference to alleged intimidation violations. In fact, The Huffington Post has learned, President Bush's Justice Department hasn't brought a single prosecution or lawsuit in more than seven years on behalf of any African-American voters who faced direct voter intimidation threats and challenges -- despite receiving, by some estimates, roughly 12,000 criminal civil rights complaints of all kinds annually.

"The Justice Department hasn't handled these cases because they've had an unreasonable focus on voter fraud. They're more interested in disenfranchising voters," observes Tanya Clay House, the Public Policy Director of People for the American Way. (The Justice Department, and the local and national FBI, declined to answer questions about the Dallas incident and the broader lack of prosecutions aimed at voter intimidation.)

Indeed, part of what amounts to a wide-ranging GOP disenfranchisement strategy is attacking the non-partisan low-income advocacy group ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). The organization has been a favorite target of Republicans promoting the myth of widespread voter fraud because of its success in registering Democratic-leaning minority voters since 2004, according to reports by McClatchy Newspapers, The American Prospect, and other outlets. The drumbeat of voter-fraud hype is then used to justify a host of GOP-backed laws and policies, from restrictive photo ID voting laws to the Justice Department' promotion of mass purges of registered voters. Yet voter fraud, in fact, is so rare that even an intensive, four-year anti-fraud initiative by the Justice Department couldn't even find one person in the country to charge with impersonating another voter -- out of nearly 215 million votes cast in federal elections.

The Dallas incident, it turns out, perfectly symbolizes the no-holds-barred Republican politics of voter fraud. The intimidating flier was part of a brazen vote-suppression and smear campaign designed to undermine a Democratic candidate, Harriet Miller, in a tight local race in 2006 to challenge Texas House Rep. Tony Goolsby in a racially mixed North Dallas district.

The frightening and deceptive mailer, highlighted with ACORN's trademark red and black colors, was sent to thousands of black residents a few days before the election: "Beware: A national political group suspected of voter fraud [i.e., ACORN] is currently working in your neighborhood to bring people to the polls on election day ... Don't be a victim of voter fraud -- it could result in jail time for you."

The flier appeared to have its intended effect of intimidating some black voters. Lawrence Jones, a 63-year-old retiree and an active ACORN member, vividly recalls how it affected registered voters and other ACORN members. "They were dumbfounded and shocked," he says. It caused some members to doubt the group's integrity, while other residents, he says, "just feared to vote." He adds, "A lot of people said they don't think ACORN is powerful enough to protect them -- I'm not going to fool with the federal government."

That anonymous mailer followed a spate of public attacks, ads, and mailers by the Goolsby campaign -- and even a letter to the local district attorney by the county Republican chairman -- all accusing Miller of engaging in voter fraud during her first campaign against Goolsby in 2004. The Republican smears, now the subject of a pending defamation lawsuit aimed at Goolsby and other local Republicans, also claimed she had illegally "retained the services of ACORN," while tarring the organization with flimsy claims that it deliberately engaged in voter fraud.

The district attorney never responded to the Dallas GOP's allegations, but the local CBS affiliate, CBS 11 News, jumped on the story to ballyhoo the bogus charges filed by Republican County Chairman Kenn George with the D.A.

The real fraud involved George's inflammatory letter to the prosecutor, which blatantly misrepresented election returns from 2004 in order to file the false voter fraud complaint against Miller. The letter claimed that as a Democrat running for a state House seat, she suspiciously won more votes than the Democratic candidate for Congress in black districts, when, in fact, there was no Democratic congressional candidate opposing the Republican, just an obscure independent.

"Republicans then used the [CBS] news coverage as a prop for mail to Anglo voters alleging Harriet Miller was engaged in a criminal enterprise," says Matt Engle, director of the pro-Democratic legal advocacy group, the Lone Star Project, which supports Miller's lawsuit against local Republicans. "Another part of the Republican effort was sending the illegal fliers to black neighborhoods to convince African-American voters not to show up."

After the CBS 11 News story ran, the Republicans' specious claims of voter fraud became the basis of at least four pieces of direct mail and one doorhanger charging that Miller was "under investigation" for voter fraud. The mailers cited as a source the same CBS story that Kenn George himself had generated with his fake voter fraud claim to the D.A. All this, in turn, was followed by the menacing flier warning black voters who registered with ACORN that they'd be arrested at the polls.

