UnionFacts from corporate hacks?

Illustration by David Baldinger.

Little Red Riding Hood knew to stay clear of the Big Bad Wolf. To get close enough to gobble her up, the wolf had to dress up in Red’s grandmother’s clothes.

Last week, apparently taking a page from the Big Bad Wolf’s playbook, corporate America pulled overalls and hard hats over its custom-tailored suits to launch a new web site called unionfacts.com. Full-page ads in The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal evoke working-class sympathy with a photo of a padlocked factory gate. The text reads: “Brought to you by the union ‘leaders’ who helped bankrupt steel, auto and airline companies.”

But on the web site itself, the wolf reveals his pointy teeth. Detailed instructions tell how to decertify a union, including a downloadable decert form. There’s an exhaustive list of every alleged instance of union corruption in the last 30 years and details about union leaders’ salaries.

UnionFacts doesn’t stop with trying to drive a wedge between union members and their leaders. It seeks to separate them from their hard-won wages and benefits too. The site puts the blame for steel, auto and airline bankruptcies on “out of control” wages and benefits.

The executive director of the Center for Union Facts is Rick Berman, according to Allison, a bubbly receptionist who answers the phone at the organization’s Washington office. But questions about the group’s funding were “above my pay grade,” she told this reporter. Berman runs a tight ship; designated spokesperson Sarah Longwell returned a reporter’s phone call but said she wasn’t authorized to speak or be interviewed.

The New York Times reported that the cost of the ads was $240,000, and that Berman projected a $5 million annual budget for the group although he refused to name his funding sources. “Not surprising,” said Electrical Workers Union spokesperson Jim Spillane. “It’s pretty transparent who they’re working for.”

The AFL-CIO says that confidential sources have told them that Berman made a big appeal for funding at a January meeting of the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, which calls itself the world’s largest business organization, says its mission is to “fight for the interests of business and free enterprise before Congress, the White House, regulatory agencies, courts, the court of public opinion and governments around the world.”

Its goals seem to parallel those of the Center for Union Facts. Both groups are on a tear about card check campaigns that have been achieving remarkable success in signing up new union members. AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stuart Acuff says the NLRB that 80 percent of recent organizing victories come outside its card procedures. Card check bypasses the NLRB process which activists say allows employers to derail workers’ organizing attempts by intimidating and firing union supporters. Community campaigns and collective bargaining agreements have pressured employers to agree to card check and neutrality.

Legislation to make card check available to all American workers, the Employee Free Choice Act, has gained support from 210 members of the House of Representatives and 42 senators, including even some Republicans.

Card check allows for union recognition when a majority of workers sign cards saying they want a union, but UnionFacts calls the process “undemocratic.” Along the same lines, the Chamber is promoting its own legislation to outlaw union recognition via card check.

Berman, who heads a public relations firm in Washington, has a history well-documented on several public interest web sites. ConsumerDeception.com reports that Berman “runs a trio of shadowy tax-exempt food, tobacco, and beverage industry front groups: The Center for Consumer Freedom, which attacks Mothers Against Drunk Driving and anyone who criticizes smoking or drinking; the American Beverage Institute, which fights drunk driving laws; and the Employment Policy Institute, which opposed raising the minimum wage. That institute argued that such an increase would drive the poor out of the job market. Berman received nearly $3 million for his work from Philip Morris. His resume includes no stints as a union member, but employment as an attorney for Bethlehem Steel and Dana Corp., a Toledo auto parts company.

Sourcewatch.com, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, quotes Berman as saying that the way to defeat activist groups is to wage a hard counter-campaign “to de-legitimize them in the eyes of the public.”

Other actions by Berman’s new group include picketing the AFL-CIO headquarters accompanied by an inflatable dinosaur, an apparent reference to labor’s beloved inflatable rat, and a second full-page ad attack, this one targeting Unite Here as it launches its nationwide “hotel workers rising” campaign.

Will the workers buy the wolf’s tickets? IBEW’s Spillane sees the campaign as a sign of weakness. “They know that unions are becoming more effective,” he says, and reversing declines. Still, he warns, “We have to take this seriously.”