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Are unions polishing their image?

Are Unions Polishing Their Image?

With labor issues on the rise, communicators will find themselves squarely in the middle.

Phil Comstock is bullish on America's labor movement. Discounting pessimism of some economists and veteran labor observers, Comstock, executive director of the Wilson Center for the Public Interest, a key source of union polltaking, interprets interviews with 60,000 non-union workers over the past several years as boding well for a renaissance within labor's ranks.

"Since 1985, polls of non-union bargaining units have generally shown a reduction in the size of the segment of workers who could be described as generally anti-union," Comstock said. "The answer for the most part is in a positive direction."

He predicted the early to mid-'90s will offer the US labor movement a "window of opportunity which seems to have been largely absent during the late '70s and early '80s."

Comstock's optimism is supported by surveys made last year by the Roper Organization, New York, that showed "significantly more people instinctively siding with a union (33 percent) than a company (25 percent) when they first hear of a strike." That's the highest level of support for unions and lowest for companies recorded since Roper began asking the question in the '70s.

In addition, Roper reported that more Americans these days are likely to believe that workers in jobs affecting large numbers of people--airline pilots, public transit workers, teachers, garbage collectors--are entitled to the right to strike, an indication that the general image of unions is on the rise.

While Roper proclaimed that "an upswing more favorable to labor has now set in," observers of the labor movement such as Harvard's Richard Freeman, a professor of economics whose specialty is labor issues, are far less optimistic.

Although AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor--Congress for Industrial Organization) total membership is at an all-time high of 14.1 million, he noted the percentage of union workers to the total US work force continues to decline. It's now under 17 percent. Immediately after World War II, organized labor could count 35 percent of the work force in its ranks.

"America's had a growth in jobs," said Freeman, "but the union sector continues to decline. Given US labor law and the attitudes of business, it is awfully hard for unions to do anything."

Labor's traditional bulwarks in automobiles, steel and clothing have shown the greatest drop in membership. The United Auto Workers (UAW) failed in organization attempts at two Japanese automobile plants in the US--Honda in Marysville, Ohio and Nissan in Smyrna, Tenn.

"The (UAW) gave it their best shot, but they never had a chance," said a Nissan worker who did not want her name used. "We had everything we needed. Our company matches wages and benefits." At Honda, the issue never got to the election stage.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland refused to call Nissan a defeat, claiming the company deliberately chose a plant location it believed would be unreceptive to trade unions, and that more than 120,000 people were given a series of interviews, "a psychological litmus test ... in an effort to find a couple of thousand or more whom they could count upon to vote against the union." The union still won 700 votes, said Kirkland, adding, "if I can define the parameters and the contents of any electorate, I would win every election by a much bigger margin."

But it's still a fact that industrial jobs have sharply declined--many transferred overseas where labor costs are low--and unions must look to the service jobs if they are to have much influence.

Organizing activity is increasing, bringing new shifts away from traditional representation. For example, the auto workers represent 25,000 Michigan state workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) counts nurses' locals within its ranks, while the Newspaper Guild last year won an election to represent a small Los Angeles UFCW office force.

Increased Union Activity Challenges Communicators

All this translates to increased union activity and new challenges for communicators on both sides of the table.

Looking at the US scene from a national perspective, Frank Swoboda, a Washington Post labor writer with 23 years of experience, views corporate handling of labor affairs today as "much more sophisticated with company representatives much more willing to make their case."

He covered the lengthy negotiations last year between the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and the communications and electrical workers unions and noted the company's openness in talks leading to a settlement that broke new ground in labor contracts.

For the first time, fringe benefits included such items as a health care cost-containment provision, creation of a US $5 million fund for developing community child care centers, services for the elderly and grants for adoption costs.

AT&T's Public Relations Specialist David Sullivan said his company decided early to continue a policy initiated in 1986 negotiations of no-news blackouts to "give ourselves the freedom to tell the AT&T story." The result, he said, was a process both smooth and successful.