"I was horrified," Miller says of the assorted attacked aimed at her and her potential black supporters. "I think the false allegations that were made about me concerning voter fraud had an impact when combined with the suppression of the vote. It's not a surprise that I lost." Despite spending five times as much in her 2006 campaign as in 2004, she lost by roughly the same amount as in her first race: a mere 1,553 votes short of unseating Goolsby.

None of the Republicans or their attorneys, including Goolsby and George, named in Miller's defamation lawsuit responded to requests for comment on her legal claims, although they denied her allegations in papers filed in response to her lawsuit. But the president of Goolsby's political consulting company, Allyn and Company, denied it had any role in printing or distributing the intimidation fliers targeting black voters (which isn't an issue in the lawsuit). "The only work we did was directly for the Goolsby campaign," says Mari Woodlies.

Harriet Miller and her district's black voters, though, are hardly the only people victimized by false voter fraud claims and intimidation schemes. For instance, as chronicled by leading civil rights groups in an "Election Protection" coalition, such threatening incidents include black-shirted, gun-toting thugs thwarting Latino voters in Tucson, Arizona in 2006, and fliers from a fake "Milwaukee Black Voters League" distributed during the 2004 election in Milwaukee inner-city neighborhoods warning people that if anyone in their family had been convicted of a crime, "you can get ten years in prison" if you dared to vote. Unfortunately, such cases don't seem to have been deemed worthy of serious investigation by DOJ, and certainly no prosecutions or lawsuits have resulted.

Even so, a Justice Department spokesman responded to questions about such failures by stating, "The Department is taking affirmative steps to ensure equal access to the polls for all citizens," citing in part the deployment of hundreds of federal election monitors in 2004 and 2006. But some critics so distrust the politicized Justice Department they see those monitors as reinforcing intimidation, rather than preventing it.

And now Justice itself is facing tough new monitoring from congressional oversight committees, including the House Judiciary Committee. "Protecting the voting rights of every citizen is a top priority for [House Judiciary chairman John Conyers (D-MI)]; members have serious concerns about DOJ's enforcement record and will be looking into the Dallas issue," a committee staffer told The Huffington Post. Elections have consequences, as Sen. Barbara Boxer famously said at a hearing last year, and one of them is that Conyer's committee will be asking asking Asheesh Agarwal to explain why nothing was done about the voter intimidation in Dallas.

Union-Busting Confidential

If you thought the union movement was in decline--Think Again!" So read an online ad for a recent seminar in Las Vegas that promised to help me remain union-free. Actually, I had thought the union movement was in decline, but I'm an open-minded sort, so I was willing to be persuaded otherwise. I paid my $1,595 and signed up. Organized by seminar-specialty firm Executive Enterprises, it would be led by attorneys from Jackson Lewis, one of the leading law firms in the field of union-busting, which has become a multibillion-dollar industry encompassing more than 2,500 lawyers and consultants offering their services. The classes would take place in the Las Vegas Westin Casuarina, which promises its guests "a sanctuary in the midst of bustling excitement" as well as craps, blackjack and three-card poker. I booked a room.

I knew I was taking a chance. Most outsiders don't know what happens in these seminars, because the firms that specialize in them have their feelers out for spies. Union organizers and curious journalists are especially unwelcome. As much as I enjoy Las Vegas in its own right, a night of Carrot Top would not make up for being expelled from union-busting class. I therefore checked in as Arthur S. Levine, the (real) vice-president of my family's real estate company, which owns one small building. This seemed to satisfy the people at the check-in table, who were careful not to say why we all were there. I was glad I found it at all: The seminar was kept so hush-hush that the name Jackson Lewis didn't appear on the sign outside the door.

Inside the seminar room, I picked a spot behind several rows of tables and chairs facing the lectern at the front. Things got off to a delayed start, however. Apparently, one of the registrants waiting to get in merited a closer background check. A grim, ferret-faced man paced outside the seminar room, fielding calls on his cell phone. He wore a pink shirt and pink silk tie. Hovering close by was a younger colleague, a burly fellow with a well-tailored dark suit and a Fu Manchu mustache. After consulting quickly with each another, the two men reached a verdict. The younger guy strode over to an unoccupied seat in our classroom and, with evident pleasure, picked up a place card. "Richard," he announced, "is no longer with us," ostentatiously ripping Richard's place card in two.

