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New Labor Forum, Spring, 2005
Bad Connections: How Labor Fails to Communicate
New strategies to build public support and worker involvement

By Matt Witt

AS UNION MEMBERSHIP DROPS below 13 percent of the work force and as 
employers and their anti-worker political allies become stronger and more 
sophisticated, public support has become even more important to the success 
of most union bargaining, organizing, and political strategies. Yet, it is 
often difficult to win that support because most members of the voting 
public see the labor movement as a top-down, special interest.

*        In a national poll, voters were asked whether various institutions 
or individuals have "too little influence" in America today.  More than 80 
percent said that "working people" have too little influence, but only 20 
percent said "labor unions" do.[i]
*        By 2 1/2 to 1, voters said that unions care only about their own 
members, not about the interests of working people generally.[ii]
*        Asked who makes decisions in unions, more people said that "the 
union" does than said that "the members" do.[iii]
*        In a separate poll, 80 percent of voters said they would trust 
"public employees in your community" on policy issues related to public 
services, but that number dropped to 53 percent who would trust "labor 
unions that represent public employees" --  12 percentage points lower than 
the Chamber of Commerce.[iv]
*        While between 43% and 50% of Americans who by law could be 
represented by a union say they would vote to have one if they could make 
that choice without employer interference -- which is good news as far as 
it goes -- 79% (or nearly twice as many) said they would vote for an 
"employee association."  In focus groups, nonunion working people explained 
the distinction: many see a "union" as an outside institution that has its 
own agenda and thrives on conflict, while an "employee association" would 
be controlled by workers themselves and would be focused on resolving 
problems rather than creating them.[v]

The easy, comfortable explanation for these perceptions is to blame them on 
"media bias" that has given the public bad impressions of unions -- and 
there certainly is some truth to that.  The media regularly tag unions -- 
worker organizations that fight for Medicare, Social Security or good, 
secure jobs -- with the same "special interest" label applied to corporate 
CEOs lobbying for tax loopholes or fewer health and safety regulations.  In 
contract negotiations, unions are said to "demand," while corporations 
"offer."  Disagreements are described as "labor disputes," even if it is 
management that is refusing to invest in the good jobs the community 

These patterns are no surprise given the interests of the huge 
conglomerates that now own most media outlets, the "positive environment" 
sought by corporate advertisers, and the class background of most editors, 
producers, and other media decision-makers.[vii]

But while the corporate media make an easy and often deserving target for 
complaints, many of labor's image problems result from unions shooting 
themselves in the foot by failing to apply proven best practices for 
communication.  Most union communication with the media and the public -- 
and even some well intentioned media support work by academics and other 
allies -- aggravates labor's top-down, special interest image, instead of 
combating it.  Meanwhile, most unions' efforts to communicate with their 
own members also fail to apply the labor movement's own research about what 
members want and respond to.

In every communication with the public, unions make choices -- consciously 
or not -- about how an issue is framed, who are the spokespeople, what 
visual images are presented, and what tone is used:

*        Is the issue framed to highlight the connection to the broad 
public interest -- or to emphasize only the particular needs of the union 
or its members?
*        Are workers, family members, and community allies featured as 
spokespeople, or is all the talking done by union officials who the public 
perceives as representing narrow, institutional interests?
*        Are event locations, signs, slogans, and chants chosen to 
emphasize the public interest connection, or just union militance?
*        Is the tone chosen to show workers taking a stand for the 
community interest but open to reasonable solutions, or is the union 
demanding what it wants, or else?

Too often, unions make the wrong choices.

*        Union presidents often hold news conferences or issue news 
releases -- without worker or community spokespeople -- to announce the 
organization's contract "demands" based on what the members "deserve," with 
little or no reference to the public interest.

*        Leaders brag about how much money they are spending in political 
races and stand with their arms in the air together with politicians to 
announce endorsements made because those officeholders have "always been 
there when labor needed them" -- instead of showing workers and their 
families supporting elected officials because of their track record in 
serving all working people.

*        Unions announce organizing drives targeting a particular work 
site, company, or industry -- instead of highlighting workers explaining 
why they are choosing to form a union for the benefit of the whole community.

*        Union picket lines typically feature chants provided by the union 
that have been around since the 1930s and that provide no public interest 
message to passersby, television viewers, or radio listeners:  "We are the 
union, the mighty might union; everywhere we go, people want to know, who 
we are, so we tell them?" or "The boss says cutback, we say fight back."

