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‘Card check’ victors reap little reward

Washington lobbyists who amassed millions of dollars to destroy “card-check” legislation for unions have become the victims of their own success.

Industry groups that went on the warpath against the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) have seen their fundraising plunge since burying the legislation and have yet to find a new cause that inspires the same level of passion among donors.

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“This baby is like the 17-year locust. It ain’t coming back any time soon. Quite frankly, I think it’s never coming back,” said Rick Berman, president of public affairs firm Berman and Co., about the EFCA.

“I am in business to win. Anyone who complains because the issue has been won needs to reset their moral compass,” Berman said.

Lobbying on the union organizing bill crested in 2009, when 452 clients reported lobbying on the EFCA, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. But last year, only 16 clients disclosed lobbying on the legislation.

That’s partly because the card-check bill has not been introduced in the past two Congresses. Its main Democratic champion, Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), has no plans to revive it at this time, according to one of his aides.

The climate was radically different in 2008, when President Obama swept into office, and Democrats ran both chambers of Congress. Unions saw the unified control as an opportunity to push through a labor law change that could boost their declining membership.

One business lobbyist at the time said the EFCA was “a firestorm on Capitol Hill, bordering on Armageddon.”

That political storm brought a windfall to some groups.

The year of Obama’s election, the Enterprise Freedom Action Committee — which is managed by Berman’s firm — had more than $16.6 million in total revenue, according to its tax form for that year.

But the group’s money has since fallen, to the point where the group reported just $246 in revenue for 2012.

“I’m not surprised by the fluctuation,” Berman said. “There was a threat. The money was in there because there was a threat. I spent the money.”

The group, formerly known as the Employee Freedom Action Committee, sponsored a major campaign against the bill, with TV, print, online and radio ads. Berman’s team even performed a bit of “street theater” with a blown-up dinosaur stationed outside the Capitol poking fun at unions, Berman said.

Berman said the deathblow against the EFCA was a one-minute TV commercial from his group that had the late liberal icon and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern opposing the bill.

Similarly, the Center for Union Facts, also housed at Berman’s firm, has seen its total revenue dip in recent years, dropping from a peak of almost $4.5 million in 2008 to $3.4 million in 2012, according to tax forms.

That organization, like other entities tied to Berman, has changed it mission since the EFCA’s demise. The Enterprise Freedom Action Committee, for instance, is now more focused on the Affordable Care Act.

“The anti-EFCA groups have all morphed,” said Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union. “What they have done is create more ad hoc groups — anti-worker center, anti-[United Auto Workers]. They’re playing their version of Whac-A-Mole: When workers raise their heads, they knock them down.”

Other groups’ funding has shrunk since the EFCA’s demise, too.

The Workforce Fairness Institute held $19.9 million in total revenue for 2008, which fell to $3.2 million in 2011, according to tax forms. Now the group is focusing on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), as well as recent union drives in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Las Vegas.

“The fight to defeat EFCA was a huge and expensive undertaking,” Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for the group, said. “Our mission changed, and our budgetary needs changed along with it.”

One group opposing the EFCA came and went within months.

Defend Our Vote Inc. was founded in early 2009. The group reported $500,000 in total revenue, made a grant of more than $402,000 to the Workforce Fairness Institute to increase public awareness of the EFCA’s dangers, and then disappeared in August of that year, according to its tax form.

Cleta Mitchell, a Foley & Lardner partner who was listed as a secretary for Defend Our Vote, said the group was a client and that she doesn’t discuss her clients’ activities.

The money raised to defeat the union bill was large, even by Washington standards. On its website, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) asked donors to give at least $30 million for the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace’s (CDW) “ ‘surround sound’ campaign targeting swing voters in key states.”

In a statement, Brian Crawford, AH&LA’s vice president of governmental and political affairs, wouldn’t comment on whether $30 million was raised for the campaign.

“AH&LA was very involved in winning the card check debate through the work of CDW, and our members — along with those of our coalition partners — made significant contributions to the effort,” Crawford said.

A group tied to Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Alliance for Worker Freedom, battled against the EFCA in its prime.

But it has since changed its name to the Center for Worker Freedom and most recently bought billboard and radio ads opposing the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) organizing drive in Chattanooga.

“The money is shifting. It’s hardly disappearing. It may be even increasing. The fight over EFCA, to the NLRB and now the UAW is all about decimating unions at the ballot box,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley that specializes in labor issues.

Glenn Spencer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative, acknowledged his “budget was bigger when there was EFCA because we had to run national advertising campaigns.”

But Spencer said the fight over the union bill helped build out his organization. The group held nearly 70 events across the country last year and organized a letter-writing campaign in opposition to the NLRB’s proposed rule to speed up union elections.

“Because of that fight, we were able to develop this large grassroots network that found that they are concerned about what happens in labor law. We have been able to turn to that network on every other issue we have worked on,” Spencer said.