As it turned out, the two men who had purged Richard would be our seminar leaders. The older man in pink was Michael J. Lotito, a 30-year veteran of anti-union legal wars. The younger was Michael Stief, III, a protegé; and fast learner. I soon saw they knew their turf well. "We're not moralists," explained Lotito. "We're lawyers."

Once the seminar got underway, I learned that all of us were doing the right thing in resisting unions. "We believe that the union is irrelevant for the 21st century," declared Lotito. Unfortunately, "unions have new weapons." To make his point, he waved a clipping from the New York Times describing some recent public relations woes of Wal-Mart. "The risk for some organizations is not that you're going to be organized from within," he advised us. "It's that you're going to be organized from without."

My fellow students, of whom there were about 20, came from various parts of the country. We got to know one another a little when Lotito invited us to share our reasons for taking the course. It became like a support group. "We want to go to union-free, but we've got a bullseye on our back," explained Martin, a tough-looking distribution supervisor for a food services company. "It's a big threat."

Donna, a human resources manager for a discount chain store with a gung-ho manner, was more upbeat. "I've never dealt with unions, and I'm dedicated to making sure that we keep them out of our distribution center," she vowed. "It's my mission!"

Soon, it was my turn. "Hi I'm Art Levine," I ventured. "We own some rental property in Queens and I'm concerned about organizing among our employees." This was flat enough to pass muster.

First, appear respectful

One of the first things I learned from Lotito and Stief was to try to come across as respectful of labor's concerns. "The goal is not to be union- free," explained Stief. "It's to be issue-free." We were advised to institute an open-door policy with employees, encouraging them to air any grievances or concerns fully. Not only would this keep them happy, it would help us to sniff out whether there was unionization afoot.

Lotito informed us that his father had been a New York dockworker. "Back then, in 1935, [unions] made perfect sense," Lotito said. "Did they have legitimate issues about how they were treated in the workplace? Yes! There was no safety, no security, no benefits." But they, he explained, were a lot different from today's whiners. "We didn't have employees say: It's my God-given right to have health insurance."

Lotito stopped pacing, faced a personnel manager in the audience, and, slumping his body, took on a mock hillbilly accent: "You owe me health insurance! It just ain't fair! You owe me health insurance!" This got a few chuckles.

Lotito reserved particular disdain for executives who don't fight back, laying into a Kaiser Permanente exec who had apparently told the press that the HMO would remain "neutral" while the SEIU organized workers. In a mincing voice, Lotito parodied the Kaiser executive: "It is part of our strategic objective to work with SEIU."

"Give me a frickin' break!" he shouted. "Unions think money grows on trees!"

Fighting unions

By most measures, unions aren't in very good shape. Only eight percent of private-sector workers today are unionized, compared to nearly 30 percent in the '50s. Enforcement of labor laws, already weak, has become almost nonexistent under the current White House's National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). And the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act can't get past a filibuster in the Senate.

But Lotito repeatedly cautioned us against complacency. "They'll attempt to destroy you no matter how good you are," he warned. "The better you are, the bigger target you are." And he reminded us, indirectly, why we would probably need Jackson Lewis to help us out. "It's going to cost you some money to remain union-free, sometimes big money." But it was money well spent--especially, he noted, if Hillary Clinton should become president. The name seemed to send a chill through the room. "We're lucky to have a George Bush labor board," Lotito said.

If Jackson Lewis wished to emphasize any peril above all, it was that of Andy Stern, president of the 1.8-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest and fastest-growing union in the country. In a CNBC interview screened for the class, Stern told an interviewer, "I think we need to find ways to add value to employers and not make them uncompetitive." Stern also pointed out that union workers make an average of $9,000 more per year and are twice as likely as non-union workers to have health insurance.

When the lights went back up, Stief shook his head. "Very impressive," he said. "Would your people find him inspiring? Yes, they would."

So how should we managers face down the threat? Lotito, slackening his jaw and assaying a blue-collar brogue, turned to Ken, a mild-mannered human resources executive for a printing company, and asked, "Boss, do we have a position on unions?"

Ken shifted in his seat and ventured an answer: "We don't like 'em."

"I was listening to this Andy Stern guy," Lotito continued, "and he says he wants to add value to our organization and find new ways to cooperate." His tone turned mock-tearful: "He says our future is taking care of our children." Several classmates laughed.

