Only Washington-area viewers got to see it, but a $150,000 Super Bowl ad broadcast Sunday night threw an unexpected spotlight on a push by Capitol Hill Republicans to rewrite labor rules to weaken the power of union officials over individual workers.
The Employee Rights Act, introduced last August by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina, both Republicans, was broadcast amid the top-dollar ads for cars, beer and Internet domain companies.
The bill would require workers to reaffirm the continued existence of their unions with new votes every three years. It also would place limits on strikes, how quickly a union can organize a work site, and how membership fees may be used to support political candidates. It has yet to receive a committee hearing in either chamber.
"The reaction has been great," said Rick Berman, founder of the Center for Union Facts, the conservative lobbying group that sponsored the Super Bowl ad. "This is a campaign to educate people about what's wrong with labor law in this country."
But union officials and labor sympathizers condemned the advertisement. Think Progress, a liberal think tank, called the advertisement "incredibly misleading."
AFL-CIO spokesman Josh Goldstein called the Employee Rights Act a "union-busting" bill, but said the labor movement has not taken out any advertisements against it so far.
"Their core objective is to silence the voice of working people on the job," Mr. Goldstein said. "I think it's a tactic by the corporate interests to bust the unions."
The Center for Union Facts bought time for a Super Bowl package that included a third-quarter commercial and a couple of pre-game spots. It aired the same spot that ran nationally on Fox News Channel during the South Carolina presidential primary debate for $100,000. Both are part of a $10 million campaign to draw attention to the bill.
The in-game spot featured a group of auto-shop workers complaining about union dues and questioning each other about why they joined the union. The workers realize that none of them had voted to join the union - except perhaps for "Harold," the shop's least-competent worker.
The narrator notes near the end: "Only 10 percent of people in unions today actually voted to join the union," citing that as "Reason No. 2" to support the Employee Rights Act.
Ad critics said the ad was misleading because in case such as autoworkers and coal miners, virtually none of the current workers were there when the first vote to "join" the union was taken decades ago.
The television commercial broke new ground and could lead to more congressional bills being featured in future Super Bowls, according to Scott Watkins, senior consultant with Anderson Economic Group, a consulting firm based in East Lansing, Mich.
"It certainly gets attention for the issue and lets people know it's something of importance," he said. "You can shine the light on the issue and make people aware of it. It certainly gets it on the radar."
The strategy is being tested in the nation's capital and, if successful, could spread to other bills and other markets.
"It's a relatively new strategy," Mr. Watkins explained. "It's more effective and more possible now because of social media and the Internet. That allows people to immediately get more information."
While it might be uncommon to see a political advertisement during the Super Bowl, this isn't the first time it has happened. Michigan GOP senatorial candidate Pete Hoekstra bought time on local stations Sunday for his own ad sharply attacking Democratic incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
Supporters of the union bill say its purpose is not so much to aid management as it is to give individual workers the right to make choices on whether to join and support the union at their company.
"There's not a single provision in this bill that will empower employers at the expense of the union," Mr. Hatch said. "The only parties whose position will be improved by the Employee Rights Act are employees."
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