Building Trades

Vicious, Pernicious, and Meretricious: The Center for Union Facts

January 11, 2016
By Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

New York, NY- Over the last few months, a series of newspaper ads and a Times Square billboard have pictured the 21 white men who head New York City’s main building-trades unions, denouncing them for proclaiming that 65% of their apprentices are racial minorities while their leadership is “male, pale, and stale.”

The ads, placed by the Washington-based Center for Union Facts, claim that black unionized construction workers in the city make almost $6 per hour less on average than white unionized workers. The group states that this is “likely” more due to union discrimination than to experience discrepancies. The evidence it cites for union racism, however, is a bit stale itself: a 1998 newspaper article and a 1993 New York City Commission on Human Rights study. In fact, a closer reading of the ad and the article indicates that the percentage of black, Latino, and Asian union apprentices has increased substantially since 1998, from 41% to 65%.

Either way, the Center for Union Facts is not primarily concerned with winning the best wages possible for black bricklayers and Puerto Rican plasterers. Launched in 2006, it’s one of a number of viciously antiunion front groups run by lobbyist Richard Berman, out of his offices in Washington’s K Street lobbyist district.

“I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to screw with the labor unions,” Berman said in June 2014, in a surreptitiously recorded talk to oil and gas executives at an event sponsored by the Western Energy Alliance in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Berman, a former labor lawyer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has run more than 40 nonprofit front groups with names like LaborPains and the Employment Policies Institute. They include Big Green Radicals, which insinuates that Russia is financing the U.S. environmentalist movement, and the American Beverage Institute, which accuses supporters of stiffer drunk-driving laws of being neo-Prohibitionists, but the bulk are antilabor. mocks the $15 minimum wage with an ad showing a young man lifting off his headphones to say, “What? I get $30,000 a year with no experience or skills?” The WorkerCenters site warns workers that labor organizers “have a long history of stalking and harassing employees,” and if their participation in worker-center organizing leads to a union job, they risk “being forced to pay upwards of $1,000 in annual dues to support union officials' expense account lifestyles.”

Berman and Company, his for-profit public-relations firm, is pushing the “Employee Rights Act,” a bill introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) last year. It would ban the use of card check for a bargaining unit to join a union, and require the union to win a majority of all workers affected instead of just the ones who vote. It would also require periodic elections on whether to retain the union, and forbid unions from using dues for political activities without permission in writing from the member—instead of the current practice, where workers have the right to opt out. Senate cosponsors include Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Three front groups are specifically devoted to attacking teachers: Teachers Union Exposed, Protecting Bad Teachers, and AFT Facts. AFT Facts says the American Federation of Teachers “fights to protect incompetent teachers” by opposing limits on tenure,” its “refusal to renegotiate their costly wages and benefits is driving many major cities into or towards bankruptcy,” and it donates “millions of dollars to left-wing advocacy and front groups.” In 2014, Berman and the Center for Union Facts sent out 125,000 copies of an 11-page letter denouncing AFT President Randi Weingarten as “the union boss standing in the way of most of America’s school reform,” a “vicious individual” who “gets rich while kids fail to learn.”

While the letter slammed Weingarten for receiving more than $500,000 a year in salary and benefits, Berman isn’t exactly an ascetic sacrificing personal wealth to defend oppressed union workers. The common structure of these front groups is that they take in tax-exempt contributions as nonprofits and then hire Berman’s for-profit PR firm for management services, such as advertising, research, and lobbying.

That practice won the Center for Union Facts and four other Berman groups “donor advisory” warnings from Charity Navigator, a New Jersey-based nonprofit group that rates over 8,000 charities for financial honesty and openness. In 2011, according to federal tax filings, the Center for Union Facts paid Berman and Company $870,000, more than half of its $1.38 million budget. In 2013, it paid $723,000.

Charity Navigator found similar patterns in Berman’s Center for Consumer Freedom, the American Beverage Institute, the Enterprise Freedom Action Committee (a group founded to attack card-check legislation), and the Employment Policies Institute, which argues that raising the minimum wage eliminates jobs.

The group said “the practice of a charity contracting for management services with a business owned by that charity's CEO” was “atypical as compared to how other charities operate” and indicated potential conflicts of interest. The five groups are among 295 nonprofits on its donor-advisory list.

As most of these organizations are classified as 501(c)(3) educational nonprofits, they don’t have to reveal donors’ names. That’s a key part of Berman’s methodology. “We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don't know who supports us,” he said in the 2014 Colorado speech. “I am religious about not allowing company names to ever get used. At least I'm not going to allow them to get used. And I don't want companies to ever admit that, because it does give the other side a way to diminish our message.”

Responding to criticism of his tactics, he said, “you can either win ugly or lose pretty.”

Berman’s attacks on minimum-wage increases have a clear commercial connection. His PR firm has represented the restaurant industry. The campaigns against teachers’ unions and the New York City building-trades unions, however, are more likely part of a long-term strategy to undermine organized labor—one whose funders would prefer anonymity to bad publicity.

New York’s building trades were among the last of the city’s unions to desegregate. Most did not admit black workers until the 1960s, and for the next 30 years, protests against more subtle forms of discrimination were common at jobsites. Yet as the industry became more diverse, the share of nonunion work increased. The Center for Union Facts campaign carries the chutzpah of a nonunion contractor who hires undocumented immigrants for $12 an hour off the books, occasionally cheats them on that, doesn’t give them proper safety gear, and then claims that it is “providing job opportunities for minorities.”

January 10, 2016

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