Mary Beth Maxwell is executive director of American Rights at Work, a national labor policy organization in Washington, D.C. The organization recently launched a website: antiunionnetwork.org.
A television ad playing in Michigan this September seemed innocent enough: an adorable little girl in braids, a schoolroom filled to the brim with the latest, colorful learning aids and enthusiastic students eager to learn. But wait; the pigtailed girl is giving a report on union malfeasance. The teacher appears shocked to hear that her union dues support worker-friendly political candidates. Seriously?
The nationwide arrival of commercials like this one—often accompanied by full-page newspaper and radio ads—should raise eyebrows. This isn’t a promo for a new parody on the next installment of "Saturday Night Live" or "The Daily Show." The TV spots are the handiwork of a powerful, well-financed web of extremist, conservative organizations and well-paid spin doctors on a mission to dismantle labor unions.
The ads beg the question: Who’s willing to invest millions to undermine the right of teachers, nurses and other workers in America to earn a decent living and protect their interests in the workplace? The answer is far less innocent than ponytails and reads like a page torn out of Christopher Buckley’s bestseller, Thank You for Smoking .
The over-the-top mudslinging by the Center for Union Facts, the National Right to Work Committee and other anti-union groups is nothing more than an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes, hiding the real crisis in the American workplace. Too many workers in the U.S. still can’t adequately provide basic necessities for their families, protect themselves from workplace hazards or take care of themselves when they get old or sick. The firings, intimidation and harassment that often befall workers attempting to exercise freedoms of speech and association by forming unions are threats to our democracy. When faced with union organizing drives, 30 percent of employers terminate pro-union workers, 40 percent threaten to close a worksite if a union prevails and 51 percent coerce workers into opposing unions with bribery and favoritism.
The motives behind assailing organized workers are both financial and ideological. Union-busting is big business. Just ask Center for Union Facts founder and D.C. mercenary lobbyist Rick Berman. He’s the mastermind behind the ads and has earned a living attacking other public interest groups—like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Centers for Disease Control—for clients including the alcohol and fast food industries. Although he won’t reveal who is bankrolling CUF, attacking unions seems to be the source of his latest windfall.
And Berman isn’t the only one profiting from conspiring to bring about the demise of worker-built organizations. Search for “union buster” on Google and peruse over 3 million hits. The proliferation of “union avoidance” consulting has resulted in 82 percent of employers hiring help to fight worker organizing drives.
But the assault on unions goes deeper than the dollar. It is bolstered by a long-standing conservative political objective to eradicate unions. Right-wingers know something the rest of us seem to have forgotten: Workers still want unions because they are a powerful deterrent to poverty and unfettered corporate greed. When conservative political strategist Grover Norquist says, “We’re going to crush labor as a political entity” and ultimately “break unions,” it isn’t because unions aren’t relevant anymore. The right knows that unions act as the nation’s conscience by advancing civil rights, environmental protections and other causes of equality, justice and fair play far beyond the workplace.
If worker-built organizations weren’t powerful, the right wouldn’t invest so much time and money to dismantle them. And Berman’s supporters would be less concerned with obscuring their support from public view.
So the next time you come across a slick television, radio or newspaper ad pedaling anti-union propaganda, ask yourself who benefits when workers are prevented from joining together to represent themselves. Question what’s at stake when democratic rights are limited in the workplace.
The anti-union network’s vision for the workplace is out of sync with what we value in America.