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Big labor's PR firm strikes out

| Monday, March 24, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Did you hear about last week's union-organized protests at fast food restaurants? Don't worry — no one else heard about them, either.

These so-called strikes have always been heavy on paid union staffers and light on actual employees, and achieved wider visibility only due to media outreach by BerlinRosen — big labor's public relations firm. This time around, the firm's ham-fisted attempt to avoid criticism by keeping a lid on the protests until the last minute backfired. Organizers for the SEIU turned out as always, but the press greeted it with a collective shrug.

It's a teachable moment for BerlinRosen. But it's also a wake-up call for anyone inclined to view these protests as anything more than a highly coordinated push by the SEIU to organize fast food restaurants.

Though it's off to a rough start in 2014, last year BerlinRosen successfully turned the efforts of SEIU staffers and a handful of disaffected workers into a series of major press events. The Associated Press described the playbook: TV crews in large urban areas are alerted of a specific time and location for a rally; a labor-organized crowd packs the restaurant at the appointed time; the crowd then breaks up or moves on to another restaurant after 30 minutes or so. (In smaller locations, where the potential for press attention is diminished, there's been little “strike” action.)

BerlinRosen has also applied its faux-grassroots touch for other union clients, including the UFCW's protests of retail giant Wal-Mart. The firm has been paid handsomely for its efforts: Data from the Labor Department indicate that BerlinRosen received over $6 million from labor unions in just the last two years.

Of course, faking a grassroots movement of workers occasionally yields embarrassing moments. Last year, the Washington Examiner reported that numerous spokespeople at fast food protests — across different times and places — all relied on the same anecdote about not being able afford shoes for themselves or their children. One columnist who tried to reach a fast food protester was directed to a PR agent — a vice president at BerlinRosen. And in the most recent round of protests, one labor organizer tweeted a photo of fast food “workers” who were carrying purple and yellow SEIU signs.

That's not to say BerlinRosen hasn't tried to silence its critics. For instance, my organization responded to last year's fast food campaign with a series of analyses and full-page ads demonstrating the activists' factual errors and the unintended consequences of the policies they were promoting. BerlinRosen returned the favor with a nearly 600-word screed directed to editorial writers at major newspapers, pleading with them to ignore our criticism of the firm's clients. (Hilariously, that email criticized my organization for receiving business support, while failing to disclose BerlinRosen's multimillion-dollar support base that's pulled in part from union dues paid for by low-wage union members.)

This year will surely bring more protests at fast food restaurants and major retailers, and it is doubtful BerlinRosen will repeat the same mistakes it made promoting the year's first event. Still, the press and the public should treat these future “strikes” as what they really are: stage-managed media events.

Michael Saltsman is the research director at the Employment Policies Institute.

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