*        Issues like the freedom of working people to choose to have a 
union too often are presented in jargon that suggests the public is a 
bystander with no stake in the outcome: "labor law reform," "leveling the 
playing field," "card check recognition," or "majority verification."

For years, unions have made choices that helped create the common visual 
image of collective bargaining in the United States: a table where a union 
leader in a suit reaches across to shake hands to open bargaining or to 
complete a settlement with corporate executives, also in suits.  The public 
can be forgiven for concluding after seeing these images that the 
bargaining is about the institutional interests of the union and the 
company -- not about issues that affect working people and their communities.

In 2003, when seven Los Angeles locals of the United Food and Commercial 
Workers (UFCW) got into a bitter contract fight with major national grocery 
chains over a number of issues, including proposed cuts in health benefits, 
the union chose to provide workers with picket signs that read -- not 
"Affordable Health Care for All" or "Our Community Needs Health Care" -- 
but "UFCW - Locked Out - Please Respect Our Picket Line."  As a result, 
every time picketers were seen by the public or shown in newspaper 
photographs or TV news footage, what amounted to free advertising space 
that could have helped frame the battle in broader terms was 
squandered.   The unions' campaign web site was called -- not 
StandUpForHealthCare -- but SaveOurHealthCare, with "Our" clearly defined 
on the site as no broader than the particular workers who had been locked 

After the four-month grocery battle ended with severe concessions, a Los 
Angeles Times reporter contrasted the unions' communications failures with 
the successful Justice for Janitors strike in the same city a few years 
earlier, in which organized involvement by community allies helped make the 
janitors a symbol of working people standing up to corporate greed.  "The 
union locals also failed to communicate the issues clearly to supermarket 
customers, especially in the early stage of the dispute," the Times 
analysis concluded. "No one's denying that the arcane details of health 
benefits are difficult to communicate. But the idea that this contract is 
symptomatic of attempts by employers around the country to push health-care 
costs onto their employees is easy to grasp. It should have been at the 
core of the union's campaign to win public sympathy from the start."[viii]

As the Times reporter pointed out, effective techniques for featuring 
worker and community voices and highlighting the public's stake in a union 
campaign's success are well established and proven.  Perhaps the best known 
and largest- scale example is the Teamsters national contract campaign and 
strike at United Parcel Service (UPS) in 1997.  The campaign could have 
been presented as a standard attempt by union leaders to win increased pay, 
benefits, and job opportunities for members.  Instead, the union organized 
months of media events in which workers and their families did the talking, 
with an emphasis on an issue of particular public appeal: reversing the 
company's shift of good full-time jobs to lower-paid part-time 
jobs.[ix]  "Part-Time America Won't Work" was the campaign's broad public 
interest theme.  "To the corporations that are creating a throwaway job 
economy, we say 'enough is enough,'" union leaders told reporters.

By the time UPS realized that it wasn't dealing with labor's traditional 
and often self-defeating campaign strategy, it was already on the defensive 
-- and the workers won an agreement to provide 10,000 new full-time jobs, 
the largest wage hikes in company history, and pension increases of up to 
50 percent. After the strike, UPS Vice Chair John Alden told Business Week, 
"If I had known that it was going to go from negotiating for UPS to 
negotiating for part-time America, we would've approached it differently."[x]

The Teamsters campaign showed that the public interest framing that 
connects with voters also inspires most union members, who feel pride that 
they are fighting for good jobs, quality services, and basic fairness for 
their communities and future generations and not only for themselves.  At 
midnight when the strike began, a national wire service reporter went to a 
picket line close to UPS headquarters in Atlanta and asked a picketer what 
the work stoppage was about.  After months of activities with a disciplined 
public interest message, it wasn't surprising that the striker gave the 
reporter a quote that would help build the broadest public support:  "We're 
striking for every worker in America. We can't have only low 
service-industry wages in this country."[xi]

The Teamsters involved members in the public-interest campaign by 
organizing actions at job sites -- something most unions today don't do 
very often despite polling and focus group research by the AFL-CIO and SEIU 
showing that worksite communication and other direct, person-to-person 
contact is the most effective way to communicate with most union 
members.  A statistic typical of that research showed that union members 
who were contacted at work about the 2000 election voted by a 43 percent 
margin for the union-backed candidate for U.S. president, while the margin 
dropped to 27 percent among those not contacted.[xii]

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) delved deeper into these 
findings by conducting focus groups around the country to ask members what 
forms of communication work.  The focus group format, with two hours of 
anonymous discussion led by an outside facilitator, made it possible to get 
past many members' natural reluctance to admit to union officers, staff, or 
pollsters that they don't read publications the union takes the trouble to 
send them.  It also provided an opportunity to test whether members were 
familiar with specific union publications they had recently been mailed or 
given at work, and whether they actually knew about events and facts that 
were prominently featured in those newsletters or magazines.

