When left-wing activist groups, New York Democratic Party politicians, and national labor unions have a need for public relations representatives, they often go to one group: Berlin Rosen (sometimes styled BerlinRosen). Founded by Democratic operatives Jonathan Rosen and Valerie Berlin, the firm claims as clients some of the most radical hitters in the Democratic Party and the professional Left: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Chicago Teachers Union, Food and Water Watch, the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have all retained the firm.
The left-wing political consultancy specializes in the creation of front group campaigns, especially on behalf of labor unions like SEIU. The firm rose to national prominence as the chief organizational force behind SEIU’s campaign of “fast food strikes,” demonstrations that relied heavily on Berlin Rosen and other professional Left organizations to make up the numbers as employee participation was by many accounts minimal.
Fronting campaigns with fellow professional agitators and front groups is a typical Berlin Rosen strategy, employed on behalf of unions and left-wing interests not only in the firm’s home state of New York, but as far afield as California, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
The two principals and co-founders of the political consultancy Berlin Rosen are Valerie Berlin and Jonathan Rosen, both long-time hands in New York Democratic and left-wing activist politics.
Berlin got her start over 25 years ago with the union-backed Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which would later disband amid widespread allegations of fraudulent voter registration. She later went to work for then New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman, rising to become his chief of staff.
In 2001, she met Rosen, a law student who would move on to work on Mark Green’s failed 2001 bid for New York City Mayor on the Democratic-Working Families (a union-led pressure group in New York Democratic politics) line. After Green’s defeat, Rosen and Berlin both ended up working for the New York State Senate Democratic Conference, then chaired by future Governor David Paterson. According to a 2005 internal document, Berlin served as Communications Director and Rosen as Director for Member Information Services.
They then left to create a public affairs and political consulting firm, Berlin Rosen Ltd. in 2005. The firm picked up where Berlin and Rosen had left off in partisan service: Among its first campaigns was a $200,000 television ad effort in 2006 aimed against Republican candidates for the New York Senate in 2006 on behalf of the Tides Foundation-backed League of Education Voters and its affiliated political arm, the George Soros-funded NY EDPAC. The firm also worked for the state Democratic Party and for ultimately disgraced then-Governor Eliot Spitzer in an “as-needed” media relations capacity. The firm also worked for New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Sliver, who would later face criticism for allegedly covering up a fellow Democrat’s reported sexual harassment.
By the 2010s, Berlin Rosen was deeply tied to the progressive left of the Democratic Party in New York, backing Working Families Party candidates, most notably then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. It propelled its two most notable clients, state Attorney General (and Valerie Berlin’s former boss) Eric Schneiderman and now-NYC Mayor de Blasio into office.
Front Group Kingpins
Outside of Berlin Rosen-backed election campaigns, the company specializes in labor union-funded agitation through and in conjunction with “community” front groups. Since the firm’s founding, unions have paid Berlin Rosen over $12.5 million directly from their coffers for numerous organizing, contract, and political campaigns. In addition, union front organizations have also retained Berlin Rosen for “independent” issue advertising and other political campaigns.
o Fast Food “Strikes” — The periodic demonstrations—almost entirely funded by the Service Employees International Union with up to $30 million in spending—involve walkouts by purported fast food franchise employees and have been almost entirely stage-managed by Berlin Rosen personnel.
The Associated Press reported on one such demonstration, asserting that, despite much bluster about employee involvement, union and Berlin Rosen P.R. flacks made up the vast majority of turnout:
“It wasn’t clear how many participants were fast-food workers, rather than campaign organizers, supporters or members of the public relations firm that has been coordinating media efforts [Berlin Rosen].”
The labor movement’s newspaper, In These Times, also makes clear that Berlin Rosen professionals rather than employee-to-employee organizing drives are responsible for the visible efforts:
“The communications firm declined to comment on the record, but Charles (not his real name), a Detroit organizer with knowledge of SEIU strategy, says his impression is that BerlinRosen is “helping in every spot” around the nation, and its work included “local communications, teamwork … advising on communication strategy, generating coverage.” He adds that, in addition to “showing strength to the workers [and] getting the community behind it,” the purpose of the campaign is generating a media buzz.”
In addition to direct support from SEIU coffers totaling $3 million over 2012 through 2013, Berlin Rosen has also received media relations retainers from other “community” front groups used by SEIU in the campaign. The IRS Form 990 records for United for New York, Inc.—one of the groups involved in the New York “strikes”—show that the group (which received $4 million in 2012-13 from SEIU) retained Berlin Rosen in the amount of $175,715 in 2012.
o Walmart Protests — At roughly the same time that Berlin Rosen was working for SEIU on the fast food campaign, the SEIU ally United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) retained the firm to run the “Organization United for Respect at Walmart,” legally a division of UFCW headquarters designed to make contacts with disgruntled workers at and bring public pressure on the world’s largest retailer. The UFCW paid Berlin Rosen $855,883 from 2011-2013 for all campaigns, the most notable of which has been the “OUR Walmart” effort.
Regardless of the financing, the OUR Walmart demonstrations are a clear demonstration of “Astroturfing”—faking grassroots. The 2013 “Black Friday” demonstrations only took a reported 20 of the retailer’s 1.4 million hourly associates on walkout, worse than 2012’s reported 100 strikers. At least one OUR Walmart demonstration resulted in a National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Office decision to issue a “complaint absent settlement”—legalese for “we will file an unfair labor practice charge against you unless you give up.”
o Pennsylvanians for Accountability—Despite the complaints of many liberals about money in politics after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, liberal groups and labor unions have capitalized on the ability to obscure funding trails through 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations. Berlin Rosen handled media relations for the 501(c)(4) “Pennsylvanians for Accountability,” which reports indicated would not disclose to the media or on its website its board, officers, or funding.
The group ran advertisements against Republican Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett in 2013. Union disclosure documents show that the SEIU and the National Education Association funded the group to the tune of $930,000 in 2013. It is unknown how much of that money made it to Berlin Rosen, as the Pennsylvanians for Accountability Form 990 tax return was not filed by press time.
Berlin Rosen is a for-profit, privately held corporation that operates to make a profit for its shareholders. The New York State Division of Corporations registration states that Berlin Rosen, Ltd. has issued 200 shares of non-par value stock, which are not traded publicly.
Publicly available records show that Berlin Rosen’s clients pay handsomely for the firm’s services.
- Labor unions required to report to the federal government under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 have paid over $12.5 million to the firm through its history.
- Some liberal 501(c) nonprofit groups that pay Berlin Rosen more than $100,000 in a given fiscal year are required to disclose those payments on their Form 990 tax return. They include:
- The Brennan Center for Justice, which paid BR $148,517 in 2013
- The Freelancers Union, which paid BR $165,162 in 2012
- The National Employment Law Project, which paid BR $126,471 in 2012
- The New York State Trial Lawyers Association, which paid BR $133,178 in 2013
- Food and Water Watch, which paid BR $110,617 in 2012
- The firm’s campaign consulting business is also lucrative: According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, candidates in the 2013 NYC elections spent over $3 million on services provided by Berlin Rosen.
Valerie Berlin and Jonathan Rosen have done quite well for themselves out of this business. Both live with their families within a few blocks of each other in the trendy Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn in condos they purchased for roughly $1.5 million each. (Their salaries and compensation are not disclosed, as Berlin Rosen is a private for-profit corporation.)