August 15, 2008 Volume 109 Number 16

Anti-union ads target Congressional candidates

A well-funded anti-union group continues to target U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Merkley because of his strong ties to the union movement and his support for labor’s top priority in Congress, the Employee Free Choice Act.

The group, the Employee Freedom Action Committee, has begun running anti-Merkley ads on Portland area television stations, and dogging the candidate at campaign events around the state with a costumed “Grim Reaper,” holding a placard warning of the death of democracy. Employee Freedom Action Committee and a related group, Center for Union Facts, were set up by corporate lobbyist Rick Berman, whose trademark is setting up deceptively named front groups.

“These people make absolutely no sense,” said Merkley spokesperson Matt Canter. “By giving workers the right to organize and enabling better paying jobs with better benefits, we are strengthening America’s democracy,” Canter said, not “killing” it.

The Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier for nonunion workers to join a union and get a first union contract, and would penalize employers who surveil, interrogate, discipline or terminate employees for supporting a union drive.

Business opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act have tried to discredit the bill by focusing on one aspect — it would replace the current process of workplace elections with a method for automatic union recognition once the majority of workers sign cards in support of union representation. Thus the Employee Freedom Action Committee says the bill would “strip workers of their right to a government-supervised private ballot vote.”

The group attacked Merkley in May with print ads in several of the state’s largest newspapers. In July and August it was back with a television ad.

“Some union bosses and their politician friends want to effectively do away with privacy when it comes to voting on joining a union,” says a voiceover accompanied by ominous music and images. “Employees could be exposed to intimidation at work and at home. So contact Jeff Merkley and ask him this one simple question: Shouldn’t your vote still be private?”

Berman’s groups have run print and television ads bashing unions for several years, but only this year did they begin to run candidate-specific ads targeting states that have competitive congressional races. The ads have run in eight states, in each case against Democratic congressional candidates who support the Employee Free Choice Act.

One ad, which aired in Maine and Minnesota, uses actor Vince Curatola, who played “Johnny Sack” in the HBO series The Sopranos. Playing to the union-Mafia stereotype, Curatola replaces a candidate who supports “the secret ballot for union elections” with one who doesn’t. “Problem solved,” says Curatola in the ad. Those ads are run by a related group calling itself the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace.

Berman’s groups don’t disclose their supporters, but the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace does — giving a glimpse at who will be lining up to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act when it comes up again. The group’s Web site lists 488 groups in support: industry associations, state and local chambers of commerce, and chapters of Associated Builders & Contractors, an open shop contractors organization.

In Oregon, besides the TV ads, Merkley has been hounded at his campaign events by a tall “Grim Reaper” wearing the scary mask from the movie The Scream. “Death,” accompanied by a man with a video camera, carries a picket sign bearing a Merkley campaign logo and slogans like “Merkley kills democracy.” The encounters then show up on a Web site that describes itself as the joint blog of the Employee Freedom Action Committee and the Center for Union Facts.

They know where to find Merkley because he’s been campaigning in a “100 Towns for Change” tour, announcing his events in advance. Merkley’s opponent, incumbent U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, has not been similarly accessible.

Publicly, Berman and his groups’ spokesperson Tim Miller have maintained that they are neither pro- nor anti- union, just concerned that workers’ rights be protected. But that was contradicted by the late July discovery of court documents that show Berman was a key adviser to Smithfield Foods, a North Carolina pork processor that has waged a decade-long battle against a union campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers.

On July 31, the independent union-supported group American Rights at Work posted documents on its Web site which showed that Berman did work for Smithfield, and was offered a high-priced retainer through his for-profit firm, Berman and Company. Berman was able to get the court to seal the documents, and threatened American Rights at Work with legal action if they didn’t remove them from their site. They took the documents off, but a section detailing what is known about Berman and his groups remains on the site,

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