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Front Group Front Man Rick Berman: anti-union tactics for a right-to-work campaign

September 16, 2010

One of the afternoon presenters at the West Michigan Regional Policy Forum was Rick Berman. The promotional literature for the forum listed Berman as President of Berman and Company, which “specializes in strategic research, communications and creative advertising.

To those who do real grassroots education and organizing Berman engages in political counter-insurgency by setting up front groups that both undermine the work of real grassroots groups and acts as a deceptive arm of corporate America. Berman has worked for the tobacco industry, alcohol industry, corporate agribusiness and numerous entities that oppose animal rights.

However, one of the issues that Berman has been at the forefront of and the reason for his presence at the policy forum was to talk about ways to undermine unions and promote right-to-work policies. One example of an anti-union front group is the Employee Freedom Action Committee, which was formed by Berman to defeat the Employee Free Choice Act. Berman’s talk today was entitled “Organized Labor – Rethinking Reform.”

Berman began his presentation with a look at how the country has evolved on its view of unions. He showed a Gallop chart, which shows the decline of union support. Berman makes the point that if businesses want to get people to support a right-to-work policy they need to do something bold.

Berman said that the legacy of the union movement is still strong in Michigan, which he believes is why many businesses will not take a strong stand in favor of right-to-work. So how does one get a right-to-work law passed?

Currently there are 22 states that have right-to-work policies and the last state that passed one was 10 years ago, according to Berman. Berman thinks that it is difficult to pass a right-to-work law, since most politicians don’t want to do it and ballot initiatives do not work unless there is a two-thirds public support for such a policy.

Berman says that business circles need to quietly develop public opinion on this issue. Berman also believes that tactically it is more important to begin with the problem and not present a solution too soon. In other words, don’t give unions a target to counter your efforts.

Berman then talk quite contemptuously about the public and referred to them as amazingly uniformed, thus the business community needs to make it a point to work hard to “educate” people on this issue. Berman said there are several guide posts to changing public opinion on this issue.

First, the business community needs to create common knowledge on the issue of right-to-work. You also need to engage in what he called a pre-emptive strategy and change the opposition’s position. In other words, make the opposition look more negative than they really are. Berman says that more people in the auto industry lost their jobs in Michigan in recent years than in southern states. This point was certainly true, but it omits the fact that the auto industry moved south so they could pay fewer wages to unions.

Berman believes that those who work on policy change have to embrace an advertising mentality where there is a constant campaign to convince people that a right-to-work policy is in the public’s best interest. This is especially the case with negative messaging. Berman gave the example of when the polling numbers shifted dramatically during the Kerry/Bush race in 2004. The negative message that hurt the Kerry campaign was the Swift Boat claims.

A negative message campaign that Berman shared with the audience was an anti-union commercial that wanted to push the idea that unions are corrupt and is made up of fat cats. Here is one of his anti-union ads.

To continue this idea of creating a common base of knowledge, Berman says that businesses need to create campaigns that look at the reasons why companies avoid Michigan and articulate those reasons. He emphasized that if you do this well you never have to mention right-to-work, but you lay a strong foundation for getting that policy passed in the state.

Berman also made it clear that the unions will fight hard on this issue. He claimed that the unions will use legal means, dirty tactics and lots of money, even though he never provided hard data or clear examples on this other than a ballot initiative in Colorado which would hold corporate CEOs responsible for corporate wrong doing.

Essentially, Berman’s presentation was laying the groundwork for how businesses and other anti-union sectors could work to get a right-to-work policy without even talking about right-to-work.

For anyone who cares about preserving unions and not turning Michigan in to a right-to-work state it would do them well to understand the tactics and strategy that Berman presented to the West Michigan Regional Policy Forum. If working people and unions fail to come to terms with this well financed effort will do so at their own peril.

You can find more of these tactics on Berman’s website An additional resource on Berman’s history and work with creating front groups go to Berman Exposed.

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