By now, anyone who’s paid attention to what has optimistically been called the “American labor movement” is aware that organized labor is in critical need of resuscitation and revitalization, if not downright reinvention.
Despite its storied history — and it being the only friend that working men and women have ever had (note the undeniable correlation between the decline in union membership and the decline of the middle class) — organized labor is clearly losing the public relations battle.
Although the observation has been noted countless times, it bears repeating: Perception is everything. How one is perceived is the basis for how one is judged. And right now, as we approach Labor Day 2014, it can be argued that America’s unions are perceived by much of the public as not only anachronistic and irrelevant, but as genuinely “harmful.” How labor managed to find itself in this predicament is a long and gruesome story, one filled with political betrayal, corporate treachery and union stupidity.
But as battered and debased as organized labor has allowed itself to become, it still holds one very significant ace-in-the-hole. It has money. Not anywhere close to the money that Corporate America has, of course, but enough money to make a difference. Accordingly, the AFL-CIO (11.5 million members) and Change to Win (4.25 million), the two dominant labor federations, need to rethink their philosophies.
Instead of spending all that dough trying to attract a few hundred new union members, they should focus their efforts on changing how organized labor itself is perceived. The reason companies spend billions upon billions of dollars on advertising is because advertising is effective. Advertising actually works, otherwise they wouldn’t continue paying for it. And what is advertising, if not the attempt to alter the consumer’s “perception” of a company’s product?
Here are ten things organized labor needs to do. Ten things to do if they’re serious about improving the way they are perceived by the public. Some are modest suggestions, others are fairly ambitious; but all of them are worth a try.
1. Let the public know how little the average union leader (local president, business agent, organizer, etc.) actually earns. Too many people think union guys are overpaid and underworked. Take Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. His total compensation package for running an 11 million-member organization is $298,500. No, he’s not poor, but in this day and age, given his responsibilities, that’s a fairly modest salary. Compare it to what the CEO of United Way (a charity) makes.
2. Make a big deal out of purchasing new football uniforms for underfunded high schools in the Deep South, the geographical region where high school football is hugely important and where labor unions are most reviled.
3. Do the same for high school bands. Buy new uniforms and, if needed, new instruments. Make sure everybody knows it was a labor union (“the working man’s best friend”) who donated this stuff. Even hardcore union-haters will have to acknowledge this much appreciated move.
4. Consider entering an AFL-CIO race car in the Indy 500 and NASCAR events. Granted, this would be a bit of a stretch, but the House of Labor certainly has the extra bucks to do it, and the visibility it would offer could be valuable.
5. On September 11, buy television time to eulogize those 343 firemen who gave their lives on 9-11-01, at the World Trade Center. The commercial won’t be maudlin or morbid. It will be celebratory. These dead firefighters were heroic in every sense of the word. It should also be proudly noted that every one of them was a union member.
6. Publicize the fact that the U.S. has the worst maternity leave benefits of any industrialized country in the world, and that it’s America’s labor unions — and only the unions — who are actively seeking to improve them. Too many people tend to think the U.S. has the best of everything. When it comes to maternity leave, we stink.
7. Threaten to withhold campaign donations to the Democrats unless they adhere to a pro-labor agenda. These threats have been made in the past, but weren’t invoked. This time around, labor needs to mean what it says.
8. Hire some big-name entertainers to go on television and promote organized labor. If a professional athlete can sell shaving cream, a cool young actor (Daniel Radcliffe?) can certainly enhance the perception of labor unions.
9. Set up scholarships at high schools around the country. They don’t have to be large ones, just a couple hundred bucks to help with college expenses. Kids are thrilled to get any scholarships. Make sure everyone knows the benefactor was a labor union.
10. Endow a chair in Labor Studies at various colleges and universities. It doesn’t have to be a Harvard or Berkeley. Set up these programs at smaller, less prestigious schools, where a Labor Studies chair won’t get lost in the shuffle.
By David Macaray, a playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition).