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Most of us have spent time fanaticizing about stuff. Like what we would do if we hit the $100 million lottery, or what we would do differently if we could go back to high school, or what it would be like being Mick Jagger for a weekend. Call me uninspired or boring, but I’ve spent most of my adult fantasy hours imagining what I would do if I were president of the AFL-CIO.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that perception is everything. While we all like to believe it’s cold, hard facts that dictate our decisions, that simply isn’t true. It’s images that influence us. I recall reading that when Marlboro cigarettes introduced the “Marlboro Man” (a rugged cowboy on a horse) way back in the sixties, their cigarette sales jumped by 3,100-percent in one year. Perception is everything.
Take taxes, for example. People complain about high taxes. But when you ask them what the top federal income tax bracket is, most don’t know. When you ask how much one has to earn to be in that bracket, most don’t know. When you ask what their own tax bracket is, most don’t know. Even when you get down to something as basic as how much they themselves paid in taxes the previous year, most don’t remember. All they know for certain is that taxes are too high.
Not only are “high taxes” a matter of perception, the Republicans have, for decades, made “lower taxes” the totemic centerpiece of their Party platform, secure in the knowledge that all they have to do is wave the Low Tax banner and people will rise up and cheer like braying jackasses. Indeed, the Republicans have gotten so much mileage off this one issue, they could fly to the moon on the gas it’s produced.
Because “facts” matter so little, if I were president of the AFL-CIO, I would abandon all attempts to use statistics to make our case, even though, clearly, there’s a direct correlation between union membership and the prosperity of the middle-class. When union membership was high, the middle-class flourished, and when union membership was low, the middle-class shrank. The numbers don’t lie. But because no one pays attention to numbers, I wouldn’t waste my time on them.
Instead, I would change America’s perception of organized labor. I would start buying TV spots, hoping to emulate the Marlboro Man ad campaign. Our labor union ads would not only portray the American worker as noble and patriotic—as the glue that keeps this country together—they would portray those turn-coat corporations that invest in foreign countries (to the detriment of the U.S.) as traitors. And we would use the word “traitors.”
Our TV commercials would depict those phony “free trade” policies (the ones that enrich American corporations at the expense of the American worker) as a form of treason, and expose those multi-national corporations as the anti-American finks they are. Is such an approach too “emotional”? Of course it is. It’s wildly emotional. That’s why it would work. And as for that tired, old lie about the wealthiest one-percent being “job creators,” our clear, hard-hitting advertising campaign would demolish it.
Another thing our commercials would do is destroy the myth that U.S. companies leave this country to avoid paying a “union wage.” Instead, we would show that what these treasonous companies are really avoiding is paying an “American wage,” because there is no way in hell that Americans can compete with foreign workers making $2.00 per hour—not with a federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Our commercials would boldly accuse Wall Street of trying to reinvent the United States in its own predatory image. We would accuse Wall Street of trying to change America from a country, from a national community, and turn it into a vast gladiatorial arena where, instead of citizens with common interests and goals, we have only winners and losers.
And given that unions have been unfairly cherry-picked and portrayed as corrupt and greedy, we would list the salaries of the top 100 union leaders in the country, and juxtapose them against those of America’s CEOs and Wall Street bankers. Compared to businessmen and hedge fund managers, union leaders will appear as paupers.
Our overall message? Without unions to represent America’s workers, there would be no checks and balances, there would be no push-back, there would be no resistance of any kind, save for the weak labor laws that now exist and are being loop-holed with impunity. Without a group to represent America’s working men and women, business would have a free, unimpeded hand. That’s not a hypothetical. It’s a fact.
If I were president of the AFL-CIO, I wouldn’t waste another nickel on organizing drives. Instead, I would spend my money launching a big-time, national advertising campaign, one aimed straight at the American psyche. Organized labor must present a new image. It must change how its perceived. Because perception is everything.
DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
COMING IN SEPTEMBER
A Special Memorial Issue of CounterPunch
Featuring recollections of Alexander Cockburn from Jeffrey St. Clair, Peter Linebaugh, Paul Craig Roberts, Noam Chomsky, Mike Whitney, Doug Peacock, Perry Anderson, Becky Grant, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Neumann, Susannah Hecht, P. Sainath, Ben Tripp, Alison Weir, James Ridgeway, JoAnn Wypijewski, John Strausbaugh, Pierre Sprey, Carolyn Cooke, Conn Hallinan, James Wolcott, Laura Flanders, Ken Silverstein, Tariq Ali and many others …