Can the Unions Beat Dr. Evil and Corporate Shills In the Ad and Lobbying Wars?

Art Levine

The union movement is launching its own $3 million ad campaign today with a positive message about the need for unions and the Employee Free Choice Act. But will such ads and major grass-roots lobbying campaigns by union organizations, including the AFL-CIO and SEIU, be enough to overcome the intensive corporate PR and lobbying war against union rights? Here's a sample ad about the change in living standards that a level playing field for unions can bring: You can learn more about the campaign here. But as I noted in a new Huffington Post piece: The union movement is also facing a savvy, if deceptive, PR and ad blitz against the Employee Free Choice Act led in part by Richard Berman, a Washington attorney also known as "Dr. Evil," whose specialty is organizing front groups that attack proposed corporate reforms and public interest organizations, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Richard Berman, though, sees his role as simply telling hard truths liberal interest groups want to ignore and serving as an attorney just doing his job. In an exclusive interview, he says, "You can either say I'm a shill -- or an attorney who is representing my clients' interests, depending on how you want to characterize it." And he relishes the "Dr. Evil" nickname, originally coined by his friends: "It helps my businesses and distinguishes me from others who aren't as effective." Now, though, Berman is facing his own hard-line attack, courtesy of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which created a website called He's hardly alone in his role as a tool of corporations seeking to undermine workers' rights, but he's become a lightning rod for criticism because of his high-profile media campaigns. CREW's press release didn't pull its punches in unveiling the new information-packed resource: For years, Berman has been a front man for business and industry in campaigns against consumer safety and health promotion groups. Through his public relations firm, Berman and Company, Berman has fought unions, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and other watchdog groups in their efforts to raise awareness about childhood obesity, the minimum wage, the dangers of smoking, mad cow disease, drunk driving, and other issues. Berman runs at least 15 industry-funded front groups and projects, such as the Center for Union Facts (CUF)… Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, said today, "Richard Berman has become wealthy by deceiving the public through scare tactics, sleazy ads, and bogus websites. lists in one place Berman's pay-for play activities, and demonstrates that his real expertise is making money. Before one more story is published citing Berman as a credible expert, we encourage journalists and consumers to take a look at to better understand Richard Berman's number one goal: to be the best snake-oil salesman ever." The main line of attack against the Employee Free Choice Act is a Big Lie: that the new law would take away the secret ballot for workers. The ads supported by a variety of front groups, including the Center for Union Facts and the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, flatly claim that the new Employee Free Choice Act amendment to current law takes away the secret ballot. But when interviewed, Berman and other spokespeople offer some weasel wording: they say the bill "effectively" takes away the right to a secret ballot, invoking the myth of union intimidation. But the law explicitly retains the right to ask for a secret-ballot election, with as little as 30 percent of workers needed to ask for an election. So, will truth, justice and the American Way (including 78% public support for the bill) be enough to beat back Dr. Evil and his ilk in the upcoming battle over the legislation in Congress? Tune in here for more political developments in the weeks ahead, but so far, the signs are positive that the votes will be there.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
Brandon Johnson
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