One of the more noxious sprouts of Astroturf we've encountered this campaign season is an outfit called the Employee Freedom Action Committee. The Washington, DC-based group is registered as a non-profit, which means it doesn't have to disclose where its money comes from. But it operates out of the offices of lobbyist Richard Berman, a notorious Astroturfer who has operated front groups supporting the restaurant, liquor and tobacco industries and opposing (among other things) consumer protection, animal rights, increases in the minimum wage - and, almost needless to say, labor unions.
In a 2007 "60 Minutes" segment, correspondent Morley Safer described how Berman "has come up with a clever system of non-profit 'educational' entities. Companies can make charitable donations to these groups, which ... are neutral sounding but 'educating' with a particular point of view, all perfectly legal."
Right now, EFAC is flooding the Oregon airwaves with an ad attacking Democratic US Senate candidate Jeff Merkley. "Some union bosses and their politician friends want to effectively do away with privacy when it comes to voting on joining a union," the narrator says. The screen shows a picture of Merkley looking sinister, then a scene of a big, scary-looking guy - a "union boss," presumably - looming over a poor little old lady.
It's crude, but maybe effective.
The same ad, suitably edited, is being shown all over the country to attack candidates - both incumbents and challengers - who support the federal Employee Free Choice Act. This legislation made it through the House in 2007 but was killed by a Republican filibuster threat in the Senate.
Rick Berman and his corporate benefactors have their panties in a twist over EFCA because it would require companies to recognize a union if more than 50% of their employees sign cards in favor of unionization. (Under present law, the employer can insist on holding an election.)
Opponents of this "card check" provision say it would allow unions to intimidate workers. Supporters say it's needed to keep management from intimidating workers. "Sadly, many employers resort to spying, threats, intimidation, harassment and other illegal activity in their campaigns to oppose unions," US Rep. George Miller (D-CA) said in introducing the bill last year. "The penalty for illegal activity, including firing workers for engaging in protected activity, is so weak that it does little to deter law breakers."
It's not hard to understand why corporations don't want this law passed - and why they're willing to give Berman big money to stop the Democrats from getting a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and passing it.
No matter where you come down on the card-check issue, the Employee Freedom Action Committee's campaign is a particularly repugnant example of how corporate "soft money" is used to deceive voters and distort the political process. So we're delivering THE BOOT to Mr. Berman and EFAC, right in their big fat Astroturf.