Yet few of the stories on Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television and a top surrogate for Clinton in South Carolina, noted his controversial standing in the African-American political community. Johnson has been one of President Bush’s top black allies, lobbying for the repeal of the estate tax and the privatization of Social Security, as Jonathan Chait of The New Republic reported in a 2001 profile of Johnson.
Johnson also has a history of opposing unions that makes Clinton’s allies in labor quite uncomfortable. Back in 1993, workers at BET voted to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Writer’s Guild. According to an article in the Washington Afro-American, a historically black newspaper, AFL-CIO organizer Ed Feigen alleged that "during and after the election, BET violated the workers rights by offering them raises and promising benefits if they didn’t join the union in."
"Employees were also threatened with job loss if they did vote the union in. A total of 13 employees were laid off after the election, hours were cut back, and two lead organizers with the Writer’s Guild were fired, according to reports issued by the AFL-CIO. Mr Feigen told the AFRO that Mr. Johnson had stated to his workers that their actions were an act of disloyalty and that BET would never have a union."
One BET employee, Kimberlyn Dickens, said management had a "plantation attitude." Another BET employee, Samone Lemieux, said Johnson "promised us increased benefits and improved working conditions if we stopped our union organizing activity. However, after the election Mr. Johnson threatened us with discharge because of our union activity. He told us he had taken a $15,000 investment and turned it into a $400 million company, and that he was not about to start giving his money away."
There’s little evidence that Johnson’s opinion of unions has changed since then. Keith Boykin, host of the BET show My Two Cents, writes on his blog:
In May 2000, BET made the AFL-CIO’s list of notorious anti-union companies, and the year before, 120 comedians, including Richard Pryor, bought full-page newspaper advertisements to complain that Johnson refused to offer union wages to performers on its "Comic View" show. Three years before that, Johnson was reprimanded by the National Labor Relations Board for BET’s interference with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ organizing efforts, a case that BET later appealed and won. But in February 2000, Johnson told USA Today, "We don’t need a union. They’re only money-making machines."
Johnson is not the only controversial figure within labor circles to play a high-profile role in Clinton’s campaign. I reported last May that the PR firm of Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, maintains an active union-busting division.
The actions of Johnson and business of Penn tell a different story than Clinton’s advocacy for labor. Clinton may not share these views, but as she courts union workers in Nevada and elsewhere, it’s fair to ask why she deploys anti-labor individuals on behalf of her ostensibly pro-labor campaign.