02/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ad Wars: Dr. Evil vs. Unions Over Employee Free Choice Act

The pro-union American Rights at Work launches Thursday a new $3 million ad campaign promoting the right to organize unions and the Employee Free Choice Act. But it's also facing a savvy, if deceptive, PR and ad blitz against the Employee Free Choice Act led in part by Richard Berman, a Washington attorney also known as "Dr. Evil," whose specialty is organizing front groups that attack proposed corporate reforms and public interest organizations, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Richard Berman, though, sees his role as simply telling hard truths liberal interest groups want to ignore and serving as an attorney just doing his job. In an exclusive interview, he says, "You can either say I'm a shill -- or an attorney who is representing my clients' interests, depending on how you want to characterize it." And he relishes the "Dr. Evil" nickname, originally coined by his friends: "It helps my businesses and distinguishes me from others who aren't as effective."

As for his 501-c-3 tax-exempt organization, he's not required to disclose his donors -- and he doesn't, although the New York Times has reported that state Chambers of Commerce are among those backing his Center for Union Facts. He refers to it as having a "very small budget," but also says it spent about $20 million on ads and other initiatives last year. He's defeated, so far, efforts by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) to have the Center for Union Facts and another one of his anti-regulation groups' tax-exempt status revoked. The real reason he's faced such criticism from unions and progressives, he insists: "Unions are desperate for changes because they can't win fairly."

(That's a claim easily disputed by evidence of unionbusting and corporate abuses of the federal union election system. But he dismisses as essentially worthless and biased the huge body of evidence regarding widespread corporate intimidation and abuses during organizing campaigns under the current toothless system, with as many as one in five of union organizers or activists fired during organizing drives. As my "Unionbusting Confidential" piece showed in In These Times, employers often justify such firings for other reasons.)

His sympathies for such unionbusting were illustrated by his apparent work on behalf of Smithfield Foods, the unionbusting company cited for illegal actions. As CREW reported about the Center for Union Facts: "Coinciding with a notorious anti-union campaign by Smithfield Foods, CUF ran a website called 'UFCW Exposed,' smearing the union organizing at Smithfield. Berman was retained by Smithfield Foods, and CUF pays Berman and Co. for 'management services,' according to The Hampton Roads Business Journal."

But now Berman is facing a taste of his own medicine, with in-your-face criticism on a new website put together by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) called He's hardly alone in his role as a tool of corporations seeking to undermine workers' rights, but he's become a lightning rod for criticism because of his high-profile media campaigns. CREW's press release didn't pull its punches in unveiling the new information-packed resource:

For years, Berman has been a front man for business and industry in campaigns against consumer safety and health promotion groups. Through his public relations firm, Berman and Company, Berman has fought unions, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and other watchdog groups in their efforts to raise awareness about childhood obesity, the minimum wage, the dangers of smoking, mad cow disease, drunk driving, and other issues. Berman runs at least 15 industry-funded front groups and projects, such as the Center for Union Facts (CUF)...

Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, said today, "Richard Berman has become wealthy by deceiving the public through scare tactics, sleazy ads, and bogus websites. lists in one place Berman's pay-for play activities, and demonstrates that his real expertise is making money.

Before one more story is published citing Berman as a credible expert, we encourage journalists and consumers to take a look at to better understand Richard Berman's number one goal: to be the best snake-oil salesman ever."

Berman discounts the charges as "old news," especially claims that some of his groups' tax-exempt status should be revoked, and he says he's facing new attacks just because "we've gotten aggressive."

The ads supported by a variety of front groups, including the Center for Union Facts and the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, flatly claim that the new Employee Free Choice Act amendment to current law takes away the secret ballot. But when interviewed, Berman and other spokespeople offer some weasel wording: they say the bill "effectively" takes away the right to a secret ballot, invoking the myth of union intimidation. But the law explicitly retains the right to ask for a secret-ballot election, with as little as 30 percent of workers needed to ask for an election.

The new pro-union ads show what's really at stake here. Take a look:

As one ad says, featuring workers looking for change in their standard of living and protection at work:

"I hope to have some health care ... for a change," says the first worker.

"I hope to work just one job ... for a change," says another.

"I hope to be able to save a little ... for a change," says a third.

"We voted on Election Day for hope and change. Now it's time for action. The Employee Free Choice Act lets workers choose to join a union to earn better pay, health benefits and job security," the ad concludes.

What remains to be seen is whether these upbeat ads, plus new polling showing 78 percent of the public favoring the Employee Free Choice Act, overwhelming Congressional support and a new pro-union administration, can help overcome the smears and intensive lobbying orchestrated by corporate flacks like Dr. Evil, Richard Berman. So far, it looks like the votes will be there.

Art Levine co-hosts the 'D"Antoni and Levine" Web radio show every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET. This week's guest is Salameh Nematt, the international editor of The Daily Beast, talking about what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will face in the crisis in Gaza and the Mideast and other issues.