Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Art Levine Headshot

Union Allies Fight Back Against GOP "Meltdown Lobby" With IRS Complaint, Grass-Roots Campaigns

Posted: Updated:

Republican leaders and their conservative big business allies, including the Chamber of Commerce, have gone after workers' rights with a new set of misleading attacks targeting the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act.

There's no legislative gambit, brazen lie, propaganda campaign or skewed data -- all in the service of legal and illegal unionbusting --they're not willing to try out. This week, these include proposed new legislation promoting the Big Lie that it takes away the secret ballot; a Newt Gingrich-led PR campaign (complete with a free Wii); and spurious "reports" targeting the proposed law seeking to create a level playing field for workers.

The union movement's leaders and allies have fought back on a few fronts in the last 48 hours. Leaders of a group of 39 of the nation's top economists released a high-profile statement on why protecting union rights is so vital to restoring the middle-class --and then found their pro-union views welcomed at a meeting with top members of the President's economic team. Union activists sent out a mass emailing to millions of supporters in the AFL-CIO-allied Working Families organization, urging donations to combat the anti-union ad propaganda blitz. And they brought an aggressive complaint to the IRS against non-profit corporate front groups led by Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus and anti-union flack Rick Berman (a/k/a "Dr. Evil") for allegedly illegally soliciting donations for political candidates opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act.

That conference call was organized by Bank of America that got billions in taxpayer bailout funds while lobbying against workers' rights to organize.

The leaders of the two biggest union organizations -- the AFL-CIO and Change to Win -- didn't pull their punches:

"Bernie Marcus and Rick Berman are no-holds-barred leaders of a network of people and organizations that despise worker rights and unions," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "Now, they are violating their organizations' tax-exempt status through partisan political appeals. We call on the IRS to call them to account."

Change to Win Chair Anna Burger said, "America's working families voted for change in November because of greedy corporate CEOS who will do and say almost anything to deny workers a fair share of the profits created by their hard work. We filed this complaint with the IRS to stop Marcus and Berman from violating the law in their campaign against workers and their families."

(The complaint to the IRS, though, is hardly guaranteed to succeed, given all the loopholes in campaign fund-raising laws. Berman has told The Huffington Post's Sam Stein, who broke the original story, that there was nothing illegal or improper about the call since, he said, "there was nothing on that call that spoke to funneling money to anybody." Marcus wasn't available for comment, Stein also reported in his story on the IRS complaint yesterday.)

More important than any such legal strategy is organizing to tell the worker's side of the story. Marc Laitin, the AFL-CIO online organizer, reached out to the over two million members of Working America, a pro-worker organization that also enables those who may be blocked from joining unions to still support progressive labor causes. In a toughly worded email, he wrote:

Corporate America is in an absolute anti-worker, anti-union frenzy about the prospects of the Employee Free Choice Act. And corporate front groups are spending millions -- spewing lies and distortions to block workers' freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life.

We need your help to counter their ads with truth - and we need it now.

Help us raise $50,000 online by this Friday to tell the truth about the Employee Free Choice Act on television and radio, in newspapers and online. Please donate now....

With a pro-worker president, Congress and secretary of labor in place, big corporations are panicked that their stranglehold on workers who want to bargain for better benefits, fair wages and working conditions will be broken. They've likened the Employee Free Choice Act to "Armageddon," claimed it will lead to "the end of civilization as we know it" and even blamed the bill for declining sales of Girl Scouts cookies.

Sound desperate? They are.

So desperate they're spending some $20 million [ apparent typo: it's closer to $200 million] to block the Employee Free Choice Act. To keep them from gaining the upper hand, we must get on the air and stay on the air in March -- meaning we need your help today.

These anti-union forces include not just corporate front groups but an array of GOP politicians, business lobbyists and smooth-talking "Republican strategists" eager to echo union-bashing falsehoods and talking points -- and an all-too-willing media blindly accepting their spin. Yet these corporate mouthpieces at least deserve credit for their sheer chutzpah and shamelessness. Their talking points are straight from the George Orwell playbook -- all taken from some Bizarro World where unions take away rights, and workers' pay and living standards have improved in the last decade under the pro-business, laissez-faire policies championed by big business, Republicans, and the Bush Administration.

