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Fear and Trembling in the Workplace

Photo by MN AFL-CIO | CC BY 2.0

One of the most damaging “factoids” you hear around the campfire is the assertion that businesses and corporations are no longer afraid of labor unions. Because unions have grown so weak and decrepit and stupid, no one fears them anymore. Of course, you’re going to hear that from people who despise or resent the American labor movement, but unfortunately, you also hear it from observers who, by their own admission, claim to be “pro-union.”

Consider: If that mindless assertion were true, then two accompanying assertions should also be true.

(1) Management would have no reason to oppose a card-check system (where employees simply fill out a card declaring that they wish to join a union, thus avoiding the arduous and time-consuming NLRB union certification process), and (2) companies wouldn’t need to spend tens of millions of dollars doing everything in their power to keep unions out. After all, if companies had no reason to fear unions, why lift a finger to prevent employees from joining one?

And by the way, the term “factoid” was coined by novelist Norman Mailer in the late 1960s, and first used in his quasi-biography of Marilyn Monroe. The term refers to something that resembles a “fact” but isn’t “factual.” A “factoid” is to a “fact” what a “humanoid” or “android” is to a “human.” But over the years, the media have recast Mailer’s term to mean “mini-fact” or a piece of trivia, which, of course, couldn’t be more wrong.

I had a friend who was the president of a West Coast industrial international union. We were never “buddies,” but during my time as a union activist and polemicist we chatted two or three times a month. We never quarreled. But after I published a couple of less than complimentary articles about the International (nothing vicious, mind you, just some garden variety criticism), he stopped returning my calls. We haven’t spoken in years.

Whenever this union official was asked at social functions what he did for a living he had a perfect answer. He said he “helped working people with any problems they had on the job, such as making sure they weren’t bullied, harassed or treated unfairly, making sure they received any overtime compensation due them, and seeing to it that they got all the health insurance and pension benefits to which they were entitled.”

According to him, people were blown away by this answer. They were astounded by it. They responded by gushing and praising him, blurting out things like, “Wow, man, what a cool job.” Or: “I had no idea there were people who had jobs like that.” Or: “That’s really great! I wish there more people who did that sort of thing, because Lord knows, we could sure use it.” Etc.

But when he finished his explanation by casually noting that he was the president of a labor union, those same people—the same men and women who moments earlier had praised him—almost recoiled in horror. They appeared stricken. He said they looked at him as if he had just confessed to being a pedophile or Jihadist.

Which makes the case that organized labor is desperately in need of a major facelift. The AFL-CIO needs to hire the best public relations firm in the land, pay them what they ask, do exactly as they say, and get busy educating the American public.

It has been said by sociologists and magicians that “perception is everything.” If that’s true, then the AFL-CIO needs to radically alter how this country regards its labor unions, because, clearly, we are losing the battle. We are being perceived poorly.

Tragically, the AFL-CIO refuses to seek outside help. The House of Labor stubbornly chooses to utilize only internal resources, insisting that hiring a big-time public relations firm would be a waste of money, and clinging to the belief that only actual union people know how to promote a union. The AFL-CIO presents that belief as a fact. Alas, there are those who view it as a factoid.

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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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