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Longtime Astroturf Firm Obscures Funders as It Targets Starbucks Union

The firm operates behind a maze of opaque nonprofits to hide the names of companies that pay to wage attacks on unions.

“I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to screw with the labor unions.”

These were the words uttered by Rick Berman during a 2014 talk to the Western Energy Alliance, a fossil fuel industry group, according to The New York Times, which received a leaked recording of the presentation.

Berman is a high-profile corporate consultant who has made headlines for decades because of his controversial attacks on everyone from climate groups to animal rights activists to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. One critic described him as a “one-man goon squad for any company that’s willing to hire him.”

Berman has carried out this work through a maze of nonprofit front groups with names like The Center for Consumer Freedom and The Employment Policies Institute. He’s been called an “astroturf pioneer” for creating a communications operation that gives off a populist appearance but has, at its center, the consulting firm he founded, Berman and Company, which rakes in millions from corporate funders.

Now one of the firm’s pet projects, The Center for Union Facts, has published a full-page ad and a report to attack Workers United, the union overseeing the Starbucks unionization drive, over alleged “hypocrisy” around bank investments and “controversial” statements by its leaders.

This is all part of Berman and Company’s longtime playbook of trying to foment friction through personal attacks and turn public opinion against progressive causes, especially labor unions. Indeed, in his leaked 2014 talk, Berman advised his audience to be unrepentant in appealing to emotions like fear and anger. “You can either win ugly or lose pretty,” he said.

Berman’s personal notoriety aside, his consulting operation has ultimately been a vehicle for the assertion of corporate power. The firm’s labyrinth of front groups is not required to disclose their donors, but we do know some of them, and they include Starbucks-tied industry associations, far right benefactors that have promoted white nationalists, multibillionaires funding attacks on unions, Big Tobacco and, of course, the Koch brothers enterprise.

Now, Berman and Company is turning its attention to a rising source of anxiety for business leaders: the growing appeal of unions among young workers, notably expressed through the rise of Starbucks Workers United.

“Berman doesn’t attack people unless the organizations that fund The Center for Union Facts, the shadowy right-wing anti-union groups and the corporations, believe that they’re a threat,” John Logan, an expert on the anti-union industry at San Francisco State University, told Truthout.

Corporate Powers’ “Dr. Evil”

Rick Berman founded Berman and Company in 1987, after years of working in the corporate world: first as an attorney for Bethlehem Steel, the Dana Corporation, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and then as an executive vice president for the Pillsbury Restaurant Group.

Berman quickly developed a reputation as a high-profile, controversial attack dog for corporate interests. In all this, he developed what is essentially a two-pronged playbook to carry out this work.

First, he mastered the tactic of corporate astroturfing, the practice of creating elite-funded front groups, orchestrated by consultants, that exude the impression of a grassroots campaign. Berman and Company has done this primarily by creating an astonishingly large web of different nonprofits and PR operations that appear organic but are actually run by the firm (Berman himself even once dressed up as a mechanic in one of his campaign ads). Berman has stated that his firm maintains “about 25 different websites” and “probably more than that on niche issues.” Tax records reveal a clear and questionable pattern of Berman’s different nonprofits channeling millions of dollars back to the center of the whole operation: Berman and Company.

Second, Berman is an unapologetic mudslinger. Many of the firm’s efforts revolve around smear campaigns — often spread through videos, newspaper ads and billboards — that aim to undermine the credibility of their targets with personal attacks. Berman and Jack Hubbard, a partner at Berman and Company, laid out their repertoire of tactics at the leaked Western Energy Alliance talk, which included making things “a little personal” and emotional appeals to “fear” and “anger.”

“This is an endless war,” Berman told his audience.

All this has earned Berman a dubious reputation with many. Comedian John Oliver delivered a devastating takedown of Berman on his HBO show in 2018. Most famously, he’s been labeled “Dr. Evil,” a nickname coined around two decades ago by none other than Richard Bensinger, a key organizer behind the Starbucks union drive.

“I call him Dr. Evil because the policies he’s shilling for are evil,” Bensinger told USA Today in 2006. “They make the rich richer and the poor poorer.”

Berman appears personally devoted to a mission of deregulation and attacks on labor unions. But whether his dirty work has been for the money (a “game-changer” campaign costs about “2-3 million dollars,” he told industry executives), for ideological reasons, or a combination of both, the core function of Berman and Company’s efforts, from the perspective of corporate power, is to advance business interests and weaken labor unions. Corporations pay the firm big money to wage attacks on policies and opponents that stand in the way of greater profits and the unobstructed power of business.

Berman knows that his corporate donors want to benefit from his controversial tactics but do not want to be publicly associated with them, so he explicitly assures them that he can conceal their support behind a maze of opaque nonprofits. “We run all of this stuff through non-profit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors,” he told business leaders in the 2014 leaked talk. “There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us.”

(It should be noted that the current relationship between Berman, who is now in his 80s, and the firm Berman and Company, is not entirely clear. In November 2022 he was listed on the firm’s website as president, but is now only referenced as the firm’s founder, and the firm appears to have restructured its leadership titles in the last few months. Truthout reached out to Berman and Company for comment but did not receive a response. Berman’s LinkedIn page says that he is president of something called “RBB Strategies” as of January 2023.)

“I Try to Figure Out How to Screw With the Labor Unions”

Berman and Company has a special animus for the labor movement. “I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to screw with the labor unions — that’s my offense,” Berman said in his leaked speech. “I am just trying to figure out how I am going to reduce their brand.”