In short, we're now supposed to listen to the same folks who brought you the tax giveaways to the rich, financial deregulation and weakened unions that helped cause a worldwide collapse of the economy. These same zealots who make up what might be dubbed the "Meltdown Lobby" have now made defeating workers' rights to organize a rallying cry in their fight against Obama's plans to revive the economy they destroyed. As Bernie Horn, a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, summed up the GOP's $7 Trillion Trifecta of Disaster:

It's no secret why Republicans are unpopular: Their policies led to domestic and foreign disasters. They turned a $200 billion budget surplus into a $1 trillion deficit. They caused the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. They started the stupidest, most unnecessary war in American history.

And now, when our nation desperately needs strong measures to prevent a recession from sliding into depression, what do they do? They almost unanimously vote against jobs, against rebuilding America, and against the biggest middle-class tax cut in American history. In the process, they voted to replace the whole Obama economic recovery plan with tax breaks for the rich.

It's no wonder that workers, responsible political leaders and voters are looking for major changes in the way our economy and government runs. "We've seen that a weak-union, high inequality, deregulation economy doesn't produce growth, it produces disaster, and we need to do something different. Trusting the Wall Street guys didn't work," as Harvard economist Richard Freeman said in a briefing Wednesday to Hill staffers. He is part of a group of 39 leading economists organized by the Economic Policy Institute that unveiled an ad Wednesday in The Washington Post calling for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. Some key reasons: the need to strengthen workers' organizing rights so they can bargain for higher wages that can help revive the economy, and to remedy the imbalance of power and wages in the workplace that have let corporations run amok. As EPI summarized the issue in a snapshot headline:

Labor law reform key to economic recovery

Thirty-nine prominent economists, including two Nobel laureates, have signed onto an EPI-sponsored statement in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act. Citing growing income inequality and workers' need for more bargaining power to counter national and global trends, they said the labor law reform is essential for rebuilding a solid middle class.

In fact, in interviews and in their briefings, Richard Freeman and the other top economists also emphasized how unions can serve as a vital bulwark in the workplace against the untrammeled corporate power and greed that have brought the economy to its knees. Freeman told this reporter, "We can't run the economy the way we have, period." He should know: he is one of the world's foremost labor economists and the director of the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research's labor studies program.

He emphasized that by empowering workers and unions now we don't have to wait for the wholesale transformation of the greed-oriented corporate culture and lax federal oversight that President Obama wants to reform: "It doesn't require that business guys turn from people who are cheating and lying into decent citizens, and doesn't imply that government regulators are suddenly going to become incredibly effective. Instead, we've got an organization [a union] that provides some balance within the company. And as the union raises wages, and shifts some of the money from managers to workers, the incentive for that greed culture is going to get less."

To illustrate a corrupt chief executive's point of view, he says, "If I can grab for myself $100 million, I'm going to break a lot of rules, cooking the books a bit." He says, though, that unions could be a force to challenge such illegalities and inequality, in part because they can look at a company's books during negotiations: "But [then] I can only grab $10 million because the unions have negotiated the other $90 million I might have grabbed. The unions can stand up." In sum, unions can force employers to invest in their workers and the long-term good of the company, rather than the short-term personal gain promoted by the current union-free, deregulatory enviroment. (Union members make up only eight percent of the private workforce.)

Fortunately, Freeman and the director of the Economic Policy Institute, Lawrence Mishel, met Wednesday with members of the President's economic team, including top adviser Lawrence Summers. The labor economists made their case for the economic value of unions and the Employee Free Choice Act to experts in an an administration headed by a President who co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act -- and who said recently, "You cannot build a strong middle-class without a strong labor movement." Mishel says his views were well-received: "They were knowledgeable and very supportive of the President's position. You got zero sense of backtracking and zero sense that the economists were in disagreement with the President's policies [on labor]. They understand and agree that rebuilding unions will help rebuild the middle-class."

