Back in the 1980s the Johns-Manville Corporation got hit with so many asbestos-related lawsuits that—given the company’s culpability and the gravity of the medical problems (asbestosis is incurable, and there were tens of thousands of valid cases)—it was forced to seek bankruptcy protection. It was a disaster. Those previously exposed to asbestos were now using oxygen tanks; supervisors as well as hourly employees were afflicted; wives contracted asbestosis from laundering their husband’s asbestos-laden work clothes.
The Johns-Manville Corporation emerged from bankruptcy in 1988, under the new name, the “Manville Corporation.” Changing the name was a public relations maneuver designed to distance themselves from the bad memories and negative publicity of the asbestos debacle. Granted, one could argue that the ostensible difference between “Johns-Manville” and “Manville” is a distinction that’s going to be lost on the majority of the public (but that’s another issue).
The corporation not only changed its name, they went out and hired a very nice man to be their spokesman—to go on television and serve as the public face of their “new” company. A nice man, a popular man, a respected man, a man who practically exuded decency. They hired professional golfer Jack Nicklaus. And then, in 1997, after bouncing back economically and putting all those bad memories behind them, they very quietly reacquired the name “Johns-Manville,” and that was that.
Because of all the bad publicity unions have been receiving, organized labor needs to do the same thing. Labor needs to respond publicly to the brutal smears and lies that are being spread; it needs to respond publicly to the shrill, anti-union demonization that’s being deliberately picked up by the media. Make no mistake; there’s a powerful and concerted public relations drive being waged against the labor movement. And the surest way to neutralize that drive is by pushing back.
Labor needs to do what Manville did. It needs to hire someone to be its public face, someone to go on TV and remind everyone that unions are just people—working people. It needs a television personality to remind the public that union members are not the enemy. They are not syndicate goons or con artists or thieves. All they are is working people trying to earn a middle-class living.
This spokesman needs to drive home the point that union members are our neighbors. They’re our patrons and our providers. They’re pilots and flight attendants and school teachers and symphony orchestra members and nurses and police and firemen. If it’s con artists, syndicate goons and outright thieves you’re looking for, then look no further than defense contractors.
So who should labor’s spokesman be? For one thing, it needs to be one, single, identifiable individual, and not a committee of people or a rotating spokesman. We’re looking for a face, not a chorus. Also, it probably needs to be either an actor or professional athlete, because both are glamorous, both tend to be idolized, and both are union members, which means (in principle at least) that they’re not adverse to unions.
Because actors are generally more articulate than athletes, I suggest that it be an actor, and that it be George Clooney. The AFL-CIO should hire Clooney to be its spokesman and put him on TV as often as possible—put him on as often as they run those beer or car or electronics commercials—to talk up the virtues of labor unions. Clooney could make a tremendous difference. In any event, it’s certainly worth a try. After all, didn’t somebody once say that we have nothing to lose but our chains?
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, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org