Little Rock When they come after you, the playbook is clear, and all the plays are coordinated. The fake studies, the overheated websites, the bullet points masking as “facts,” the PR, academic, and Congressional shills who are all trying to legitimize the bare knuckled, business-funded, rightwing assaults against progressive organizations. This is all Rick Berman knows how to do, he does it well by their lights, and somehow he gets away with largely just running the same plays over and over through the years and still hauls in the cash, suckers in some media, and intimidates some initiatives. These days, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, showing up on a Fox news channel near you, and sprinkled into your daily paper by conservative op-ed pieces and self-interested industry associations, the target de jour is worker centers. A recent report by the Political Research Associates (Moment of Decision: Some Strategic Implications of Recent Attacks on Worker Centers and Other Low–‐Wage Worker/Immigrant Organizing) tried to sound the alarm, though I’m not sure how many heard it, because these assaults are becoming simply standard operating procedure in the political wars of our times.
The spin this time is that worker centers are stalking horses for organized labor and are somehow just unions in disguise. At the top of the target list are operations like the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), immigrant based worker centers with public support, like Casa de Maryland, the Domestic Workers’ Alliance, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, all of which have significant track records of accomplishment. The conservatives want to nip all of this in the bud to no one’s surprise, since all of them have been frequent objects of attack over the years, but some, like the PRA, see the intensity increasing, and that’s partially due to the drumbeating and self-promotion of Rick Berman and his skunk works.
To call Berman a chameleon isn’t quite accurate since all of his disguises are derivative and look the same. At ACORN we first saw him almost a decade ago when he directly attacked ACORN with a fake expose called “Rotten ACORN,” much like his current “ROC Exposed.” He and his backers were targeting our voter registration efforts and our living wage campaigns. One of his stalking horses was – and still is – the Employment Policy Institute or EPI, which we all called the “bad EPI” in order not to confuse it with the “good EPI,” the well-respected, research outfit, the Economic Policies Institute. One of his most hilarious and ineffective stunts was to put a mobile billboard in and around the ACORN national convention in Columbus, Ohio in 2006, so that it would popup along the march route to the Capitol or be parked near our rally, as they hoped to scoop up some free press and get in the game. Frankly, the Berman antics are just sound and fury signifying nothing.
More troubling, as the PRA report points out, are the pieces of ALEC-crafted “kill shot” legislation pushed through in Wisconsin and Florida to stop efforts at paid sick leave before they even begin, similar to the Restaurant Association’s successful efforts in many states like Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Colorado to take away municipal efforts to set minimum wages after ACORN-led campaigns to pass increases in Denver, Houston, and New Orleans in the 1990’s. The PRA report also states the obvious that public money sources for worker centers are going to be targeted and there will be O’Keefe/Breitbart type schemes, all taken from the anti-ACORN campaign model. Worker centers, like Casa de Maryland, have been preparing for such attacks and have faced them for years, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy to repel or impossible for the right to confuse the public, which as everyone remembering the ACORN takedown, is the whole point.
The one initiative that seems impotent is trying to prove that the worker centers are labor organizations. Almost any organization can declare itself a labor organization before the National Labor Relations Board if involved in a procedure or petition and stating that the organization exists to deal with “hours, wages, and terms and conditions of employment,” but the NLRB and certainly not the Department of Labor have no powers to go outside of their own procedures to determine that an organizational formation is a labor union under the terms of the Act. If a worker center was leading a secondary boycott or some activity prohibited by unions under the Act and some corporation filed a charge, then they might have to prove what they were or what they weren’t, but when they are involved in job training and referral, lobbying for better conditions and wages for day labors or a thousand other things, as one of our lawyers used to eloquently say, “you may look like a pig, squeal like a pig, but that doesn’t make you a pig.”
Not that it matters to the Rick Berman types and their corporate sponsors. They want to muddy the water, intimidate funders, and introduce caution in the practice and advocacy of the worker centers and their sponsors. Making a mess is enough for them while they wait for their moment to stampede the cattle and trample the organization if they’re able. That was the ACORN playbook, and as PRA argues, until we all come to a moment of decision, they will keep running those same plays until they are stopped.