Unions Turn to Ads in Labor Disputes as Traditional Talk Tactics Strike Out

Article excerpt

The single most controversial comment in five months of bitter contract talks between Bell Atlantic Corp. and its union may have been a belch.

The Communications Workers of America enlisted the same agency that handled Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential run to create the burping, refrigerator-raiding, technology-challenged "Larry the Outside Contractor," star of an unusual $7 million television, radio, print, and direct-mail public relations effort to wrangle a better deal at the bargaining table.

"We had done all of these things in pieces in other labor disputes," said Jim Margolis, partner at Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Burns & Associates, the Georgetown media consulting firm that organized the campaign. "But we put it all in one coordinated package at Bell Atlantic in a way that we'd never done before.

"It was clearly designed to send a message to the company and its negotiators," he said. "They've spent a lot of money building a public image. We're letting them know the public will hear the other side of the story."

Labor experts say such nontraditional bargaining tactics - sometimes known as "corporate campaigns" - will become more and more common, partly by choice and partly by necessity.

Union leaders say technology, tough new corporate tactics, and weakened labor laws have made strikes far more difficult to win, leaving them grasping for new ways to bring pressure to bear.

"You're seeing more and more of it," said professor Charles Perry, who teaches labor policy at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia - also the corporate headquarters of Bell Atlantic.

"The CWA was just in no position to challenge Bell Atlantic head-on, so they have to start looking at alternatives," he said.

With the previous three-year contract having run out Aug. 5, Bell Atlantic and CWA negotiators announced a tentative settlement just one week ago today. But details on the final package have not been released while the two sides nail down what are expected to be minor issues involving travel expenses and grievance procedures.

The stakes for both sides are high.

Bell Atlantic has sought more flexibility and lower costs as it gears up to challenge AT&T and other telecommunications giants in a range of phone and information services markets.

The union was equally eager to negotiate a deal in line with its already agreed pacts with the six other regional phone companies. Concessions to Bell Atlantic - including a pay raise below the 10.9 percent, three-year agreement the other regional companies had agreed to - could set a damaging precedent. The union was also reeling from huge job layoffs at AT&T and the prospect for more throughout the industry.

Although the final numbers haven't been released, CWA spokesman Jeff Miller predicted it would justify the union's heavy investment in public relations.

"When you judge it in light of our other contracts, and in light of what the company was offering last August, I think it will be clear the settlement met our goals," he said. …