Although local unions were chosen for this research in part because they 
had well written and designed publications, virtually none of the randomly 
selected members were reading what they were mailed, and many did not even 
remember receiving those materials (even though the union did have their 
correct addresses).  Major themes that had been repeated in mailed 
publications for months registered no recognition at all from most 
members.  In contrast, most members who were being given one- or two-page 
leaflets by stewards at work were familiar both with those worksite 
bulletins and some of the content they contained.

It's not hard to see why worksite communication is more effective than 
mailed material.  It's two-way, allowing both for members' input and 
questions and for making it clear to them that getting results on the 
issues they care about depends on their involvement.  It builds ongoing 
relationships, trust, and unity.  It is done when the timing of campaigns 
requires it -- not on a rigid and less frequent publications schedule.  And 
it doesn't require people to read a lot of words -- which fewer and fewer 
Americans will do.

For all those reasons, few unions would try to organize nonunion workers 
merely by mailing them a magazine or newsletter every now and then.  Yet, 
at a time that unions urgently need to organize their own members to get 
involved in contract campaigns, reach out to nonunion workers, and 
participate in political action, many let mailed publications carry most of 
the load.

In focus group discussions, members made clear what kind of communication 
most are looking for:

*        Leaflet length.
*        Handed out at work where it's possible to discuss it.
*        Conveyed by phone if the nature of the work site makes it 
impossible to do so in person.
*        Based on issues that are clearly relevant to workers.
*        Focused on what the member can do to help achieve goals, and not 
just reporting on what "the union" is doing.

Members had an easy time explaining the difference between relatively 
lengthy publications mailed to their homes and short leaflets handed to 
them at work.

*        "If it comes in [the mail] and you've got a pile of stuff on your 
table -- it's in the ads from Kmart?"
*        "Not only that, you have union members at work.  Nobody at my home 
is in the same union as I am, and the kids don't care.  So if there's 
issues, then I can talk with my coworkers at that time."
*        "[When you get a leaflet] you're right there among your coworkers 
if there's anything standing out for budget or pay increase or layoffs or 
whatever the matter is.  You have other people to discuss it with."
*        "If there is anything in [the magazine], you have to look for 
it.  It takes time.   Whereas something like [a leaflet], it's quick.  It's 
easy.  It's there."
*        "It just seems like there's an awful lot of expense?that would go 
into making this [magazine].  And mailing it to send it to people who 
aren't even going to read it, who don't even look at it?this is almost 

Shown a "President's Column" from their union magazine and then an action 
leaflet that made the same points in much briefer, bulleted format, members 
almost unanimously chose the leaflet as a more effective way to reach 
them.  This doesn't mean that most members want their union officials to be 
invisible.  To the contrary, they like to see their leaders on the front 
lines, taking part in actions, listening to workers, or educating the 
public about working family issues.  But they said they want brief 
information on strategies and results in fighting for affordable health 
care, secure jobs, or adequate staffing -- not what they see as self 
promotion or reporting on union process (meetings held, resolutions passed, 
"accolades" for leaders and staff).

Asked whether web sites or email were effective ways to communicate with 
them, virtually all of the members -- including white-collar local 
government workers -- said no, either because they aren't "online" at all 
or because they only use those tools for personal communication or shopping.

The focus group results obviously don't apply to every single worker in 
every American work site:  there may be some individual members who 
particularly like to read or who turn to the Internet for information.  But 
when a report was presented at a national meeting of SEIU local union 
leaders, some took the findings to heart and launched reexaminations of 
their member communications programs.  "For years, I've noticed that our 
polls show that more than half our members read our magazine, but whenever 
I go to the buildings where they work and ask them about it, they don't 
even know what I'm talking about," said the head of a major local union 
that had a well written, professional looking publication.  "I've always 
suspected that they weren't reading it, but this really tells me we have to 
make some changes."