In an April 2020 memo, Berman told his business clients that his firm has worked with “major law firms and others” to “deny the Teamsters, SEIU, UNITE HERE, UFCW and the UAW the opening to unionize employees who do not have a full understanding of the liabilities.”

Two of his firm’s signature outfits have been the Employment Policies Institute and the Center for Union Facts, which are both dedicated to weakening unions and fighting against minimum wage increases. The Employment Policies Institute was founded in 1991 and refers to itself as “a non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth.” Its website highlights three of its “projects” — MinimumWage.com, TippedWage.com and Faces of $15 — that oppose policies aimed at raising the wage floor for low-wage workers.

The Center for Union Facts, according to its website, “fights for transparency and accountability in America’s labor movement.” It put out the report about Workers United and is most well-known for publishing the salaries of union staff online. The Center for Union Facts says it doesn’t oppose labor unions, but “union officials’ abuse of power at the expense of their own rank-and-file members,” a claim that comes off as extremely disingenuous given the group’s anti-union funding sources and the politics of its founder.

The most recently available tax filings of both the Employment Policies Institute and the Center for Union Facts list Berman as their president and executive director and disclose respective payments of $627,257 and $162,805 in 2020 to Berman and Company.

Berman and Company also run the HR Policy Network, described as “an invitation-only seminar group made up of HR executives in the retail and hospitality industry” that hosts numerous anti-union events. Its members include industry giants like Applebee’s, Texas Roadhouse and Wendy’s.

Logan says that the emergence of the Center for Union Facts was unique in its wider attack on the entire labor movement. “They weren’t working for an employer on a specific campaign. They were attacking unions in general,” he told Truthout.

Logan says the group’s new PR blitz against Workers United may signal a desire by corporate America to escalate a wider attack on the model of unionism exemplified by Starbucks Workers United, which is inspiring legions of younger workers.

“The fact that you have this report from Center for Union Facts is just a reflection that they consider Starbucks Workers United a threat,” he said. “And not just the organization taken in isolation, but the style of their organizing campaign, and how they’re representative of the type of young people who are attracted to the notion of organizing their own workplace.”

“That’s deeply threatening to the people who bankroll Berman,” said Logan.

Indeed, The Intercept revealed that Berman circulated a memo to business leaders in April 2020 in which he noted growing support for unions among young people.

“This is the first time since the early 1980s where I sense significant interest by employees in ‘collective action’ and ‘3rd party representation’,” wrote Berman. He also warned that “[m]ost current HR professionals have no history in dealing with a partial workforce rebellion.”

“This will most likely happen in individual companies or it could be a wider industry movement in a city or region,” he predicted. The memo contained an article about the SPoT Coffee union drive in Buffalo, New York, which is seen by some as a predecessor to the Starbucks union drive.

Berman’s Backers: Far Right Billionaires, Union-Busters, Koch Brothers

In Berman’s 2014 leaked talk, he claimed he was “religious about not allowing company names to ever get used.” Most of Berman and Company’s donors are unknown because the firm’s nonprofits are not required to disclose their funders. However, news reports and tax records reveal some donors and clients, including ones tied to Starbucks:

  • The Job Creators Network (JCN) paid Berman and Company over $6.1 million between 2014 and 2020. The JCN was created by Bernie Marcus, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, and has received funding from the Koch donor network. It has dedicated itself to causes like fighting labor unions, defending corporate subsidies and opposing student debt relief. Starbucks has notable ties to Berman and Company through the JCN. For example, as I wrote for In These Times in 2021, Starbucks is a member of the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), an anti-union industry organization that is one of the JCN’s top funders. Moreover, executive Mary Dillon chaired RILA while she also served on the Starbucks board during the first year of the union drive (she left the board in August 2022).
  • The National Restaurant Association gave the Employment Policies Institute $20,000 in 2017. According to one report, the industry group — which is dedicated to weakening unions and has been pushing to loosen child labor laws — counts Starbucks among its members.
  • The Mercer Family Foundation disclosed giving $900,000 to the Center for Union Facts between 2015 and 2017. Hedge fund manager Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer have been key financiers of many conservative causes, including the far right Breitbart News under white nationalist Steve Bannon. The Mercers were also key backers of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory.
  • The Anschutz Foundation disclosed giving $270,000 to the Center for Union Facts between 2008 and 2012. The foundation was started by Colorado billionaire Philip F. Anschutz, and has funded a range of conservative causes, including the Federalist Society and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. Anschutz has supported the rise of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
  • Philip Morris, the poster child for Big Tobacco (now Altria), pledged $600,000 to Berman in the 1990s, according to The Washington Post, and continued to give him money for years after.
  • The American Hotel and Lodging Association, which calls itself “the singular voice representing every segment of the hotel industry” and has fought minimum wage increases, gave $15,000 to Berman’s Employment Policies Institute in 2019.
  • Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ political group, gave $200,000 to one of Berman’s nonprofit fronts, the Enterprise Action Committee, in 2013.
  • The National Right to Work Foundation, which is dedicated to using an array of tactics to weaken the power of unions, paid $25,000 to Berman’s Enterprise Action Committee in 2014.

These are just a few of the funders of Berman and Company’s attacks on the labor movement — a small list that surely just scratches the surface of the secretive funding streams between corporate power and the firm.

For now, a new generation of young workers — hungry for unions, and inspired by examples like the Starbucks workers — will be merely the latest cohort to learn about the industry-funded antics of corporate consultants like Berman and Company and the increasingly aggressive efforts of the corporate community to halt the new rising tide of labor militancy.

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