Penn's Firm Helped Company Targeted By Labor Activists

04/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

Slightly more than a month ago, as Mark Penn, Sen. Hillary Clinton's chief campaign strategist, was helping his candidate win over the labor vote, his firm was working on behalf of a company targeted by unions for what they deemed were abhorrent labor practices.

Throughout much of 2007, New Era Cap, a baseball hat manufacturer, found itself embroiled in a bitter dispute over conditions at its plants in Alabama. The Teamsters Union, as well as Students Against Sweat Shops, accused the company of firing employees who threatened to unionize, racism in its hiring practices, and poor working conditions, all of which New Era denied.

In late January and early February 2008, as the clash hit its boiling point -- the NAACP threatened to go to Major League Baseball and encourage it to drop its New Era contract -- the company brought on board Burson Marsteller, the PR firm for which Penn currently serves as worldwide CEO.

"It was mostly advise on how to help settle the issue and how to go about making sure we were getting a fair agreement," said Dana Marciniak, a spokesperson for New Era.

Within weeks of the hiring, the conflict was resolved. The Teamsters received many of its demands, including re-hiring fired workers and letting inspectors into plants, and promised "neutrality" with the company. New Era, meanwhile, still claimed victory.

What role Burson played in the negotiations is relatively unknown. Marciniak said that the firm made sure that New Era was keeping lines of communications open with all interested parties. And while she would not reveal what the company paid for the firm's services, saying they did limited work, she offered that they were happy with Burson's job.

"Going forward we might use them again," she said.

Officials with Burson, meanwhile, did not return repeated requests for comment.

In all regards it seems that New Era was small potatoes in the Burson portfolio. And yet, it joins a relatively lengthy list of controversial clients that the firm, and Penn, has represented. As documented with great detail by the Nation's Ari Berman, Burson has not, to put it lightly, been a consistent champion of progressive interests.

The firm defended Procter and Gamble's Olestra from charges that it caused anal leakage, blamed Texaco's bankruptcy on greedy jurors and market-tested genetically modified foods for Monsanto... The firm has represented everyone from the Argentine military junta to Union Carbide after the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, in which thousands were killed when toxic fumes were released by one of its plants, to Royal Dutch Shell, which has been accused of massive human rights violations in Nigeria... It set up the National Smokers Alliance on behalf of Philip Morris to fight tobacco regulation in the early 1990s. Its current clients include major players in the finance, pharmaceutical and energy industries.

In fact, many of the agendas represented by Penn's firm have put him deeply at odds with Clinton, who has championed pro-union policies like the Employee Free Choice Act, and built her re-emerging presidential candidacy on the backs of the working class vote. Explaining this divergence in the past, the Clinton campaign has insisted that nothing Penn does with his private company would rub off on the Senator's ideological tilt.

"I don't think it reflects on her at all," Howard Wolfson, Clinton's spokesman, told Berman. "Mark's work away from the campaign is Mark's work, and his campaign work is separate from that."

But with Penn's unique access to Clinton -- up until very recently he was her only pollster and aides suggest the adviser closest to her ear -- his role with Burson has taken on an increasingly scrutinized role.

"The one place where I'm slightly sympathetic, is that Burson Marsteller is such a PR conglomerate, I'm sure Penn doesn't work on it on a daily basis," said Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal. "However, it is probably difficult for any pollster or any consultant to completely separate their financial interests from the work they do every day. It is fair game to ask any politician about the interests of their hired hands, because it does say something about the government they run."

This certainly holds true if New Era were to retain Burson for future employment, as Marciniak suggested. The company has a history of labor clashes, with similar allegations of poor working standards levied in 2001. And while, this time around, the company did meet many of the Teamsters' demands, it has not completely assuaged the concerns of labor and even student activists.

"We have agreed to neutrality with the factory," said Zach Knorr, a spokesperson for Students Against Sweat Shops, which had urged colleges to drop their contracts with New Era. "But there are still a lot of problems. At the Jackson, Alabama plant worker wages are still low. We are not actively campaigning against them because they are working with teamster but we still will be keeping our eye on them."