That process included establishing good, constructive relationships with union representatives of the 169,000 workers and briefing reporters so they would know company positions, the issues and the leader of the AT&T management team.

"We traditionally approach these things on a basis of `they're professionals and we're professionals,'" said Sullivan. "We want a partnership of PR people." He added that "occasionally we checked signals with them as it is very important to keep channels open on the union side. They reciprocated."

Another significant company move was naming a communicator as a liaison with the bargaining team. Sullivan was that person and noted it meant access to the vice president for labor relations who could provide him with answers to reporters' questions.

At the Boeing Company in Seattle, Wash., where machinists went on a strike that lasted 48 days, the story was somewhat different.

"We try to be as helpful as possible," said Public Relations Director Paul Bender, "as responsive as we can within the bounds of not getting into proprietary information or making premature disclosures. We give background as appropriate and answer questions to the best of our ability."

That wasn't quite the way Polly Lane, the Seattle Times Boeing beat reporter who covered the strike, saw it.

"The union president always had something to say," she recalled. "He had 1,000 ways of saying nothing. The Boeing guy would never say anything. I talked to them many times. They said they didn't think it was anybody's business. That's frustrating because it forces us to make assumptions and sometimes we're wrong." She added that aside from labor problems, some Boeing communicators are "very helpful, suggesting stories and making people available."

Image Becomes Major Priority

The Olympics of labor negotiations kicks off this summer in Detroit, Mich., when the Big Three American automakers begin work on a new contract with the United Auto Workers in an atmosphere of layoffs, plant closings and increasing foreign competition.

Press rooms will be set up and packs of as many as 60 reporters are expected at the start and for the important announcements.

Chrysler's PR spokesman Tom Houston describes the event as a kind of "press game" while UAW publicist Frank Joyce calls it "a dance that traditionally goes on on both sides."

"We treat labor negotiations as discussions between two business parties," said Houston. "Ordinarily, we assign one public relations person to be the interface. We make those things public that we deem necessary. We get questions every day, and we simply treat them as any other part of our operation."

"What will probably happen early in the process is that a ranking member of the company will probably meet with the press on a background basis to develop a mutual respect so the press can find that what we say is believable."

He added the media also will be provided with a fact book that will include telephone numbers of the PR people, company history, the people involved in the process and the highlights of the 1985 bargaining.

Similar planning and activities will occur at General Motors and Ford bargaining. It's "a major thing, a little scary," as one auto company communicator put it.

The UAW's Joyce said his union, which has seen more than 175,000 hourly jobs disappear at General Motors alone over the past 10 years, will not get into "bargaining in the media" but will pay close attention to seeing that its story is told.

"Unions have to fight hard for all the favorable attention they can get," he said, adding that television has been used effectively in the past to explain the UAW position. It's something, he adds, that the membership likes and also has a favorable impact on the general public.

Again, image is a major priority.

In Washington, AFL-CIO leaders currently are evaluating a two-year "Union Yes" campaign that spent more than $13 million over a two-year span for a campaign that included US TV spots with Hollywood celebrities, and advertising programs that state federations and individual unions use in their own organizing efforts.

"Union Yes," with a $3-million budget this year, is designed not only to counter negative feelings about organized labor, but also to help with state campaigns.

As an example, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Local 2, a feisty San Francisco, Calif. unit of about 14,000, uses it in a hectic organizing campaign at Parc 55, a large hotel a stone's throw from the Powell/Market Street cable car turnaround.

Three years ago, during a long but successful campaign to enroll some restaurant workers, the local spent US $7,000 on municipal bus posters that showed a tired waitress saying, "Twenty years on your feet and they treat you like leftovers."

Parc 55, incidentally, has a public relations department consisting of one person who handles PR activity other than union queries. All union queries about the labor issue go immediately to the hotel manager Dan King to "keep all questions to one source." An outside public relations firm also has prepared news releases for the hotel.