One local that is trying to learn from the members' feedback is SEIU 1199P, 
which covers health care workers in Pennsylvania.  The local stopped 
publishing its newsletter of up to 24 pages that had been mailed to 
homes.  Instead, it is putting the money and staff time into targeted 
worksite action fliers, leaflet tools and training for internal organizing 
staff and active members, and a short action bulletin for stewards and 
other key activists.  "These are challenging changes," 1199P President Tom 
DeBruin told the leaders of other SEIU locals.  "It requires a steward 
system strong enough to make sure the information really is distributed and 
discussed.  It requires staff making a shift from thinking about putting 
out 'news' and instead thinking of what we put out as campaign leaflets to 
help people get more involved.  It's harder, but it's what we have to do to 
build a stronger union."

Tools to help leaders, staff, activists, and allies apply more effective 
approaches to communication with union members and the public are now 
shared at an independent web site, 
http://www.theworksite.org TheWorkSite.org, that also has other resources 
for grassroots organizing of all kinds.  But unions that are attempting to 
rebuild worksite communication rather than relying on mailed publications, 
and to change the way they do media work, are a small minority.

Every union is affected by other unions' communications practices.  After 
all, focus groups consistently show that most members of the public don't 
distinguish between one union and another, and when one union can't build 
public support or get its members involved, the ability of the whole labor 
movement to win is diminished.   But even though some approaches are proven 
to work better than others, the labor movement has few ways to share that 
research or conduct training -- and no mechanism for agreeing on standards 
that everyone commits to live up to.  Whether at the national, state, or 
local levels, it is rare for unions -- even locals of the same national 
union -- to systematically plan and coordinate communications strategy in 
common media markets or in dealing with the same industry or employer.  To 
the contrary, it is far more common for unions to see each other as 
communications rivals, with each one competing for media attention for its 
president or its particular campaigns.

These problems highlight the fact that improving union communications 
approaches cannot be separated from increasing the overall effectiveness, 
unity, and strength of the labor movement.  Building stronger worksite 
organization and member involvement is not just a communications challenge 
but requires a different approach than many unions take to internal and 
external organizing, collective bargaining, and political action.  Being 
tied more closely to community groups and community issues represents not 
just a communications shift but a different strategy for winning social and 
economic justice and putting public pressure on big corporations.  The 
repeated finding in AFL-CIO polls and focus groups that most working 
Americans don't ever think about unions as a solution to the problems they 
face cannot be addressed just by better communications but requires 
strategies to organize on an entirely different scale.  As a participant 
said at a recent Jobs With Justice communications workshop, "It's great to 
put workers out front and show that what unions are fighting for is 
community based, but for it to mean anything it's got to be real."

[i] Peter D. Hart Research for AFL-CIO, March 1999.
[ii] Peter D. Hart Research for AFL-CIO, February, 2003.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Lake, Snell, Perry for SEIU, April, 1999.
[v] Peter D. Hart Research for AFL-CIO, March, 1999.
[vi] For a detailed description of a college course examining how the media 
deals with issues of work, class, and labor, including references to books 
and articles on the subject, see Matt Witt, "Teaching About the Media, 
Work, and Class" at www.TheWorkSite.org.
[vii] Matt Witt, "Missing in Action: Media Images of Real Workers," Los 
Angeles Times, August 30, 1999.
[viii] Michael Hiltzik, "Lengthy Strike Shows Evolution of Union Hasn't 
Kept Up With Rise of Grocery Giants," Los Angeles Times, January 22, 2004.
[ix] Matt Witt and Rand Wilson, "Part-Time America Won't Work," in Not Your 
Father's Labor Movement (New York: Verso, 1998).
[x] Paul Magnusson, "A Wake-Up Call for Business, Business Week, September 
1, 1997.
[xi] Reuters, August 3, 1997.
[xii] Hart/Lake poll for AFL-CIO, November, 2000.

Matt Witt has directed national communications programs for SEIU, the 
Teamsters, and the Mine Workers, and provided communications assistance to 
unions in education, manufacturing, public services, airlines, 
entertainment, and other sectors.  He is a senior fellow at the independent 
American Labor Education Center, has taught communications at American 
University, and coordinates TheWorkSite.org, a free web site that provides 
activists with tools for more effective communications and grassroots 
organizing. His work has appeared in the L.A. Times, New York Times, 
Washington Post, and many other publications.  He is the author of the 
book, In Our Blood: Four Coal Mining Families.

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