Because he expected Nixon to beat Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, comedian Mort Sahl prepared several appropriate jokes, one of which had JFK’s father, the wealthy and powerful Joe Kennedy, going on television and lamenting sadly, “What’s happened to our values….does money mean nothing?”
Labor must be asking a similar question regarding the Democrats: “What’s happened to our political rhetoric….is sanctimonious lip-service dead?” While the Democrats have always been squeamish and unreliable when it came to important votes, their high-minded, proletarian bullshit always managed to raise labor’s morale.
Apparently, that’s all changed. Not only are the Democrats no longer finessing organized labor, they’re insulting it publicly. On June 9, a White House staffer mocked labor for “flushing $10 million….down the toilet” in its support of progressive Bill Halter against Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas Senate primary. Following the rebuke, pundits instantly piled on, depicting the smackdown as further evidence of labor’s decline.
One reason the Democrats feel they can freely ridicule labor is because the relationship has always flowed in one direction. Organized labor clings to the Democrats for the same reason frustrated citizens cling to a corrupt or grossly inefficient police force—viewing inferior cops as better than no cops at all.
Clearly, America’s post-industrial unions are suffering. You don’t lose a critical mass of automobile manufacturing, along with the steel, toy, paper, plastics, rubber, chemical, heavy equipment, furniture, textile, appliance, building materials, and mining industries—most of which offered good wages and benefits—without feeling the pain.
Still, even though union membership has dropped significantly (only 12.4-percent of the workforce belongs to a union, down from a high of 35-percent in the 1950s), organized labor has no reason to panic or sulk, and certainly no reason to apologize. It does, however, have reason to recalibrate.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 16 million union members in this country. Sixteen million of anything is impressive. The Chinese Army has 2.5 million active troops. The population of Israel is 7.5 million. Sixteen million union members is a tremendous resource.
To get the recognition it deserves, labor needs to circumvent disloyal Democrats—factor them out of the equation—and appeal directly to the American people. One way of doing that is by adopting a catchy advertising slogan and hiring celebrities (singers, actors, athletes) to go on television and repeat it.
Catchphrases work. “Things go better with Coke” worked. Nike’s “Just do it” worked. Volkswagen’s “Think small” worked. The Energizer bunny works. The appeal to “death panels” worked. Even labeling Barack Obama a “socialist” sort of worked (although “Rockefeller Republican” would have been more accurate).
Here’s a slogan: “Working people have never had a better friend.” The message is clear, concise and—unlike “Things go better with Coke”—demonstrably true. Organized labor needs Americans to recognize it as the best friend working people ever had, and to recognize it in the same way and to the same extent that they recognize “Got milk?”
Anyone who denies the accuracy of the slogan must be required to name a better friend. Of course, they won’t be able to do that because there’s never been one; and those naïve enough to suggest the U.S. Congress have to be reminded that the only reason Congress passed any pro-labor legislation was due to the labor lobby.
The beauty of the slogan is that, unlike typical advertising copy, it’s neither a lie nor an exaggeration. It’s an irrefutable fact. Organized labor is the working man and woman’s best friend. It always has been….and always will be. Simple as that.
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 email@example.com