Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007 | 7:26 a.m.
Richard Berman has attacked Mothers Against Drunk Driving, tobacco opponents and advocates of healthier food.
The Washington lobbyist and adman does it with panache, a gleeful smile and all the subtlety of a shiv thrust into the gut.
He's been compared to the dark-hearted protagonist of "Thank You for Smoking " except, as one commentator put it, the book and film's character is a "pale reflection" of Rick Berman.
His next seemingly benevolent target: teachers and the unions that represent them.
At the Conservative Leadership Conference in Sparks last month, Berman announced a plan to roll out a multi market media campaign attacking teachers unions as impediments to education reform.
He won't say where the campaign will run, but Las Vegas and Reno would seem to be prime candidates, especially given the Nevada State Education Association's recent announcement that it will go to the voters for a 3 percentage point increase in the gaming tax for schools and teacher salary increases.
What's not in doubt is that when Berman goes after the teachers, it will be brutal.
At the Sparks conference, he approvingly quoted mobster Al Capone: "You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word."
Political and labor observers are watching closely because as Berman acknowledged in his Sparks speech, his attack on teacher s unions is really a small front in a much bigger battle over the future of the labor movement and its role in American politics. It's not clear Berman cares at all about education policy. His real target is the broader labor movement.
"Who's afraid of the big, bad union ?" Berman said, announcing the title of his presentation. "I think everybody should be afraid of them."
What's really at stake is the Employee Free Choice Act, labor's top priority in Congress. The measure would make it easier for workers to organize, stiffen penalties for employers that violate labor law and mandate that once workers form a union, the employer must come to the bargaining table or submit to mediation and arbitration.
If passed and signed, the measure would allow unions to organize workers by getting them to sign a card rather than going through a campaign that ends with an election.
Employers say elections are the fairest method. Unions say the campaigns give employers the opportunity to frighten workers into voting against organizing by firing them or threatening to fire them.
The card -check system last prevailed in 1947. If it becomes law again, it will help unions organize Wal-Mart and other large retailers and service industries.
Berman's effort comes as labor, typified by the Service Employees International Union, has grown more aggressive about organizing, hammering out voluntary agreements with employers to recognize workers through card checks. Las Vegas' Culinary Union, for instance, has had an exponential growth in membership during the past two decades , primarily because of voluntary card-check agreements negotiated with casino operators.
At the conference, Berman described the consequences of the bill's passage: Union density in the public sector would double and private -sector unions would get a windfall of billions of dollars in dues, which in turn would be converted to campaign money to win more elections. "If you don't believe this can happen, you don't understand politics."
In short, he says, " it will be the unionization of America ... The cost of losing is huge. It will change politics in this country forever."
Berman knows that politically and in the public's eye, the labor movement is enjoying a mini renaissance.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, with a plurality, 35 percent of respondents, saying they would like to see unions have more influence. Labor's popularity hit its trough in 1979 and 1981, garnering 55 percent support.
Berman's campaign is nothing new, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Labor has been the subject of coordinated attacks consistently during the past century, notably in the 1930s , when large corporations such as DuPont and General Motors formed the "Liberty League" to challenge the newly minted Wagner Act, which gave workers the right to organize and bargain collectively.
From 1933 to 1938, union membership doubled, and it almost doubled again by 1947.
Lichtenstein, who also directs the university's Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy, said anti-unionism usually come s at times when labor asserts itself or enters new territory. Now, he said, is such a time.
Despite the fact that union density is at an all-time low (12 percent), labor experts predict reforms such as the Employee Free Choice Act could lead to explosive growth. "It's always darkest before the dawn," he said. He called Berman "extraordinarily clever" and "disgusting."
Berman clearly revels in these descriptions.
His strategy in this moment of potential labor triumph is clear, and the starting point is teachers unions.
Although it might seem dangerous to attack teachers, who generally enjoy public admiration and sympathy, attacking is Berman's style , and unanswered attacks can move the needle of public opinion. Berman tried his tactics on a small scale against the teachers union in Newark, N.J., and he claims he drove down the teachers ' public approval ratings by 14 points.
As he put it, "We have to reposition these people in the minds of the public. If you don't, you will always be fighting Mother Teresa ... We have to marginalize their unwarranted credibility."
As Berman said in a Sun interview after his Sparks speech, nearly all Americans have some contact with teachers and their unions. If the public doesn't trust the teachers unions, he reasons, surely they won't trust steel workers or other unions that don't have such a seemingly beneficent pedigree.
Berman has already laid the groundwork for his campaign to "reintroduce the labor movement to the American public."
His chief anti-union vehicle, the Center for Union Facts, has run TV ads featuring actors posing as unhappy union workers. One ad featured children playing a Monopoly-like game called "I Wanna Be a Union Boss," in which an announcer says, "You can call a strike without a secret vote, embezzle member dues, spend forced dues on politicians and eliminate the right to vote."
Recent print ads have featured North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Unite Here President Bruce Raynor. Above their pictures is the quote, "There's no reason to subject the workers to an election," followed by "Who said it?"
It was Raynor, making a point about how employers often intimidate workers during an election campaign and openly flout labor law to avoid being unionized, none of which was made clear in the ad.
Berman refuses to say who's backing the anti-teacher s union campaign; he never discloses his financial backers, allowing large, mainstream companies to fund him without having to associate their brand names with his sharp-elbowed approach.
Lawsuits and a whistleblower , however, have revealed some of his past backers: Philip Morris, and then Tyson Foods, Coca-Cola, White Castle and Outback Steakhouse , once he began attacking foes of obesity.
After getting money from corporations, Berman's nonprofit groups pay millions of dollars in fees to Berman & Co., an influential Washington lobbying firm also headed by Berman.
Some of Berman's current and past opponents dismiss him as little more than a nuisance.
"It's underhanded, but it's easy to overstate his influence," said Jeff Cronin, a spokesman for a long time Berman foe, the Center for Science in the Public Interest. He said the center, which combats obesity, is negotiating with food companies to stop advertising to children and to take junk food out of schools, while also working with state legislatures and Congress.
"To the extent he's done battle with us, he's lost. He's losing all over the country. Mainstream trade groups (in Washington) roll their eyes at his tactics rather than seeing him as helpful."
With the food money having dried up, Cronin suggested, Berman has simply moved on to the labor unions.
Mary Beth Maxwell, executive director of the pro-union American Rights at Work, echoed many of Cronin's comments, saying Berman often uses small ad buys that are magnified by free media.
His claims to be supporting workers' rights, like his previous claims to be defending "consumer choice" while working for tobacco, alcohol and food companies, are laughable, she said.
"Check out his win rate," she said, adding that anti-union forces have turned to Berman out of desperation because they know public sentiment and momentum are on the side of Employee Free Choice Act advocates.
It's not clear Nevada's teachers are ready for the onslaught, however.
Lynn Warne, president of the union, said she was unfamiliar with Berman, but questioned the potential effectiveness of any campaign against teachers, which seemed somewhat naive given a clear vulnerability for the union: Nevada's underperforming schools.
It's not clear what the campaign will look like , but if Berman's words are any guide, Warne better be ready: "I won't tell you what it is. All I'll say is you have never seen anything like this before, I guarantee you."