Article — From the July 2009 issue

Labor’s Last Stand

The corporate campaign to kill the Employee Free Choice Act

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Leading the fight against EFCA has been an organization called Coalition for a Democratic Workplace (CDW), an ad-hoc group formed in cooperation with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Buoyed by funding from hundreds of companies and trade associations, CDW and its allies have spent tens of millions of dollars on TV and radio advertisements, worked the right-wing talk-radio circuit, and paid for “independent” studies to be trotted out in congressional hearings.

Technically, CDW was created in 2007, but its true origins date to several years earlier; and its effective birthplace, as with so many conservative efforts in Washington, was the offices of Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. As early as the fall of 2005, Norquist’s group began discussing the danger EFCA posed during the monthly meetings of its First Friday Labor Reform Working Group. On November 16, 2006, eight lobbyists — all representing organizations that had taken part in the First Friday meetings and that would become key actors in CDW — signed an anti-EFCA letter on U.S. Chamber of Commerce letterhead and sent it to Congress. The lobbyists included Bruce Josten of the Chamber, John Gay of the National Restaurant Association, and Robert Green of the National Retail Federation Association. Other early advocates of the anti-EFCA campaign included the Retail Industry Leaders Association, the International Council of Shopping Centers, and the Food Marketing Institute — in all of which associations Walmart looms large as a donor and political force.

On an institutional level, the prime movers against EFCA have been CDW and dozens of other nonprofit advocacy groups. Norquist’s group opposes EFCA through its Alliance for Worker Freedom, a special project that opposes “overregulation of the marketplace” and other “atrocities.” Another key group, SOS BALLOT, which seeks to stop card-check at the state level by amending state constitutions, is headquartered at a Las Vegas mail drop; its sole officer is one Charles Hurth, a frequent cat’s-paw for right-wing corporate efforts.In 2004, Hurth helped set up Choices for America, a secretive G.O.P. effort to get Ralph Nader on the presidential ballot in key states so that Republicans would have an electoral advantage. More infamously, Hurth was also successfully sued by, and in 1990 forced to pay $27,500 in damages to, a woman whose buttocks he bit in a St. Louis bar.Yet another group is the Employee Freedom Action Committee, created by Richard Berman, a prominent lobbyist for the food and restaurant industry.

In terms of personnel, the fighters in the anti-EFCA crusade are approximately two dozen lobbyists and consultants, most of them Republicans, some of whom are married to each other, many of whom have shared the same jobs in government and at the trade associations. A number are former G.O.P. staffers from Capitol Hill, such as Doug Loon, regional director of the U.S. Chamber in the Midwest and a onetime aide to Specter, and Breana Teubner, who once worked for Congressman Jeff Flake and now lobbies for Walmart. Next come those who are politically connected through blood and the campaign trail, such as Katherine LugarHer husband, David Lugar, lobbies for the Chamber of Congress and Tyson Foods; her father-in-law is Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana.of the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and Todd Harris, a former Jeb Bush and John McCain aide who crafted CDW’s lobbying and media strategy at the public-relations firm Navigators Global. A number of central figures are veterans of Elaine Chao’s Labor Department: besides Glenn Spencer, these include Marlene Colucci, of the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AH&LA), and Geoffrey Burr, a lobbyist for Associated Builders and Contractors. (Burr’s wife, Danielle, works for Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl, a strident EFCA opponent.)

But with Republicans now a diminished presence in government, the anti-EFCA lobby desperately needs Democrats to block the bill. “Coalition members are also thinking ahead,” Colucci wrote last December about a CDW Steering Committee meeting. “We have scheduled meetings with some of the more conservative Democrats who recognize the threat card check poses to the health of the American economy.” To win over the majority party, anti-EFCA advocates have spent heavily to buy Democratic lobbying power. Key acquisitions include Jonathan Hoganson, Rahm Emanuel’s former legislative director, who represents RILA and Walmart for the firm of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti; Tony Podesta, brother to John, whose firm represents Walmart and whose lobbyists include a former top aide to Senator Pryor; Tony Podesta’s wife, Heather, whose firm represents The Home Depot; and The Alpine Group, which also represents The Home Depot, using a team that includes a former legislative aide to Senator Lincoln.

The amount of money being spent by this coalition is anyone’s guess. Public records show that during the last quarter of 2008, there were at least 126 registered lobbyists working against EFCA on behalf of companies and trade groups. And countless more nonprofit groups, which aren’t required to register, are also lobbying against the bill. For example, Employee Freedom Action Committee — the group run by Richard Berman, the food and restaurant lobbyist — shares office space and staff with the Center for Union Facts, which in addition to its own advocacy against EFCA also gathers “information about the size, scope, political activities, and criminal activity of the labor movement.” Berman and Company, a for-profit management firm of which Berman is sole owner and president, runs both groups, as well as at least another ten interlocking corporate front groups. Berman himself holds no fewer than thirteen positions within these various entities.

Berman is required to publicly disclose virtually no financial information about his company and very little specific data about his nonprofits. The Center’s 2007 IRS tax return, the last currently available, shows that it took in $2.5 million that year, almost entirely from unnamed donors, including one who put up $1.2 million. About half of the group’s money was spent on an anti-union print and online ad campaign, and $840,000 went to Berman and Company for “management” services. (The Center rails against highly paid union officials, listing on its website the annual salaries of top officials at the AFL-CIO. But as of 2006, the last year listed, the federation’s three highest-paid employees made about $680,000 combined, well less than what Berman’s company takes to manage only the Center for Union Facts.)

In addition to all this money for Washington lobbying and consulting, prodigious sums are also being spent on advertising and other, more shadowy activities. The website of the AH&LA says it is seeking to raise “a minimum of $30 million” for the CDW’s coffers to pay “for a ‘surround sound’ campaign targeting swing voters in key states.” The Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs, a CDW spin-off, has the specific purpose of providing academic “research” to counter EFCA; it funded a March 2009 study titled “An Empirical Assessment of the Employee Free Choice Act: The Economic Implications,” which was written by Anne Layne-Farrar, an economist at a corporate consulting firm, and predicted dire consequences if the bill was passed. (A Fox News Special Report highlighted Layne-Farrar’s Senate appearance — as did a number of other outlets, none of which mentioned the source of her funding — quoting her as saying that passage “would result in an increase in the unemployment rate of around 11/2 to 3 percentage points.”)

Ken Silverstein is the Washington editor of Harper's Magazine.

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