Union organizing may not be as physically rough an endeavor now as it was in the 19th century. In 1892, for example, a clash in Homestead, PA, between steel-mill workers and the 300 Pinkerton detectives sent to break up their strike left 10 people dead. Still, organizing remains as intense as ever, and now - aided by all types of advanced communications - it has gone global.
For the United Steelworkers (USW), which dropped the "of America" from its name in 2005 following a rebranding effort led by GMMB, global trade issues are often at the fore of its communications with members, the media, legislators, and the public at large.
Trade subsidies by other countries such as China are a typical gripe. USW lobbying of late has included support for the Senate bill S.364, which would require "private-party participation" - USW, for instance - in certain World Trade Organization panel proceedings.
Organization at the USW has also gone outside of its natural focus on the steel industry. The number of US steel mill workers has declined by two-thirds in the past 30 years as a result of computerization and other advances in manufacturing, though the industry produces as much steel as ever.
To boost their influence, unions always look to increase their membership. As such, USW now has members not just in steel, but in all kinds of metals, including aluminum, zinc, and lead. It is also expanding into other industries.
At the moment, the USW's 1.2 million members include some 20,000 healthcare workers, a number USW is working to quickly grow. Other unions, including the Service Employees International Union, however, are also busily recruiting members in this profession, notes USW public affairs director Gary Hubbard.
"You've got all kinds of union competition," he explains. "There are 14 million people working in the healthcare industry that are unorganized and [SEIU] isn't going to organize them all."
These challenges have forced the USW, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, to truly focus on the most effective means of communications. Face-to-face contact through on-site meetings and demonstrations remains the best means of communicating with members. In-person communications supplemented through internally distributed print publications, flyers, and more, developed not just on the national level, but at the approximately 2,500 local chapters in the US and Canada, are also effective.
In addition, winning earned media certainly is important to the organization, Hubbard explains. The extensive activities of the organization naturally attract a lot of media attention, but electronic outreach now allows the USW to directly communicate with its various audiences more efficiently than ever.
"You can't just depend on the news media to do the job for you," Hubbard notes. "While we are active in the [public] media, we are also very active in our own media in terms of all the channels available - with blogs, the Internet, and local chapters that have their own Web sites. We often talk about how communications are our lifeblood; it's what we do. Culturally we were primarily a verbal organization, but now we use all the variety of channels that any modern institution needs to succeed."
Nationally, the USW communications team, which gets public affairs counsel from Glover Park Group and lobbying assistance from BKSH & Associates, produces frequent podcasts of speeches and other presentations by USW representatives on such topics as anti-sweatshop legislation favored by USW, the sorry state of miners' rights in other countries, and "Creep of the Week" - a title recently bestowed on a highly-paid subprime mortgage firm executive.
While it contracts with communications firms for advertising and other outreach, USW also has its own video production department, producing videos and other multimedia tools that it posts on its Web site, YouTube, and elsewhere on various campaigns it conducts.
In addition, polling is important to the organization to help it understand where members and the general public stand on various issues. Similarly vital are partnerships with other organizations such as the Sierra Club, with which the USW in June 2006 announced an alliance to collaborate in their advocacy of measures related to such issues as global warming and "clean energy."
Hubbard says that the USW may not regard PR in exactly the same way a consumer products company might, but the union nevertheless understands that its brand, logo, and other aspects of its image are an important part of making people understand what the organization does and how it is changing in the issues it addresses.
"We're a reflection of the changes that go on in society," he says. "Our members expect us to be ahead of the curve and have not just tunnel vision, but be proactive in terms of politics, organizing, and servicing."
At a glance
Organization: United Steelworkers
President: Leo Girard
Key trade titles: Metal Bulletin News, American Metal Market, Platts Commodity News, Metals Week, Rubber & Plastics News
Marketing budget: Approximately $30 million a year
Public affairs team: Gary Hubbard, public affairs director; Marco Trbovich, comms director
Public affairs lobbying firm: Glover Park Group, BKSH & Associates