- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rick Berman has a black baseball cap with the words “Dr. Evil” in his K Street office.

His critics may find it a fitting nickname for the former corporate lobbyist, who has ties to the tobacco and alcohol industries. Labor leaders sent it to him in jest, but he embraces the label.

“I take that as a compliment that they’re so upset,” Mr. Berman said. “Consider the source. If the unions call you ‘Dr. Evil,’ you’re probably doing something right.”

Mr. Berman, never afraid of controversy, is turning his sights to a public-affairs fight with Big Labor that would loosen the grip of unions in the workplace.

The Center for Union Facts, which he founded in 2006, is running a $10 million advertising campaign in support of the Employee Rights Act. The bill, introduced by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, and Rep. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, would make it easier for employees to disband their own unions while restricting the unions’ powers to organize, strike and provide political contributions.

The issue could reach a boiling point soon, with Mr. Berman front and center.

“What’s important for people to know is who this messenger is,” AFL-CIO spokesman Josh Goldstein told The Washington Times. “Look at some of the things he does. This is the same guy who told the American public that smoking cigarettes doesn’t cause cancer, that sitting in tanning beds doesn’t lead to melanoma. And now he expects us to believe anything he says attacking the rights of workers? What he’s doing with the Center for Union Facts is more of the same.”

Mr. Berman has heard it all.

“They can’t do anything better than come up with schoolyard name-calling,” he said.

Past is present

The labor movement continues to focus the spotlight on Mr. Berman’s record. The AFL-CIO has called him a “frontman” for the tobacco and alcohol industries, although Mr. Berman argues that those claims are exaggerated.

He explained that he pushed for restaurants to be allowed to have separate smoking sections, but he never promoted tobacco. He also said he is trying to protect social drinkers who drive from being labeled as drunken drivers.

What the labor movement forgets, in Mr. Berman’s view: “There’s a bunch of people in unions who smoke, and there’s a bunch of people in unions who drink.”

In many ways, Mr. Berman’s reputation is overshadowing the Employee Rights Act, but he is trying to turn the focus back onto the provisions of the bill.

According to the Center for Union Facts, less than 10 percent of current union members vote to organize. Most join an established union as a condition of employment. Mr. Berman wants to put their loyalty to the test.

“The only way to correct that situation is to have a regular vote,” he said.

The Employee Rights Act would require workers to reauthorize their unions every three years. With a vote, they could move forward with the union, disband it or form a new one.

“If a congressman has to stand for re-election every two years and the president every four years, why should the unions be basically given lifetime status in that workforce?” Mr. Berman asked.

The labor community fears this is merely a “tactic to bust the union up.”

“It has nothing to do with the right to vote or not vote,” Mr. Goldstein said. “It has everything to do with giving the employer the opportunity to bust the union.

“He’s not for people having a right to vote on the union,” Mr. Goldstein added. “He’s for corporations being able to kick out the union and block the union from ever getting in.”

Uphill battle

Another provision of the Employee Rights Act would require a minimum of 40 days between the time a petition is filed and a vote is taken in cases where nonunion workplaces want to organize.

The business community argues that employees need more time to hear from unions and employers before they decide. Unions call it a “delay tactic.”

“This is one of the employers’ strongest anti-union tactics,” Mr. Goldstein said. “The longer they can draw out the process, the more time they have to negatively influence and intimidate their workers.”

The Employee Rights Act has several other notable provisions. The bill would limit strikes by requiring a majority of union members to approve the action. Unions would be required to receive written consent from each member before donating portions of their membership fees to political candidates. The penalties also would be updated, so unions that violate labor laws are held to the same disciplinary measures as businesses.

Mr. Berman knows he is facing an uphill battle. The Employee Rights Act is a long shot to get passed in an election year with this Congress, and if the bill makes it to the White House, it is unlikely that President Obama would sign it into law.

But Mr. Berman has bigger plans.

He wants the campaign to be a catalyst for change in the cultural mindset toward the labor movement in America. If it ruffles a few union feathers in the process, so be it.

“There’s an old rule that if they’re not complaining about you,” he said, “you’re probably not doing anything meaningful.”

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