ANALYSIS: Labor unions - AFL-CIO rolls the dice with Web PR initiative. The AFL-CIO is betting heavily on an Internet portal that would create an online community of online workers. Steve Lilienthal looks inside the union hall of the 21st century

Shortly after John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, an open letter from labor ally Thomas Geoghegan to the new labor leader was published in The American Prospect and contained ideas on how to revive the movement. Done in the style of David Letterman’s ’Top 10’ lists, suggestion number one was ’Understand Media.’

Shortly after John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, an open letter from labor ally Thomas Geoghegan to the new labor leader was published in The American Prospect and contained ideas on how to revive the movement. Done in the style of David Letterman’s ’Top 10’ lists, suggestion number one was ’Understand Media.’

Shortly after John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO in 1995,

an open letter from labor ally Thomas Geoghegan to the new labor leader

was published in The American Prospect and contained ideas on how to

revive the movement. Done in the style of David Letterman’s ’Top 10’

lists, suggestion number one was ’Understand Media.’



Sweeney has gotten the message. New PR programs have been paying

dividends, according to the AFL-CIO’s own polling. But the AFL-CIO’s

most ambitious gamble is yet to come.



The union is starting a new, low-cost Internet service called

Workingfamilies.com aimed at current and retired members. Communications

Workers of America president Morton Bahr told The New York Times: ’Can

you imagine being able to instantly ask millions of union members to

refuse to buy a product or to bombard elected officials with e-mails in

protest?’



The service is slated to start next month, and the initial goal is to

sign up one million subscribers who will pay a dollars 14.95 monthly

fee. It is also hoped that special deals can be worked out to obtain

low-cost computers for subscribers.



’Unions are doing something a lot of companies are doing, too - they’re

becoming dot coms,’ says Paul Furiga, VP of Ketchum and head of the

labor communications practice. Internet technology can achieve a goal

that visionaries in organized labor have long discussed: a real

nationwide communications network.



In the 1920s, the Chicago Federation of Labor started a radio station,

WCFL, to not only counter the ’capitalist’ media but to address the

political and cultural interests of workers. Author Nathan Godfried

wrote in WCFL: Chicago’s Voice of Labor 1926-78, that CFL official

Edward Nockels even envisioned having WCFL become the flagship station

of a nationwide labor broadcasting system. But the AFL’s leaders failed

to share his dream.



More recently, Geoghegan advanced an idea similar to Nockels in The

American Prospect. And in 1997, Scott Sherman proposed in The Nation

that unions should consider investing in a national newspaper. If only

15% of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members read such a newspaper, Sherman

said, it would surpass the circulation of The Wall Street Journal. But

the prospects for the new Internet project?



Drexel University sociology professor Arthur Shostak contends ’this

portal could prove to be the most consequential risk that the labor

movement has taken in the last 50 years. If they pull it off, it can

create the electronic community the movement requires to gain momentum

in the 21st century. If they fail, the failure will compound labor’s

many ills.’



As the author of CyberUnion: Empowering Labor through Computer

Technology, Shostak stresses that the project will need the right

content, interactivity, as well as a ’minimization of PR and

maximization of candor.’ He contends that too many union web sites are

presently ’billboards’ and younger workers will expect more

interactivity than most currently offer.



Shostak believes unions must provide greater two-way communication

between members and leadership. He fears the union that demands a voice

in an unorganized industry may find itself confronting an employer who

says: ’I’ll let you unionize when you let your union members have a

voice in your chat room.’



This interactivity, even internal democracy, which Shostak proposes, may

threaten some union leaders. As union expert and University of Virginia

history professor Nelson Lichtenstein notes: ’Effective communication

can create turmoil that leads to factions.’



But the AFL-CIO has been busy using PR to help improve organized labor’s

perceptions with the public.



Sweeney came to power in 1995 promising to provide a ’New Voice for

America’s Workers.’ Under his leadership, the AFL-CIO’s tabloid was

revamped and stronger emphasis was placed on organizing. It also

inaugurated the ’Today’s unions. You have a voice, make it heard’ PR and

advertising campaign that sought to show how real people were helped by

unions.



’We explained to local union officials and publication editors,’ says

Deborah Dion, AFL-CIO spokesperson, ’that the story is best when real

folks tell it. When we do rallies and press events in the field, we try

to highlight the rank-and-file.’



Surveys for the AFL-CIO by Peter D. Hart Research Associates suggest the

campaign has been successful.



The percentage of Americans holding negative views toward unions has

plunged from 34% in 1993 to just 23% this year. More non-unionized

Americans are willing to consider voting to join a union than 15 years

ago. And perhaps most important, by a 37% to 18% margin, young adults

hold more positive than negative views toward unions.



’When people think about unions, they think of strikes and pickets, but

unions are smarter than that now,’ says Sam Singer, head of GCI

Kamer-Singer’s new labor relations practice. ’They are playing the PR

game better than ever before.’



Pollster Brad Bannon of Bannon Research credits Sweeney with having

moved beyond emphasizing the traditional interests of wages and benefits

to issues such as raising the minimum wage, curbing HMOs and improving

public-school facilities that will appeal to unionized and non-unionized

workers alike. ’Unions know that in order to survive they have to talk

to not only their own members, but the whole country,’ Lichtenstein

says.



The traditional tool of union PR was publications, notes Rex Hardesty, a

senior associate at Tricom Associates, which handled PR during part of

Lane Kirkland’s tenure as AFL-CIO president. ’Now, unions are doing the

kind of work that more fully fits the definition of PR.’



Unions are working to forge alliances with churches, academic and

minority groups. And today’s digital economy represents a prime

organizing opportunity.



One innovative project in Silicon Valley called Together@Work provides

temp workers with training and counseling to help them obtain better

benefits and pay.



The change can also be seen in individual unions. The Laborers’

International Union of North America (LIUNA) never used to have a PR

department. Now, it has a five-person staff and spokesperson David

Roscow constantly pitches stories. But the fact that labor reporters are

a dying breed makes the job a bit tougher.



The AFL-CIO needs to replace over 300,000 members a year just to break

even in membership. It has enjoyed success in meeting this objective

lately, but can it regain the strength in membership it once commanded?

That remains to be seen. However, Furiga takes the AFL-CIO’s PR

initiatives seriously enough to assert ’what unions are doing in

cyberspace and their other communications is something that companies

should be prepared to accommodate in thinking about their own relations

with employees.’



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