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
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.
[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
[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.