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Are Labor Unions Ready for Prime Time?

Despite the AFL-CIO’s prodigious efforts to attract new members-not to mention the existence of 35-40 million “working poor,” desperately in need of livable wages, pensions and medical coverage-union membership continues to slip. What was once a robust 35 percent (during the 1950s) is now hovering at a precarious 12 percent.

It’s been reported that the AFL-CIO has spent, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars on its organizing efforts. That’s a lot of money, with precious little to show for it. The recent Wal-Mart organizing drive stands as a perfect example of labor’s grim struggle to increase its membership.

With more than 3,600 Wal-Mart stores in the U.S. to choose from, and despite bringing to bear all the financial and strategic resources at its disposal, the mighty House of Labor couldn’t persuade a single one of the giant retailer’s stores to join the union. Not one store. That’s not just disappointing, that’s scary.

While the AFL-CIO has to assume responsibility for the Wal-Mart debacle, nobody is really “blaming” them. Ask anyone who’s ever done it, and they’ll tell you that recruiting new members is the toughest, bleakest, most thankless union job there is. But labor’s woeful track record may be evidence that a new approach is needed, something to reinvigorate the organizing effort.

Perhaps it’s time for labor to change its basic philosophy of organizing, and abandon that tired, old Holy Trinity: i.e., rallies, townhall meetings, and hand-billing prospective members. Maybe it’s time to adopt a Madison Avenue marketing approach.

If unions are willing to spend their money-tons of it-on organizing drives, then let them spend it on something that has half a chance of succeeding. Let the unions seek to reinvent themselves by appealing to a far larger and more diverse audience. Let them take their act to prime-time television.

The persuasive power of TV advertising can’t be disputed. Although no one honestly believes that a wealthy young athlete would choose a Buick sedan over, say, a sleek Mercedes-Benz or flashy Corvette, General Motors nonetheless managed to sell thousands of Buicks simply by showing a smiling Tiger Woods sitting behind the wheel of a LaCrosse CX. The Buick commercial was, by all accounts, wildly successful. Madison Avenue may be soulless, but it isn’t wrong: Image is everything.

Yes, TV commercials are pricey, and yes, it’s a bit unorthodox (if not undignified) to be schlepping something as socially “noble” as labor unions in-between those beer and cell phone ads. Still, if television advertising proves more effective than the traditional, eat-your-spinach approach that labor has been flogging for over a century, orthodoxy won’t matter.

Organized labor needs an image transplant. It needs to launch a celebrity spokesman of its own, someone hip and charismatic, someone who transcends all that stodgy proletarianism. If Tiger Woods can convince people to buy his grandpa’s car, why can’t a celebrity athlete or entertainer convince working people to consider joining a union?

Granted, going out and buying a new car isn’t the same thing as joining a workers’ collective. But having a celebrity look into a TV camera and testify to how important unions have been, historically, and how valuable they can still be to workers seeking to improve their economic lives, is going to get people’s attention. A pitch like that, played repetitiously, could make a difference.

Moreover, if Hollywood is even half as “liberal” as it’s supposed to be, there should be no shortage of entertainers willing to step up to the plate. After all, isn’t every working actor a dues-paying member of SAG (Screen Actors Guild)? And if common ideology isn’t inducement enough to attract a spokesman, then let the money talk. Make it too lucrative to turn down.

Of course, choosing the right celebrity will be crucial. Because their political agendas are high-profile and polarizing, Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, the Dixie Chicks, et al, need not apply. Image is everything. A Vin Diesel urging Gen X’ers to join a union is one thing; a Johnny Depp doing it from a bistro in Paris, France, is another.

An inspired choice for this project would be rap artist Eminem. Where the AFL-CIO’s earnest but anachronistic campaign couldn’t convince Wal-Mart employees to sign union cards, an ultra-cool “Slim Shady,” with his working-class roots and defiant, anti-establishment persona, might just pull it off. Eminem’s fan base consists of young white males. How many of them work at Wal-Mart?

An obvious question: Would Eminem agree to do it? Would this anti-establishment icon be willing to make a commercial? Put it this way: Would he accept a few million dollars to tape a 30-second spot that simultaneously inspires blue-collar workers to improve their economic lives, rubs Corporate America’s nose in the dirt, and benefits the United Auto Workers, whose headquarters happen to be in his hometown of Detroit?

Dude, what’s not to like?

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net

 

 

 

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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