Ken was at a loss, so Lotito suggested a positive "mission statement." In a rote manner, he recited examples: "We provide dignity and respect for our employees as part of our core values." And so forth. The executives eagerly wrote them down.

How to bust

Frightening us with stories of unionization was only one component of the program. A second was an overview of the many dos and don'ts of union-busting. Should we need more detailed legal advice, Jackson Lewis, of course, stood at the ready.

One such scenario dealt with union authorization cards being circulated at a factory. Stief, playing a confused worker, turned to a hotel executive named Kevin. "How are you doing, boss?" said Stief. "My uncle is in the UFCW and I met an organizer with them, Rob Youblind. I need to fill out a card about interest in a union. What should I do with the card?"

Kevin didn't know. Stief advised him to warn his employee of the dangers of signing his names to such a document. "It's a legally binding contract, it's like a power of attorney, it's like signing a blank check," Stief said. "When you talk to them, bring it down to their level."

Another example dealt with a supervisor who had harbored sympathy towards union organizing. "You know what we do with a supervisor who comes to you and says, 'Hey, boss, it wasn't me, they said it was the company'?" asked Stieff. He jerked his tie upwards against his neck to suggest a hanging--the only time the lawyers openly hinted at lawbreaking.

What if we simply wanted to fire union organizers? That was possible to do, said Stief, as long as you were careful to do so for other reasons. "Union sympathizers aren't entitled to any more protection than other workers," he explained. But the firing could not be linked to their union activity.

What if we felt like saying a lot of anti-union stuff to our workers? Lotito introduced a segment called "You Can Say It." Could we tell our workers, for instance, that a union had held strike at a nearby facility only to find that all the strikers had been replaced--and that the same could happen to the employees here? Sure, said Lotito. "It's lawful." He added, "What happens if this statement is a lie? They didn't have another strike, there were no replacements? It's still lawful: The labor board doesn't really care if people are lying."

But if everything failed, and we found ourselves negotiating with a newly formed union, then we still shouldn't lose heart. Instead, we could continue to undermine the union by rejecting all of its demands during negotiations. (In fact, in about a third of the cases after a union victory, employers don't even agree to a contract.) The trick was in how to word refusals. First, with a shout, Stief demonstrated what not to say in response to a demand for increased wages: "I'm not listening to no stinkin' wage increases!" He resumed his normal voice: "Does that sound like good faith? No." Then Stieff showed us the proper alternative: "I'm not inclined to agree to that proposal at this time." He observed. "Does that sound like good faith? Yes, but I'm saying the same thing I did before." The lesson? "You can say no to anything."

If such examples were intended to sell us on the idea of hiring legal experts, the irony is that Jackson Lewis has advised companies that have sometimes gotten into serious legal trouble. In the case of EnerSys, a South Carolina battery plant that retained Jackson Lewis at a cost of $2.7 million to thwart unionization, things got so bad that the NLRB eventually filed a complaint against EnerSys, accusing it of 120 violations of labor law, leading to a $7.75 million settlement with federal officials. EnerSys, for its part, would subsequently sue Jackson Lewis for engaging in what it termed "a relentless and unlawful campaign to oust the union." (EnerSys was apparently astonished to learn that the union-busting firm they'd hired had engaged in union-busting.) Jackson Lewis forcefully denied that it advised or engaged in wrongdoing. The case was recently settled under confidential terms.

At your service

I had learned much in our two days together, but for those of us who'd become attached to our new friends at Jackson Lewis, we could take solace in an additional half-hour of free phone consultation. I called Michael Stief to ask him how to get rid of possible union sympathizers. I explained my concern about the "master contract" the SEIU local had arranged with its residential buildings for $18-per-hour porter salaries.

Stief assured me that the solution was essentially more Stief, or at least more Jackson Lewis, noting the New York branch's expertise in challenging SEIU there. "That's why you need us," he said. "You're not a mammoth company and you can't afford a contract like that. The implications of that are not good for anybody." What did he mean? "Between us, if you're telling me that if you had to live under the master agreement, you'd be out of business and they'd be out of work--that's what I mean," he said. He added with a laugh, "There's a legal way to say that."

That's where Jackson Lewis would come in. "Jackson Lewis was founded on the concept of preventive labor relations, and we want to help our clients before there's full-blown organizing," Stief told me. "We are a full-service law firm," he stressed. "We just don't do the legal stuff--we handle the campaign."

I said I'd think about it.