Unions: Polishing a Tarnished Image

By Cosco, Joe | Public Relations Journal, February 1989 | Go to article overview

Unions: Polishing a Tarnished Image


Cosco, Joe, Public Relations Journal


UNIONS Polishing a tarnished image

Less than a decade ago, President Ronald Reagan, himself a former Screen Actors Guild union leader, fired 11,500 striking air traffic controllers. Public sympathy rallied around management--in this case Reagan and the Federal Aviation Administration--not around the overworked, stressed-out working men and women on the picket line.

The chief Executive's dramatic move left the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in shambles and dramatized in living color, in living rooms across the country, the plight of America's unions. PATCO's woes represented a general helplessness and isolation among organized labor, and seemed to give the 'OK' to corporate America to lash back at the once-powerful unions. Many signs pointed to the movement's demise. The descendents of Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, Walter P. Reuther, and George Meany appeared to have run out of steam.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the burial. Union leaders began to recognize the power of public relations and external communications. Insular unions started opening up to the media and employing cooperative instead of confrontational tactics with management. Proletarian union newspapers metamorphosized into slick, full-color news magazines. Organized labor even discovered the marvels of video. While the union hall is still far from Madison Avenue, these days any union worth its salt is plugged into electronic communications.

"Any union in today's society that doesn't have good communication with its members and the public will not survive," says Gary Hubbard, director of communications for the United Steelworkers of America in Pittsburgh. "We don't want to spend our total treasury on public relations, but we certainly can't afford to ignore the value of a good public image."

Necessity, new leadership, and a period of intense introspection have forced the unions to change their tack. "There was a genuine realization that they weren't doing everything they should and consequently were coming up short," says Tom Conway, president of Maurer Anderson & Conway, one of a handful of Washington, DC-based public relations agencies that do a lot of work with unions. Conway attributes a fair amount of the change to organized labor's young leaders, whose orientation is television and mass communications.

Anatomy of a downfall

Organized labor's focus on public relations and communications didn't develop overnight. The unions always did a fair amount of internal work, but is wasn't until the last decade, when hardship struck, that labor really looked outward.

A series of major transportation strikes in the fifties and sixties--subway, commuter rail, airlines--didn't endear unions to the public or to the news media. Then came recessions, an oil embargo, foreign competition, dislocations from deregulation, and American investment overseas. Plant closings in the Northeast and Midwest hit unions in their traditional strongholds. The country was shifting from a production economy to a service economy. Lean times made the leadership more concessionary. Public confidence in organized labor eroded.

The statistics traced a downhill ski slope. In 1968, organized labor represented nearly one out of every three working men and women. By 1977, unions claimed less than one quarter of the work force. Membership losses continued through the mid-eighties. Once a vital force in the country, organized labor was in disarray. The term itself seemed an oxymoron.

Unions also had developed a mammoth image problem. They were seen as being arrogant, autocratic, irresponsible, corrupt, a bunch of aging dinosaurs no longer relevant to a changing world.

"The idea was that labor was stick-in-the-mud, dyed-in-the-wool, intransigent, militant," says Ruth Whitman, assistant director of public affairs for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, DC. …

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