Indeed, there's overwhelming evidence that workers wages have been largely stagnant since union membership has plummeted since the early 1970s. Between 2000 and 2007, the Economic Policy Institute statement notes, the income of the median working-age household fell by $2,000 -- an unprecedented decline. One of the most shocking statistics revealed this week by EPI was that high-school-educated workers who had jobs with health insurance plummeted to about a third today from two-thirds in 1979 -- a clear sign of just how much workers' bargaining power has eroded. And college-educated workers with such jobs have also fallen significantly, but still just over 70%.

Moreover, except for a burst of prosperity in the Clinton era, wages haven't kept up with the productivity workers have generated, while the wealth of the country has increasingly been concentrated in the wealthiest 1% of the country. They doubled their share of the country's wealth since 1979 and added a whopping $1.3 million per household in income. "That's not a coincidence," Freeman pointed out, noting the GOP-led taxation, anti-union and deregulatory policies that made this shift -- or stealing -- of wealth possible.

In fact, the Center for American Progress has reported, if union representation levels today were just at the same levels as they were in the early 1980s (about 23%), it would add $49 billion in wages and benefits to American workers.

What's corporate America's response? "Unions? We don't need no stinkin' unions!"

That, at least, appears to be the view of corporate flacks and lobbying groups. The HR Policy Association has somehow cherry-picked its way through government income data to conclude, in the face of real-world experience and reputable research: "Government data doesn't support the conclusion that strong unions mean a strong middle class." The EPI-affiliated economists explode the statistical sophistry at work in a new paper of their own:

The HR Policy Association, a trade group that represents large corporations and is opposed to the Free Choice Act, is attempting to cast doubt on our reasoning by, remarkably, arguing that working families have actually done well in recent years.

The group uses alternative measures in an attempt to show a slight increase in household income during the 2000-07 period--a case of damning the period with faint praise. Ultimately, the response fails to show that working families have done well since 2000...

We economists chose to highlight the decline of income for working-age households, because that is the measure most directly tied to labor markets, wage growth, and so on. And here, the evidence is indisputable. Such households lost $2,176 from 2000 to 2007 or $311 each year. By another measure--all households including the elderly--the total lost was $324. No matter how you cut it, America's population has not fared well in recent years and has definitely not gained in proportion to the growth of productivity for a very long time.

Even so, in Parade magazine last Sunday, Mike Eastman with the Chamber of Commerce, claimed in an article called "Does America Still Need Unions?" that they're no longer needed. "The workplace is much better today," he says. "Employers know they need to offer certain benefits and good wages to keep good workers."

In an angry retort, one progressive blogger, Joe Sudbay of AmericaBlog, said:

It takes someone living in the bubble of the Chamber of Commerce to think the workplace is much better today. Compared to what? The days when there were no labor laws? The Chamber sets the policy for the Republicans on the Hill so it's no wonder all those GOP knuckleheads don't get the economic crisis.

The reality is that today's workplace sucks for many workers -- if they still even have their jobs. Unemployment is skyrocketing. Workers are not [just] losing their jobs, but their health care benefits. 401ks are tanking. But, the Chamber doesn't want workers to organize. The Chamber and the Wall Street CEOs, working hand in hand with the Bush administration and the rest of the GOP, did enormous damage to the workplace. That crowd doesn't want workers to have any kind of job security, which is exactly why workers need the ability to organize. And, unions don't just help union members. They make life better for most workers.

It's not surprising then, then, that reliable polling shows that more than half of all workers -- nearly 60 million people -- said in 2006 that they would join a union if they could. Economist Richard Freeman, who has been studying such polling for years, says, "I couldn't believe it," because he recalls when similar opinion polls were taken in the 1980s, during Reagan-era union-bashing, showing only about 35% of the public said they'd join unions if they could. But he checked with other data, and concludes that the worsening economy and status of workers, even before the latest crash, has led to a new urgency: "They need something to protect them in this economy." He adds, "This isn't for unions, it's for workers. It what they want" -- and the current "broken" labor law system doesn't protect their right to organize a union at all.

