Faced with a decrease in membership and some public criticism, unions are expanding their outreach to more than just existing or potential members.
Volunteers and paid workers at Working America, an organization backed by the AFL-CIO union federation, have been going door to door over the past couple of years in suburban neighborhoods around the country hit hard by de-industrialization and globalization. What's most interesting about the outreach is that most of the people they talk to won't ever be able to join a union.
That's not a problem, though; Working America's mission is to recruit any and all Americans who share the same concerns as union members about manufacturing job losses, the rising cost of healthcare, and other problems the group says it can help fix through organized action.
Such recruits, even if they can't join a union, can still help campaign for union-supported causes, such as federal legislation known as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would require that employers remain "neutral" - or silent, as critics describe it - during union-organizing campaigns at individual companies; public policy issues, such as raising the minimum wage or fighting privatization of Social Security; and more.
With union membership in the US down compared with a few decades ago, accounting for less than 10% of the US work force today, unions in general have a lot to say to non-members these days, as they promote, among other things, legislation they say favors all "working Americans" or various charitable endeavors that help their organizations generate general good will.
"These are people who live paycheck to paycheck and tend not to have healthcare insurance," says Robert Fox, Working America deputy director. "We don't see this as a substitute for collective bargaining. But because of the attack on union rights, it's been harder and harder for folks to organize unions in the workplace, so this is another way to get people involved and give them an opportunity to stand up for their rights."
Apart from face-to-face contact, communications tools used to garner the interest and continued support of these members include outreach to blogs and other online and print media outlets; a Web site at www.workingamerica.org that offers engaging features, such as the "My Bad Boss Contest," which last year drew 2,500 entries and 500,000 visitors; and Job Tracker, a database searchable by ZIP code, state, or industry that provides information on workplace health or other violations at more than 60,000 companies.
"It's this overlap of different ways of communicating that has been very innovative for the labor movement over the years in getting people active on issues," says Fox.
The results: Along with signing 1.6 million members so far, the group has helped support passage in the house of EFCA. And among its statewide and local successes, the group claims it did key work in winning passage in Ohio of an increased minimum wage.
A cause for recognition
Another example of a union taking its message outside its traditional membership base is the National Education Association (NEA), which represents some 3.2 million education workers from preschool through graduate levels.
In the past couple of years, the NEA has stepped up promotion of a few broad-based efforts, including Read Across America, which had an estimated 45 million participants this year in book readings in classrooms, libraries, and elsewhere around the country.
NEA PR manager Steven Grant says events like Read Across America, by engaging in non-partisan, charitable activities, help people form a clearer understanding of the NEA's overriding mission, summed up in its slogan "Great public schools for every child."
While the benefits of that greater recognition might be somewhat difficult to measure, they are nevertheless real and can help the organization in many ways, including garnering stronger support for NEA policies and recommendations with everyone from parents to non-NEA member educators to members of Congress.
"We've done focus groups and polling, and one of the things that came up quite a bit is that when asked about the NEA, people will say, 'I know they do something with reading,'" Grant says. "For me that was an 'ah-ha' moment, that this program can have a really strong effect on what the average person knows about the NEA."
With projects like Read Across America, which has been covered on Access Hollywood and in US Weekly - outlets not otherwise likely to report on unions - as well as NEA's National Teacher Day and American Education Week, the NEA is building its brand awareness and solidifying its thought leadership, says Andrew Linebaugh, NEA PR director.
"We've had to fight [the NEA's historical inclination] to be stuck in reactive communications, and we're breaking out of that and trying to convince the rest of the powers that be that branding ourselves with non-political action brings far greater good in the long term," Linebaugh says.
Image may not be everything, but unions are like any other business or organization: Being effective often requires being well regarded.
Having rebranded itself in the past couple of years, including creating a new logo and dropping the "of America" from the end of its name to demonstrate its global reach, the United Steelworkers (USW) says it is like a lot of unions in that the image it projects to outsiders can count for a lot.
"Unions are like people; we don't like to change," says Gary Hubbard, USW public affairs director. "We're more about keeping things the way they are, which is why we have labor contracts. But while we don't see brand and logo as important as a consumer products company might, if we're trying to promote ourselves and to change public policy, we have to [project] a sense of what we're about."
Comms tactics for today's unions
Microsites that allow members and other supporters to formulate letters to Congress on specific legislation being supported, such as the Employee Free Choice Act
Offering free consultative services, such as legal advice on discrimination, workers compensation, or health benefits
Holding fun online contests that capture the attention of potential supporters
Traditional picketing and pamphlet distribution, but with an emphasis on "corporate campaign" tactics, such as targeting the supply chain business partners or board members' neighborhoods
Running public-interest campaigns that promote good causes - like literacy or hurricane relief - that help establish a more benevolent reputation for the organization