The selling of the unions

800px-AFA_Flight_Attendants_picketing_Northwest_Airlines_(San_Francisco_International_Airport,_August_15_2006)By Jim Tortolano

E Pluribus Unum

If you were one of millions of Americans who watched football or the World Series this past week, you probably know about Papa John’s latest pizza offer, Volkswagen’s new “clean” diesel car and that Coors Light is literally – supposedly – hacked out of the frozen wastes of the Rocky Mountains, already in an aluminum can.

This is as it should be. If you want to sell food, cars and liquor, advertising during high-interest sports programs is one good way to do it.

This is how to retain customers, attract new ones and keep the brand alive and admired even among people who may not actually buy your product.

Watching the games I couldn’t help but think about the absence of the one of the biggest economic entities in the United States: organized labor.

Once a superman in the workplace, labor unions have seen their membership and influence shrunk. In the Fifties, one out of three workers belonged to a union; now the figure is 11.3 percent. If you take out those who work for government, the number plunges even further.

What’s happened?  Lots of things.  Workers who grew up in the Depression were pro-union because they needed an advocate to fight for better wages, job security and improved working conditions.  But as that cohort cycled out of the workforce and businesses began to take those issues more seriously, many Americans no longer felt the need to join up.

Of course, changes in the work force played a part, too. Jobs in the highly-unionized industries such as railroads, mining, steelmaking and manufacturing have been reduced dramatically by automation, globalization and changing buying habits.

But, as I see it, the average American sees the very idea of unions – as thought of as the AFL-CIO, the biggest labor federation – as a damaged brand.  Instead of hearing about the advantages of belonging, many Americans have grown up reading about (or being inconvenienced by) transit strikes, defensive teacher groups and gruff, cigar-chomping unions bosses with just a whiff of Jimmy Hoffa, the notorious Teamster leader (pictured at right).579px-James_R._Hoffa_NYWTS

The truth is that the labor movement has not changed with the times. Its language, organization and approaches don’t fit the more fluid, Information Age society we now live in.  Names like the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers don’t exactly roll off the tongue. They sound like a relic of the 19th century and in some ways they are.

There is an argument to be made for labor unions. Studies have shown the a union worker makes 33 percent more in wages and benefits than a non-union employee working in a similar job. Unionized men and women generally have better job security and working conditions, and the organizing might of the labor movement have helped lead to shorter work weeks, unemployment insurance and disability payments for those injured on the job.

If labor unions – and those who support them – truly want to survive and prosper in the 21s century, they must do more than support sympathetic political candidates and seek to organize the unorganized. They have to strike at the public perception that the labor movement is passé and irrelevant.

It would be expensive, but to launch a series of witty, well-crafted commercials between the spots for trucks and Applebee’s on Monday night football would be a start towards moving public opinion.  Repetition, humor, celebrity endorsement and other ad techniques used to sell toothpaste and sneakers could be employed to hit the reset button on the labor movement, at least from a perspective of public perception.

Getting people to think of unions as a “product” worth buying would be a key first step into turning that 11 percent into the floor and not the ceiling.  It’s been done with politicians for years. Why not try changing the game by changing the conversation?

Jim Tortolano is a long-time union member as well as being a business owner. He’s the managing editor of E Pluribus Unum. 

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