The importance of the Employee Free Choice Act is underscored this week in an American Prospect interview with Kate Bronfenbrenner, the influential Cornell labor scholar whose research has shown just how prevalent illegal and permitted intimidation has been in organizing drives (with a quarter of all companies illegaly firing at least one union supporter during an organizing campaign). She points to the special value of the Employee Free Choice Act (shortened by her to EFCA) for women:

It is important to know that the majority of new workers being organized over the last 20 years have been women and workers of color, [and] EFCA will push that forward at an escalating rate. The job growth in the economy is in sectors where women predominate. Women have a great deal to gain from unionization. Industries like health care, hospitality, and retail [are] all sectors where the union density is not high, and yet when women workers do organize, there are dramatic changes -- and not just in economic issues but in the whole way the workplace is structured.

And she has little tolerance for the costly anti-union propaganda blaming unions for factory closings and jobs losses. She observes:

McCain tried those arguments and he lost. I think that the current climate in the country is one where business is not too popular. The public has seen that deregulation and letting employers do whatever they want has hurt a lot of people. Corporate capital does not work in the interest of the public good. Letting them act without any restraint puts us where we are today. The National Labor Relations Act as it is now enforced is a poor piece of legislation. The Employee Free Choice Act is nothing more than making the law do what it was supposed to have been doing all along. [The key is to] talk to workers, talk to the public, and [help people] understand what employers do and what employers get away with and just how brutal the organizing process is. They spend millions and millions and millions of dollars that [they] could be investing in the economy; they spend to keep workers from organizing!

This week, the corporate disinformation campaign continued -- but unions and workers are continuing to fight back with perhaps something more powerful: the truth about the Employee Free Choice Act. They're giving their side of the story on the airwaves, with solid research, in the courts, and most importantly, in grass-roots campaigns. Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, has a realistic but hopeful view of what it will take to gain a level playing field for workers:

It will take a huge demand, a million and a half voices, and the largest grassroots legislative mobilization ever, to win the Employee Free Choice Act and restore balance to an economy ruined by deregulation, obscene greed, a fetish for disastrous free market economics, and 30 years of failed, now completely discredited trickle down economics.

President Obama's call for change and economic recovery, Acuff and progressive allies in such groups as the Sierra Club and the NAACP believe, can't be fully realized until workers also finally achieve in practice their long-promised right to bargain for a better standard of living with their employers.

UPDATE: Here's an example of the Orwellian double-talk that the anti-union forces have mastered, styling themselves as protectors of working rights while they've fought everything from raising the minimum wage to aiding the unemployed to allowing organizing. As I pointed out in a recent posting on the PR campaign waged against Hilda Solis and union rights:

Now, aided by conservative mastermind Newt Gingrich, the right-wing has adopted a new Orwellian theme to go after workers' rights as part of their bogus economic stimulus (i.e., tax cuts for the wealthy) plan:

"Protect the Rights of American Workers. We must protect a worker's right to decide by secret ballot whether to join a union, and the worker's right to freely negotiate. Forced unionism will kill jobs in America at a time when we can't afford to lose them."

In truth, unions are needed more than ever now because they boost wages, living standards and consumer demand. That's what 39 of the nation's top economists, including two Nobel Prize winners, say in an ad the day after the President's speech on page A7 of The Washington Post, organized by the Economic Policy Institute...

But now the right-wing and corporate interests have adopted a new anti-union talking point that is literally as absurd as those used by the fictional dictatorship in George Orwell's 1984, which proclaimed such slogans as "War Is Peace" and "Freedom Is Slavery." Gingrich's update is "Protect the Rights of American Workers." That's like saying, Orwell-style: "No Unions = More Rights for Workers." Does enhancing the right to form unions, punishing corporations that intimidate workers and allowing workers to choose the majority sign-up option -- a choice now held by employers -- actually threaten workers' rights? Of course not. As American Rights at Work advocacy group points out:

The Problem: Employers Silence Workers Who Attempt to Form Unions

Under the current labor law system, employers often use a combination of legal and illegal methods to silence employees who attempt to form unions and bargain for better wages and working conditions. When faced with organizing drives, 25 percent of employers fire at least one pro-union worker; 51 percent threaten to close a worksite if the union prevails; and, 91 percent force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with their supervisors.

Register To Vote