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Image issues prompt rebranding at unions

Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Parquet Public Affairs, an issue management, communications, government relations and reputation assurance firm that specializes in service sector industries. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

For most of the last hundred years, labor unions and the bosses who control them have earned unflattering stereotypes like aggressive, uncompromising, relentless and even, in some cases, thuggish. Many also have reputations for being more adept at vilifying employers and padding their own wallets than fighting for the rights of workers.

Some of their image problems may be unwarranted, but the last 18 months of street protests by unions and worker centers against chain restaurants have proven that their less-than-stellar reputation may be deserved. It’s gotten to the point that even the unions themselves evidently feel it’s time for a bit of a face-lift.

Recently, television viewers, especially sports viewers, have witnessed something of an extreme makeover unfolding right before their eyes. The unions themselves, who have made an art form of tearing down reputations, have come to the conclusion that their reputation is somewhat in the tank. As a result, they have begun their own image campaign intended to reposition their "brand" in the eyes of the general public. They have unleashed a series of slick ads projecting the positive role that unions and their members play in our communities.

Straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is running an ad showing their workers putting up the lights at a Little League field and extolling their presence in our neighborhoods and cultural fabric. Similarly, the SEIU has released an ad where soft lighting and a soothing piano accompany images of dedicated health care workers tending to the needs of their patients. Even the American Postal Workers Union has gotten into the action, reminding Americans that it is the postage stamp itself, not taxes, that underwrites the ability of the mail service to brave the elements day in and day out to ensure the mail goes through.

The ads themselves are interesting enough, but what may be more interesting is the “why?” Why do the unions feel that the ads are necessary?

Maybe unions’ continued erosion as a percentage of the private-sector workforce and their marginalized political clout have finally opened some eyes to the fact that mainstream America doesn't like them very much. Sure, they can always get a ticker tape parade in New York, San Francisco and Seattle, but if they really want to move the needle, they need to appeal to a broader audience.

Like industry, the unions are finding out the hard way that reputation matters. Reputation and the associated credibility that comes along with it are the fundamental building blocks of a legislative program, and theirs isn’t going so well.

They realize that, while the worker center model is becoming increasingly effective, and they have been able to successfully develop a diverse grassroots network to carry their messages for them, measurable success seems to have eluded them so far. Take for instance the intense focus on the minimum wage. Despite real presidential leadership in this particular space, a minimum wage bill can't even make it out of a Democratically controlled Senate. The politics of 2014 with regard to defending Democratic Senate seats in Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana, to name a few, have made those Democratic senators unwilling to get on board.

What do you think of the unions' advertising campaigns? Join the conversation in the comments below.

At the state level, unions have posted victories in Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota and West Virginia. While not inconsequential, such wins are also not that earth shattering. The unions are supposed to win in those states; when they start losing there, they might as well turn out the lights.

Interestingly, those were much tougher battles than they should have been. Even in solidly blue Maryland, with the backing of popular liberal Gov. Martin O’Malley, labor forces were only able to pass a watered-down minimum wage increase that left in place the tip credit and did not include future indexing to inflation.

As a result, we are witnessing a very expensive – and quite well-done, by the way – advertising campaign trying to reposition the union brand to union members, consumers and voters. As any restaurant owner can tell you, though, it doesn’t take much to erode your reputation, but repairing it is incredibly difficult. At the national level, the unions have a lot of work to do in this space. They acknowledge it when they have to leverage worker centers and other front organizations to carry their messages. They acknowledge it when they can’t find real workers to stage their “strikes” and are forced to use union organizers and paid protesters to preen for the cameras. And now they acknowledge it by spending large chunks of their members’ hard-earned dollars to remind the public that they once cared about something more than political fights. 

Such an effort is likely too little too late. What’s interesting is that for the first time in a long time, the unions are taking a look in the mirror, and they too are a little distressed about what they are seeing.

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