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Even though organized labor has a long and storied history of accomplishments, no one is ever going to accuse it of being creative or innovative. In fact, when it comes to inventiveness, originality, or a willingness to break with orthodoxy, the AFL-CIO is about as nimble-minded as a hippo.
A prime example is labor’s reluctance to improve its public relations image. Instead of recognizing that a change in conditions calls for a change in tactics, they slog along as usual, spending millions of dollars on old-fashioned, time-honored organizing tactics—throwing a ton of mud against the wall in the hope that a few ounces stick. That may have worked in the 1930s, but it doesn’t work today.
If you want to see what works today, look closely at the Republican party. They’re masters of the hit-and-run campaign: slogans, buzz words, sound bites and images. Realizing that few people actually think anymore—that instead of “analyzing,” they react—the Republicans barrage the public with low-down, easily digested propaganda.
Consider: During an organizing drive, where labor union reps dutifully provide potential members with reams of information—handbills, charts, graphs, brochures, and long lists of pro-labor statistics—the bosses counter by simply referring to labor unions as a bunch of “thugs” and “greedy bastards.”
After scaring them with talk of debilitating strikes and monthly dues, management shows newsreel footage of Teamster officials doing the perp walk. And that’s pretty much all it takes. The union’s eminently reasonable presentation is trumped by management’s mention of greed and corruption, and by the always-reliable appeal to fear of the unknown. Game, point and match goes to the bosses.
The AFL-CIO badly needs to adapt; and by adapt, we mean transform itself. Organized labor is seen as too big and clumsy, too massive and unwieldy. Instead of projecting the image of a humongous moose plodding through the forest, labor needs to present itself as a pack of enraged chinchillas tear-assing through the urban landscape. Yes!
Among other things, it needs to abandon those wildly ambitious, across-the-board organizing efforts—labor’s version of the invasion of Normandy—which are not only too complicated and cumbersome, but exorbitantly expensive, costing tens of millions of dollars.
Even if the House of Labor has the extra money to blow on these national organizing drives, when you assess what little bang for the buck they’re getting in return, it’s mind-boggling. Just consider what they spent over the years trying to organize Walmart’s 3,800 stores ($40 million? $50 million), and compare it to what they actually achieved as a result (not one single store voted to join up).
Following 9-11, organized labor should have launched a massive television advertising campaign. The AFL-CIO should have made a big, splashy deal of the fact that those 343 firemen who tragically lost their lives—who heroically ran into the burning buildings that people were running out of—were union members, every one of them.
Emphasizing their union affiliation wouldn’t have been morbid or opportunistic. On the contrary, labor’s gesture would have been seen as an appropriate memorial, a fraternal tribute to their fallen brothers. If it’s naked, post 9-11 opportunism you’re interested in, Rudy Guiliani’s shameless grandstanding at Ground Zero took first prize.
But there was no such televised tribute. Labor’s opportunity to publicly honor these brave union workers came and went without so much as a whisper. The same was true of the Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger episode, the pilot who made the spectacular emergency landing on the Hudson River, in January, saving the lives of 155 passengers.
Again, organized labor should have seized the moment by flooding the airwaves with commercials honoring a heroic member of the pilot’s union, the ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association). They should have made a huge deal of thanking and praising Sullenberger—indeed, of thanking union pilots everywhere for their excellent record of service.
Sulleberger was not only a hero, not only a union member in good standing, but, for crying out loud, he was a union official—the chairman of the ALPA’s airplane safety committee. He would have been a perfect poster boy for the American labor movement! Instead, you didn’t hear a peep or see a thing. The opportunity was totally wasted.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Americana”) and writer, was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org