Three Ways Labor Can Fight Back


There’s no denying it:  In politics and commerce, slogans are gold.  No matter how inane or inaccurate, a clever slogan has a good chance of changing public opinion.  Recall Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign from some years ago.  That ubiquitous slogan resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in Nike sales….despite no one even knowing what the hell it meant.

Politics is worse.  Smearing a candidate as “tax-and-spend,” attacking national health care as “socialized medicine,” portraying government assistance as a “nanny state,” calling fixed time-tables for leaving Iraq or Afghanistan “surrender dates,” using “death panels” to frighten the elderly—all of these visceral appeals have worked.   

What unions need to do is join the party.  They need to streamline their message, make it less cerebral and more visceral.  While smears, innuendo and wild generalizations aren’t tactics that necessarily make you proud, they are tactics that tend to work.  And, as the man said:  If you want to win, you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

Here are three approaches labor might consider taking.

Sponsor of the middle-class.  Fortunately, the happy term “middle-class” still resonates with America, and, accordingly, the notion of the middle-class shrinking away (even though it’s happening before our eyes) still frightens people.  Labor needs to pounce on this, make it their new equation:  Sponsor of the middle-class = labor unions.  Slogan:  Since when was it a crime to want to be middle-class?

Labor must stop referring to groups or institutions as “anti-union.”  That label won’t win enough supporters, not in today’s environment.  Take the offensive and refer to them as “anti-middle-class.”  Anti-people.  Anti-family.  Anti-prosperity.  Merge this with the anti-government sentiment that exists in the country, turn it around and use it to expose those state governors who are trying to eliminate collective bargaining as tyrants.  Power to the people….not the politicians!

Take what’s going on in Wisconsin and turn it into a Tea Party-like anthem.  “Let the workers decide, not the government!”  Depict what’s happening as a battle between good and evil—between the government and the workers—but make sure the public knows who the good guys are:  police, firefighters, teachers.  While nobody becomes a cop, teacher or fireman to get rich, they do hope to remain in the middle-class.  What’s the government now telling them?  That wanting to remain in the middle-class is now a crime?  Have we as a country honestly fallen that far? 

Patriotism.  Accuse the anti-union forces of being “traitors,” of committing economic treason.  Smear the anti-union forces the way progressives were smeared during the Red Scare days of the 1950s.  Make it clear that if people really want to see some old-fashioned, patriots, all they need do is visit a union hall.  Emphasize the fact that unlike Wall Street bankers, many union members are former military veterans.  Also, publicize the fact that countries that are/were America’s enemies have outlawed labor unions.

Don’t be shy.  Wave the flag.  Buy ads that show union members proudly wearing their military uniforms, representing everything good about America.  Contrast the U.S. with other countries.  Use slogans like this:  “North Korea bans labor unions.”  Or this:  “Union activists in Latin America are being systematically murdered.”  And remind people that—unlike Wall Street bankers, who troll the world looking for profits—union members earn every nickel in this country, and spend every nickel here.  Why?  Because they’re patriots.

Don’t be shy about waving the flag.  Indeed, patriotism could be the locus point where the Tea Party and labor intersect.  Those anti-government TP’ers who say, “Give me back my country!” need to know that Big Business, in collusion with the government, is playing this country for suckers, maximizing profits while keeping working men and woman down, and that it’s only the unions who see working people as something more than “overhead.”

Safety net.  The public needs to understand that without the resistance that unions provide, working people would be in economic free-fall, and that, in theory, they could continue falling until they hit the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour).  And it’s labor’s job to let the public know that the same people who are out to destroy unions (e.g., U.S. Chamber of Commerce) are also on record as wanting to eliminate the minimum wage.

Labor needs to run ads using the example of Gen. Douglas MacArthur (a right-wing Republican) who insisted that post-World War II Japan establish labor unions.  Why?  Because MacArthur—Republican or not—knew that, without unions, management would have too big an advantage.  Labor needs to quote Republican senator Orrin Hatch:  “We need unions to make sure that working people have a legitimate and consistent voice.” (Business Week 5/9/94). 

Because anti-union forces have declared war on labor, labor needs to declare war on them.  And even though it could get ugly, we have to do it.  They’re killing us here.  Statistics show that the gap between rich and poor is widening.  It’s time for unions to demonstrate not how reasonable they are, but how tough they can be.  Worst case?  We get our butts kicked.  Best case?  We put America back on track.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net    


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