Multi-state Advertising Campaign Targets Public Employees

For public employees in four states, this may have been a rough week. As if balancing typical duties of work and family is not enough, a front group for anonymous business interests this week began running ads in Michigan, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon accusing public employees of being lazy and overcompensated. The campaign is connected to the well-orchestrated rightwing attempt to impose TABOR-style spending limits in numerous states through ballot measures this fall.

The ads, being run by the inaccurately named Center for Union Facts, portray state employees as either lazy, incompetent workers bragging about their "sick pay" or as fools being played by elected union officials. The buy is large -- the Center has committed $1 million to print and broadcast ads in these four states. But a big question remains: just who exactly is funding it?

  • (Trying to) Follow the Money -- The Center for Union Facts is one of many industry front groups run by Berman & Co., the lobbying firm run by Rick Berman and his wife. Rick Berman is a high-flying lobbyist and former Chamber of Commerce staffer whose business now moves at least $10 million a year (for more on Berman, check out today's Eye on the Right). But the source of funding for his various front groups is difficult to discern. While the Center's budget is a reported $8 million, Berman and his lackeys refuse to disclose the funding sources. Two sources that were the target of early speculation -- Wal-Mart and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- have both denied funding the organization.
  • Priming the Pump for Privatization -- While specific funding sources are unclear, one motivation may be less in doubt. Attacks on public employees historically have served as a rallying point for the disastrous privatization movement. Promoting the notion of a more efficient private sector better able to handle government services in a cost-effective way is a key component in selling the idea of contracts to the public. Once those contracts are inked, a different story emerges: privatization fails to improve services or lower costs, instead serving mainly to open the door to corruption. Given that Berman's shady backers are willing to anonymously slander hard-working Americans, we do not think that preventing corruption is their primary concern.
  • Setting the Stage for Spending Caps -- Astute students of the 2006 election may have noticed something interesting about the four states targeted by the ads: all four states are also being targeted by Howard Rich and his libertarian network with ballot measures modeled on Colorado's disastrous TABOR spending cap law. Again, by playing up the notion of government waste, these ads encourage voters to support spending caps as a means of punishing state employees. While the connection between the initiatives and the ad placement was noticed by more than a few labor leaders and journalists, Rick Berman actually had the moxie to deny the association to a reporter with the Associated Press -- telling them that there was no relation whatsoever. That was a tough line to maintain given that Berman's organization has been working publicly with Howard Rich's Americans for Limited Government recently. And on the same day that Berman was denying connections to one reporter in Montana, he was admitting the connections to The Register Guard in Oregon. Needless to say, the man got caught in his double-speak.
  • Fighting the Unfair Attacks -- Public employees, just like other groups caught in the crossfire from conservative attacks, deserve progressive support. The question is how to push back effectively. Keep in mind that the Center for Union Facts relies on two big lies in order to accomplish its goals: 1) The Center is not anti-union, it is simply opposed to abusive union practices; 2) The Center is pro-worker. Neither of these statements are true. The Center has a clear record from day one of distorting and manipulating facts to portray unions as negatively as possible. And the Center, despite claiming to fight for workers, is actually blatantly attacking them in these ads. Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath framed the response to the ads perfectly, making clear that the Center is a powerful, out-of-state group that is demeaning the work of people who work hard for less-than-stellar wages. In fact, as McGrath made clear, the singling out of Department of Motor Vehicle employees for mocking shows just how out-of-touch the Center is:
    "For anyone to suggest that Montana Motor Vehicle Division field bureau employees are overpaid is laughable," McGrath said in a news release. "They license more than 162,000 drivers of all ages and abilities each year, and they do an exemplary job at a wage that is barely livable."

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