Unions must win hearts and minds

Between the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act and auto workers taking a beating in the auto industry bailout controversy, there is much talk about unions lately and, by my count, they’re not faring too well.

This is not new news. The deunionization of America has been going on for quite some time, to the detriment of ALL American workers.

I think I know why. And I think I know what to do about it.

I know. I know. I’ve never belonged to a union and I have no union credentials to speak of. To you, I’m just a schmuck at a keyboard so why should you listen to me? Right?

Well, I also happen to be a keen observer of the world around me, and I know what I’ve seen. Please indulge me as I share a story that, I believe, illustrates the biggest obstacle unions face today.

I used to work for an obscenely corporate company, steeped in corporate-speak – the kind of place the movie Office Space was made to poke fun at, except with the added twist that it was very anti-union. If you worked there and ever were somewhere, the break room – anywhere – and even uttered the word “union”, a silence would descend over the place and everyone would stop what they were doing and look at you. (This actually happened to me once in the cafeteria when I jokingly told the swamped people behind the counter that they needed a better union.)

Once a year my “team” would organize a huge annual event at the city’s convention center where executives would fly in from all over the country to participate in this enormous annual meeting that my team and I were responsible for orchestrating. During the organizing of these events I would always see a striking anti-union sentiment among my co-workers. I’m not talking about management in this particular case, mind you, but the rank and file.

You see, the city had a requirement that, if you were going to use the city’s convention center, you would employ a certain number or union workers in doing so. They would cart all our stuff in from the dock, assemble the stage, the set that sat upon it, line up all the chairs and, I suppose, some other things too.

There were always moans and groans and complaints among my team about having to employ these union folk, how that money would have to be taken out of our budget and would, therefore, limit our creativity. They didn’t like working on the union’s schedule and, being the motivated people they were, hated to sit and wait, keeping hands-off certain chores, until the union guys and gals arrived to do what they were hired to. Oh, how my co-workers would complain about “the union people” as if they were a belly ache. Oh, how the sighs would come and the eyes would roll!

The union workers did a pretty good job. They showed up on time. They did what they were supposed to without a word of complaint and we always knew who was in charge and we could always get in touch with the boss if instructions needed to be changed. There was, in my mind, not much to complain about.

But for me and my team, the time of year surrounding this big annual meeting meant hard times for us, with no extra pay. We would work an extraordinary amount of hours for weeks on end, and then have to get up long before dawn on what would usually be our weekends to work fifteen-hour days. We all earned salary so we didn’t get the benefit of time-and-a-half pay for all that “overtime” we worked during this period.

Well, one year we needed one of those powerful, man-operated spotlights for part of the event on a couple of nights. Of course, as a team of creative people orchestrating and directing the show, we had some specific ideas as to what we wanted that spotlight to do. I assigned someone on my team to man the spotlight and operate it in the manner that we needed. She happily accepted the role. We were, then, informed that no member of our team would be permitted to touch the spotlight, let alone operate it. This was a job, we were told, for one of the union workers.

“No problem”, I thought, me being a supporter of unions. I figured as long as we were going to have union help, we could utilize the guy’s knowledge and skills to improve upon what we had in mind for the spotlight. So, when the guy arrived, I went over and introduced myself, gave him some notes and then, after a brief chat, found he was able to improve upon them. Great! All set.

As I walked back to the platform where my team sat, I heard them complaining about us being forced to have “a union guy” to work the light, the requirement that we employ him for the full shift instead of the few hours we needed it, and the fact that my enthusiastic co-worker would have to sit with nothing to do while we paid someone else to do the job she had her heart set on doing herself. I turned away, not going up the stairs to join them but, instead, walked away to gather my wits. I was disgusted with all the anti-union talk. I’d had it up to here with the union-bashing. I pondered their situation juxtaposed against the rights union workers have – and have helped the rest of us gain over the years.

And it occurred to me…

Here we were – all of us, at that very moment, victims of the deunionization of America. Our employer had learned the strategy – as so many employers have – of placing people on salary so they could get out of paying overtime. Overtime pay was brought to us, in major part, by unions. The insanely pre-dawn and night hours we were working might have been considered “shift pay” – the concept that people who are asked to work strange hours earn more than people who work normal day-time hours. Again, a union invention. And, there we were, doing all of this when we should have been enjoying what would usually have been our weekend! The very concept of the “weekend” is very much, also, a union invention. (They should have been thanking the union for every weekend they didn’t have to work.)

And there they sat, complaining about a handful of union workers who were getting their fair deal. My peers, clueless that they-themselves, at that very moment, were being abused by a multi-billion-dollar company that had been benefiting so much by the deunionization of America, while they lost out.

And that’s when I realized…

The battles unions face are not as much about winning battles with big business as they are with adjusting the public consciousness. Their efforts, and focus of their marketing strategies should, primarily, be about regaining the hearts and minds of the general public!

The American people no longer see unions as a positive thing. They have almost completely been sold on the anti-union propaganda spread by big business and conservative propaganda. Unions, and the values they stand for, are fading fast as an American value, not simply because of the anti-union forces of corporate greed, but because of the forgetfulness of regular Americans.

Currently, we face a time when employees are being treated more and more as a commodity in an increasingly employer-friendly world, rather than the cherished necessity that qualified Americans truly are. If unions want to improve their standing in this environment – and if all employed people want to be treated better in general – we need to resell unions to the American people as a worth-while and important American value!

As for the work of union activists, and Democrats in Congress, winning on issues like the Employee Free Choice act, or blasting through employer propaganda, and gaining a foothold in workplaces, has much more to do with winning the will of the American people than dueling over tactics and methods.

Sure, we need the Employee Free Choice Act. Sure, we need to give workers a reprieve from the union-busting antics we’ve seen from big business with help from a very anti-union administration.

But you win by creating desire.

If there is a desire – if public opinion is generally in favor of unions, then union activists can forgo their efforts toward the convincing at workplaces, and it’ll help remove concerns that employers will be able to do any un-convincing. Then, those wanting to help start a union can focus entirely on simply providing workers the opportunity – ANY opportunity – to unionize. A thorough reselling of union values at a national level will ward off the anti-union propaganda campaigns that companies launch in advance of union votes. Workers will be skeptical to any effort by their employer stop the formation of a union.

If hearts and minds have been won, workers will leap at any opportunity to unionize, as they will already be convinced of the value of unions and not easily dissuaded. If then, even it takes the most herculean act for workers to form their unions, they will do so, and any effort by an anti-union employer will be transparent, and futile.

We need to remind the general public of why unions were created in the first place, and what they brought us. A history lesson is, now more than ever, truly in order.

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