Unions' 'CSR' efforts challenge corporations

Comms key for both sides as organizations defend themselves against unions' ramped-up campaigns

Comms key for both sides as organizations defend themselves against unions' ramped-up campaigns

To the average American, labor unions might seem like a topic solely for old movies: Sally Field as the put-upon factory worker recruited in Norma Rae to organize fellow townfolk, or Marlon Brando as the ex-boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, who stands up to the corrupt union bosses in expensive clothes who decide who works and when.

Indeed, the percentage of US workers belonging to a union has been declining for years - 12% last year, compared with 20.1% in 1983, according to the US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics - and this mirrors a general drop in US manufacturing.

But unions recently have caused plenty of trouble for corporations and other organizations, particularly in service sectors, such as retail, healthcare, custodial, and more.

Accounting for much of the success unions have had of late in organizing workers has been the savvy use of so-called "corporate campaigns," where an organization's reputation is attacked in a bid to win concessions for rules that make organizing employees easier.

Such attacks can involve holding protests in the neighborhoods of an organization's board members or picketing outside the offices of business partners, notes attorney Don Schroeder, a partner with Boston-based Mintz Levin, which represents corporations on labor issues. The International Association of Machinists, for instance, during tough negotiations with Northwest Airlines, picketed outside Borders bookstores where NWA board member and author Doris Kearns Goodwin was doing book signings.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), above all, has been a leader in these tactics, though communications director Steve Trossman says SEIU prefers to call them "corporate social responsibility" campaigns. Hospitals, for example, that resist remaining "neutral" on the benefits or disadvantages to employees of forming a union - staying silent during the organizational efforts, in other words - often find themselves targeted by the SEIU for allegedly violating environmental or zoning rules in planned expansions or other real-estate development projects.

"We often find that those corporate employers... are also failing to be responsible corporate citizens in other areas," Trossman says. "So we conduct these corporate social responsibility campaigns, where we work on our own, with community allies, or sometimes government agencies to investigate, expose, and hopefully have a positive impact on a broad range of issues."

Corporations or organizations on the receiving end of such attention, not surprisingly, have a different take on the motivations of unions like SEIU. Sacramento, CA-based Sutter Health, for example, has been fighting corporate campaign tactics by SEIU for more than a decade, says Bill Gleeson, Sutter Health communications and marketing VP.

Gleeson quotes, for example, a recent San Francisco Business Times article in which a local SEIU leader vowed to block all efforts by Sutter to get permits to build a new downtown healthcare facility. The implication was that unless Sutter plays ball, the union will not quit its campaign, even if it keeps people in the community from getting improved healthcare, notes Gleeson.

Trossman says SEIU campaigns are motivated in part by altruism and that, ultimately, they help everyone involved: the employees, the community, and even the organization itself.

But standing ready to assist corporations are PR firms, notes Ed Cafasso, MD of Manning Selvage & Lee's Boston office, who says reacting to campaigns after they begin is too late. "The best defense is a solid offense that uses reputation management strategies to maintain and reinforce strong relationships with patients, employees, political players, and the public," he explains.

Regardless of whether there is a clear hero and villain in this story - is it Norma Rae just trying to feed her kids or Brando's Malloy standing up heroically to the corrupt union? - both sides agree: Organizations have become more aggressive in communicating the benefits they provide.

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