Labor's image problem and the Teamsters strike

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- As the Teamsters union's strike against the United Parcel Service drags on, raising tempers on both sides and among inconvenienced customers, organized labor is launching a TV campaign to improve its image.

"This is not a political message," said John Sweeney, the aggressive AFL-CIO president. Rather, he said, it is an effort "to reach out and increase our membership" by demonstrating to nonunion workers the benefits of being part of organized labor.

The ads, by two advertising agencies active in the political field, show happy union members -- a skyscraper construction worker, a hospital nurse, a hotel chef -- telling how they love their jobs and their union.

"The union helps us make sure that the site is safe and that we're safe," says Michael Vukasovic from a rafter looking down on the Chicago Loop.

"My union makes me feel stronger," says Arthereane Brown as she holds a baby, "makes me feel like I'm supported in what I'm trying to do with the patient, so these kids have the care and attention that they need."

"Belonging to a union means we can talk to management, and know that they'll listen to us," says Erin McCarthy in her white chef's hat and jacket. "That's helped us get a decent wage and health benefits, so I can take my kids to the doctor without worrying."

All these are old messages, but the fact that the AFL-CIO feels they must be conveyed now is a commentary on the stagnant state of union membership, and on the determination to rectify that condition by Mr. Sweeney, who took over the reins of the labor federation in an insurgent election nearly two years ago.

As president of the Service Employees International Union, he doubled its membership in 15 years. Now he is bent on snapping the AFL-CIO out of its organizational doldrums. Union membership in the private-sector work force has dropped from 35 percent after World War II to little more than 10 percent today.

Mr. Sweeney's campaign has actually been under way for more than a year, highlighted by a decision to spend a third of the federation's budget on organizing, focused in key cities and industries and emphasizing summertime youth and senior activities.

New members

According to him, about 100,000 new members have been recruited to the roughly 13 million organized workers across the country today. The new television ads being shown in Baltimore, Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Antonio and Seattle were not made with the UPS strike strictly in mind. But the strike does point up a continuing image problem for the labor movement whenever the public is inconvenienced.

Mr. Sweeney insists that the UPS strike will help the labor movement by highlighting "an example of the worst corporate greed" on the part of management. Although UPS made $1 billion in profits last year, he says, it still fails to provide health insurance for part-time workers.

That charge is being refuted, however, in full-page newspaper ads by UPS saying "every part-time UPS employee receives comprehensive benefits coverage, including health insurance and a retirement plan, as well as paid vacations and holidays."

The matter of part-time employees is critical in the strike. New UPS competitors such as Federal Express have lower labor expenses in part because they use nonunion part-time workers. The AFL-CIO in its new ad campaign is reaching out to them by trumpeting the advantages of union membership.

An accompanying poll by the Peter Hart research firm, paid for by the AFL-CIO, says negative public attitudes toward unions are changing. From only 30 percent of nonunion, nonsupervisory workers who said in 1984 they would join a union, the figure has risen to 44 percent.

Daunting challenge

In the poll, the percentage of workers who say they would not join a union fell from 65 percent to 52 -- still a daunting challenge for organized labor.

Mr. Sweeney expressed confidence that the campaign will improve labor's image during the UPS strike as well as "affect the morale" of the strikers in communities where the ads are shown. But much depends on how long the strike lasts.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 8/15/97

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