EDITORIAL: Classic movies cannot replace real-life PR if labor unions hope to truly educate the widest audience

There is a pivotal scene in Elia Kazan's film On the Waterfront when Terry Malloy, broodingly played by Marlon Brando, reveals why he goes up against the corrupt longshoreman's union that ran, and ruined, his life. "Conscience," he says. "That stuff can drive you nuts."

There is a pivotal scene in Elia Kazan's film On the Waterfront when Terry Malloy, broodingly played by Marlon Brando, reveals why he goes up against the corrupt longshoreman's union that ran, and ruined, his life. "Conscience," he says. "That stuff can drive you nuts."

That criminal organization bears no relation to the contemporary International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which has been engaged in a tough contract dispute. But Americans may have no other frame of reference for the lives of longshoremen and women than that legendary 1954 movie. Now that President Bush has successfully intervened by invoking the Taft-Hartley Act, mandating a cooling-off period for all sides, the union's opportunity to make its case to its stakeholders though PR has effectively passed. The wrangling has heated up since the contract expired on July 1. Coverage throughout early negotiations focused primarily on the potentially negative impact of a strike on the US economy, particularly if war is waged on Iraq. Once the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) instituted a lockout on September 29, accusing workers of staging slowdowns to manipulate negotiations, the story began to get major media play throughout the US. Regardless of whether one sides with the union or the PMA, it would be hard to find average Americans who understand what the union members seek and why. The story is now owned by PMA, which represents shipping companies and port operators, and by the Bush administration, which has successfully responded to the nation's economic fears. Hard-line union groups like the AFL-CIO have publicly denounced the government intervention, but some traditional labor supporters have endorsed it. One of the reasons for this is that the type of shipping that is directly involved in the dispute is of b-to-b goods. There has been no obvious impact on the consumer as yet, but if the situation were to continue, shoppers may have eventually found empty shelves. Even prior to contract negotiations, the union had an opportunity to educate the public on the role of the worker in bringing products to the customer. Another problem the union faces is the dearth of dedicated labor reporters in papers across the US, as well as the continuing decline in union membership. Only about 15% of workers today are represented by collective bargaining contracts. Many of those are teachers, airline pilots, and others who don't invoke the same blue-collar sensibility of construction workers and longshoremen. But the issues facing union members can still make for engaging stories, particularly when pitched from a community perspective. The Longshore union has been working long hours to cope with the media onslaught following the lockout. This dispute will likely drag out for a long time, particularly with the enactment of the cooling-off period. Depending on legal restrictions, there may be ways the union can get its message out to a broader audience. But the best plan is to start early, long before contracts expire. For unions like the ILWU, most Americans may only associate their struggles with movies of a bygone era. That stuff can drive you nuts. -Julia Hood

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