"Union Yes," run by the AFL-CIO's Institute for Public Affairs, this year is beginning a new campaign targeted at Hispanics, one of three key groups considered as ripe for union representation. The Wilson Center identified the others as: women who entered the work force to increase household income (especially those 40 or younger) and 16- to 20-year-olds (especially non-college bound white males from middle or lower middle-class backgrounds.)

To Walter Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Labor Council, that "Union Yes" money is "labor's evangelism spreading the gospel of social consciousness and the message of good news."

Unions Learn to Play Ball

While organized labor continues to search for answers to organizing these groups, there are successes. For the past three years, the 1.3-million-member Food and Commercial Workers Union has been enrolling 100,000 new members a year.

"Organizing is the highest commitment of the union," said Allan Y. Zack, UFCW's director of strategic communication and media. "We use many strategies."

Zack has labor public relations in his genes. His father headed the AFL-CIO public relations department and his son apprenticed there, rising to assistant director before leaving for a private firm handling labor PR.

He came to the UFCW six years ago, and has developed this set of strategies to help produce successful organizing campaigns:

* Highly visible and very visual events, often tied to seasonal themes or readily identifiable landmarks or images.

* The first "hit" is, usually, aimed at a major story in a key newspaper, frequently on an exclusive basis. The goal is to get that first story that (1) frames the debate or issue in the union's terms, (2) provides the depth and background that other media will use in preparing their stories and (3) establishes legitimacy for the story.

* Training of local union officers and members to serve as spokespersons for the union.

* A thematic approach so that everything that follows builds on a central theme.

In Cleveland, Ohio, a UFCW local seeking to organize non-union grocery stores, molded a campaign around a sure winner in that region--football. Television spots were developed using a football motif and because the ads were not aimed at any specific store and were positive (defending the members' standard of living), purchasing time was not a problem. The local sponsored the popular Cleveland Browns on radio and developed a television message that the members were trying to hold the line on their standard of living.

Zack said some 24 stores eventually decided to recognize the union, rather than to force lengthy elections through the National Labor Relations Board.

Strikers cum PR Aides

When 1,700 United Mine Workers (UMW) struck the Pittston Coal Co. in southwestern Virginia, communicators became involved in a major way. The UMW kept two professionals at the site, ran a sophisticated media campaign and trained some 50 strikers as surrogate public relations aides. A separate organization, "Justice for Pittston Miners," was created to raise funds for the strikers.

"Arthur McCamy spent 40 years in the hole. Now Pittston wants to put him under for good," headlined one newspaper ad. "First they smashed his body. Now Pittston wants to smash Raymond Harrison's health insurance benefits," said another.

Management developed its own media campaign with a communication consultant from Washington. He worked on developing news stories emphasizing the necessity of competing in world markets as about half the mined coal went to Japan and western Europe. The coal company president held daily news briefings. The company put heavy stress on violence. The union played it down. The company consultant declined to be quoted for this article.

A major issue was givebacks in health care, and the union pounded away at that in shaping its campaign. UMW Communication Director John Duray said a state poll it commissioned three months after miners struck showed 60 percent support, only eight percent for the companies.

After three months of a carefully designed media campaign, a second poll showed an eight percent increase for the miners, Duray said. The company had gained two points.

Some 75 percent of those polled said they had heard why the miners were striking while 87 percent told the questioners it was wrong to take away health benefits.

"In total, these results send a powerful message," said UMW President Richard Trumka. "If we cut our issues the right way, if we put the right spin on them as they say within the Beltway (Washington, D. C.), the overwhelming majority of America's working people will agree with us, and if that's true in Virginia, then it's true anywhere in the USA."

Alan D. Cline is a retired San Francisco, Calif. news reporter with more than 30 years experience in the US and overseas.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
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Title Annotation:the role of public relations in industrial relations
Author:Cline, Alan D.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Apr 1, 1990
Words:2461
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