On April 4, Barbara Harms’ boss forced her to attend a meeting about why she shouldn’t join a union. The two-hour, on-the-clock meeting was run by Michael Penn, a professional anti-union consultant. Harms says Penn told workers that “you’re going to sign your life away if you sign a union card … the union would tell you to go out on strike … the place could close down.” The meeting left Harms and other pro-union workers frustrated and angry. Especially because their taxes made it possible.
Harms works at the National Benefits Center (NBC) office in Lee’s Summit, Mo. She’s not directly employed by the federal government but is, instead, a contractor. She is one of about 800 workers there employed by the British company Serco, or Serco’s subcontractors, to process immigration paperwork under Serco’s contract with the federal government ($190 million a year, as of 2009). Penn, meanwhile, is a partner at the anti-union firm Crossroads Group. According to the most recent contract he filed with the Department of Labor (for a different client), his services cost $350 an hour. Serco presumably paid for Penn’s time out of its own pocket. But taxpayers paid for the facilities — from office space to audiovisual equipment — he used to campaign against the union.
Like Harms, many Americans would resent the prospect of taxpayer dollars, or taxpayer-funded resources, being deployed to bust a union drive. President Obama once seemed to be against it, as well. In his first month in office, President Obama signed an executive orderapparently aimed at similar situations. Obama’s order forbids government reimbursement for “the costs of any activities undertaken to persuade employees … to exercise or not to exercise … the right to organize and bargain collectively.”