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By Ben Penn
A union watchdog organization has decided now is the moment to raise the Capitol Hill profile of a long-shot bill to overhaul federal labor law.
The Center for Union Facts, after a three-year lobbying timeout, retained two government affairs firms to advocate for the Employee Rights Act, the center’s executive director, Richard Berman, told Bloomberg Law. One of the shops is well-connected with Republican leadership. The GOP-backed measure would impose sweeping changes to union election procedures, such as requiring secret ballot votes during representation elections, even when companies want to voluntarily recognize a union, and mandating union recertification votes every three years.
The CUF since 2011 has worked on a handful of earlier iterations of the legislation, which never gained traction. This time around, the group is hoping that a Trump White House will be more likely to favor a proposal that’s widely opposed by labor unions. Berman said the CUF is targeting its lobbying mostly on House Republicans for now, rather than trying to woo the eight Senate Democrats necessary for passage in that chamber.
“I do believe that this year, and more importantly, early 2018, there’s a real opportunity for the Congress to seriously address this and take a vote on it,” Berman said. “Sooner or later, this bill is a no-brainer to most people.”
The House focus suggests the effort is more aspirational at this stage. Still, the new lobbying demonstrates more financial support and potentially more political clout behind the bill than in previous years.
Berman said it’s time to get more aggressive in pushing for what would be the first major update to the National Labor Relations Act since 1947. A controversial former restaurant lobbyist in his own right, Berman this month hired the CGCN Group’s influential team of six lobbyists, according to a registration disclosure. All six hail from Republican Senate or House offices, including former senior staffers for Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).
The New York Times reported in 2014 that Berman said at an energy event, “I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to screw with the labor unions—that’s my offense.”
The Center for Union Facts describes itself as an apolitical nonprofit organization that, rather than being opposed to unions, seeks to inform workers how union dues are spent and highlight alleged corruption by “big labor” officials. In recent years, the group has been focused on a public relations and advertising campaign on the Employee Rights Act. The CUF touts the measure as nonpartisan and worker-friendly, pointing to positive polling numbers.
Among other provisions, the bill would require unions to win the majority backing of all employees eligible to vote in a representation election. That’s a tougher standard than the current requirement that a majority of those who voted must OK union representation.
Some question Berman’s characterization of the measure—which is being pushed by a lobbying firm that’s hauled in millions of dollars this year from high-powered corporate clients—as “pro-employee,” and not tied to management.
Berman said his hiring of the all-Republican CGCN doesn’t contradict CUF’s claim that it isn’t part of a political effort.
“If there was a Democrat firm that wanted to work on this, I’d be happy to talk to them,” the center’s leader said. When asked if he’s attempted to locate a Democratic shop to do his bidding, Berman replied, “I think it would be a waste of my time.”
Berman and other supporters of the bill, such as the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks, will have to eventually win some Democratic support to get it passed in the Senate. That may be more of a long-term goal.
“The status quo is that the unions have a chokehold on anybody with a D after their name,” Berman said.
Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) reintroduced the legislation in May, and a companion Senate version followed in September from Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). The bills have accumulated co-sponsorship from 22 senators and 120 House members, all Republicans.
The CUF’s objective with this advocacy effort is to raise those numbers, especially on the House side, to the point where a vote becomes appropriate, Berman said.
Roe “will continue to work with his colleagues in the House to build support for his bill and fight for the rights of American workers,” Tiffany Haverly, a Roe spokeswoman, told Bloomberg Law via email. She didn’t address the new lobbyists who are joining Roe’s crusade.
House Education and the Workforce Committee Democrats and the AFL-CIO didn’t provide a comment. John Patrick, the former president of the Texas AFL-CIO, in a 2016 blog post called the Employee Rights Act “a proposal that would subvert democracy and stifle working people’s voices.”
The ramped-up attention on the legislation also comes at a time when the labor movement is bracing for a Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME that could deplete the treasuries of unions that represent public sector workers. Further, President Donald Trump has recently appointed two new members to the National Labor Relations Board who in the next few years will have a chance to negate decisions from the Obama-era board that facilitated union organizing.
With the NLRB and Supreme Court actions looming, is it overkill to invest more resources in the Employee Rights Act at this time? “Its always been the time,” Berman said. “It’s overdue.”
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