Turning perceptions around: How California’s unions changed Californians’ minds about unions

Unions have a public perception problem.

Though opinion polls show the strongest favorability ratings for unions in years, those ratings – at least among those polled – have bounced up and down for decades.

Worse, more than 60 years of millions of dollars spent on corporate propaganda, plus union-bashing, hysterical linkages to radicals, rampant Red-baiting, mainstream media bias and outright lies have cemented notions in people’s heads of what unions are all about.

That is, if respondents know anything about unions and workers at all. Since only 10.7% of U.S. workers are union members, most of the U.S. doesn’t even know what unions are, what they do, or how they protect and fight for you and me, and not just for their members.

Those truisms hold even in progressive, “blue” states. Case in point: California.

So several years ago, the California state AFL-CIO and its member unions set out to change the mindset. On Nov. 14, Communications Directors Steve Smith of the state fed and Rebecca Band of Electrical Workers Local 1245 told union communicators how they did it.

“Ten years ago,” when Smith returned to his native California from working in the AFL-CIO’s communications department in D.C., “Californians were 40% positive and 45% negative about unions,” he told the International Labor Communications Association convention in Silver Spring, Md.

Their first step was to find out what people really thought, in words and images, not just percentages, about unions and union workers. Focus groups and interviews provided the answers – and the negative verbiage was chilling.

“Our truth is that we’re about fairness, about being good neighbors, about worker power, about getting better pay” and benefits “and about being champions of inclusion,” Band said. That wasn’t what respondents were telling them, though. “Protectors of slackers, overpaid, socialist,” were among the adjectives.

“How did we have this ‘unions just suck’ perception?” she asked.

And the negatives weren’t just among workers, she noted. They were also among other progressive individuals and groups, even though union members and their families provide most of the “people power” for those movements.

After the focus groups reported, the brainstorming began. And the key point was to change the language – and to get away from the details of policy and politics which unions, their leaders and their members often immerse themselves in, Smith noted.

Sure, he said, still talk issues, but talk about them in a way that hits home personally. And have rank-and-file workers, telling their stories, do it.

It was particularly tough in the Golden State, Smith noted. As governor, Republican Ronald Reagan assembled a “kitchen cabinet,” led by notorious right-wing brewery mogul Joe Coors, to “put together a 40-year plan to shrink union membership, reduce the influence of unions and reduce the size of government.”

That plan almost perfectly coincided with a national effort led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, starting in 1971, though Smith did not mention it.

Activated by a malevolent memo by conservative lawyer Lewis Powell – just before GOP President Richard Nixon nominated Powell to the U.S. Supreme Court – the chamber and its corporate clients launched an all-out coordinated decades-long attack against unions, academics, students, progressives, people of color and anyone else perceived as threats to corporate hegemony.

That attack included creation of think tanks, PR firms and the right-wing media echo chamber. It included recruiting conservative ideologues to produce position papers espousing right-wing – including anti-union – ideology and a campaign to influence elections through mountains of money funneled to corporate candidates, committees and causes.

Reagan’s and Powell’s plans have succeeded spectacularly, and that’s what Smith, Band and California’s unions found themselves up against. “They understood message discipline,” Band said of the right-wingers. “But anybody can do message discipline.” Including unions. Including workers.

So the state federation and its allies started testing phrases and words that would either substitute – and replace in people’s minds – the right-wing mantras, or that would highlight the positive benefits and aspects of unions not just for members, but for all. Some examples from the Californians’ “Words to Lose, Words to Use” fact sheet:

Instead of talking about corporations “keeping us from joining unions,” substitute corporations “take away our freedom to stand together.” Instead of generalized attacks on “business,” make the criticisms specific against “corporate lobbyists, special interests, CEOs and the wealthy elite.”

Instead of “collective bargaining,” talk about “a seat at the table to negotiate fair wages  and benefits.” And instead of “protect our right to a union,” talk about “workers deserve the freedom to stand together and have a voice on the job.”

And talk about “power in numbers,” not “political spending.” As for corporate attacks on how “union bosses” take dues money from workers’ pockets, the substitute: “When we stand together, we have power. That’s what we’re all contributing to.”

Current conditions also help, Smith admitted. While unemployment is low, millions of people are working two or three jobs to make ends meet, health care coverage is declining, and guaranteed pensions upon retirement are a mist in the past.

“The stagnating wages, all the income going to the 1%, and no retirement security” give us the opportunity to rebrand ourselves as fighting to change that picture, he explained.  After all, conditions are so bad “that a University of California at Berkeley study calculates that 50% pf workers now employed will retire in poverty.”

“So workers,” especially younger workers, “are looking for something to let them flip the script. Our opening is to make unions that ‘thing.’”

CEOs are one big target. Poll respondents often complain unions protect “wasteful” or “lazy” workers. “Where’s the real waste?” Smith asked. “It’s the CEOs and Trump.’

Make that point, they said. The California federation urges workers to cite CEOs who really make the decisions that run companies, families, factories, cities, villages and the entire economy – plus the environment – into the ground. And they feeding out of our trough, too.

“Why is Walmart getting my tax dollars?” to open warehouses where its workers toil for substandard wages. “And you can ask ‘Did you know Amazon pays no taxes?”

But how about Trumpites who yearn for “Make America Great Again” days like the 1950s sitcom ideal of a two-parent family with Dad working and Mom taking care of the kids in the suburban house.

That’s where Band jumped in with one very salient fact: “The ‘good old days’ were when union membership was high” – one-third of all private sector workers – “and we were creating and building the middle class brick by brick.”

“These messages transcend partisan divisions, even among people who have bought into the” right-wing “Heritage Foundation stuff,” Band said.

The effort has apparently worked, at least in California. Combined with non-partisan – not politically skewed – redistricting and strong labor organizing and political campaigning, the Golden State, the nation’s most-populous, is now arguably its bluest, and most pro-worker.

The legislature has a pro-worker supermajority, workers have a mostly, though not totally, favorable governor in Gavin Newsom, and both U.S. senators and 44 of the state’s 53 U.S. representatives are pro-worker Democrats. The result, at least on the state and local level, is union wins in both organizing and legislation.

The entire presentation, including power-points, is available from Steve Smith at the California AFL-CIO: ssmith@calaborfed.org.

Crosspost from People’s World