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Organized Labor at the Crossroads

If history has taught us anything, it’s that perception trumps all.  While we like to believe it’s cold, hard facts that dictate our belief system, that simply isn’t true.  It’s images that influence us.  Images, postures and perceptions.  I recall reading that when Marlboro cigarettes introduced the “Marlboro Man” (a rugged cowboy on a horse) way back in the sixties, their cigarette sales jumped by 3,100-percent in one year.  Same cigarette, same package, different ad campaign.  Perception is everything. 

Take taxes, for example.  People complain about high taxes.  But when you ask them what the top federal income tax bracket is, most don’t know. When you ask how much one has to earn to be in that top bracket, most don’t know.  When you ask what their own tax bracket is, most don’t know.  When you get down to something as basic as how much they themselves paid in taxes the previous year, most don’t remember.  All they know for certain is that their taxes are too high. 

Not only are “high taxes” a matter of perception, the Republicans have, for decades, made “lower taxes” the totemic centerpiece of their Party platform, secure in the belief that all they have to do is wave the Low Tax banner and people will rise up and cheer.  Indeed, the Republicans have gotten so much mileage off this one issue, they could fly to the moon on the gas it’s produced.  

Because “facts” matter so little, the AFL-CIO should abandon all attempts to use statistics to make their case, even though, clearly, there’s a direct correlation between union membership and the prosperity of the middle-class.  When union membership was high, the middle-class flourished, and with union membership now at low ebb, the middle-class is eroding.  The numbers don’t lie.  But because no one pays attention to numbers, labor shouldn’t waste their time on them. 

Instead, they should change America’s perception of unions.  The AFL-CIO should start running television ads that not only portray the American worker as noble and patriotic—as the glue that keeps this country together—but that portray those turn-coat corporations who invest in foreign countries (to the detriment of the U.S.) as traitors.  And they should pointedly use the word “traitors.”  


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They should run commercials depicting phony “free trade” policies (the ones that enrich American corporations at the expense of the American worker) as a form of treason, and exposing those multi-national corporations as the anti-American finks they are.  Is such an approach too “emotional”?  Of course it is.  It’s wildly emotional.  That’s why it would work.  And as for that tired, old lie about the wealthiest one-percent being “job creators,” a clear, hard-hitting advertising campaign would demolish it. 

Another thing those commercials would do is destroy the myth that U.S. companies leave this country to avoid paying a “union wage.”  Instead, they would show that what these treasonous companies are really avoiding is paying an “American wage,” because there is no way in hell that Americans can compete with foreign workers making $2.00 per hour—not with a federal minimum wage of $7.25.          

These commercials would boldly accuse Wall Street of trying to reinvent the United States in its own predatory image.  They would accuse Wall Street of trying to change America from a country, from a national community, and turn it into a vast gladiatorial arena where, instead of citizens with common interests and goals, we have only winners and losers.   

And given that unions have been unfairly cherry-picked and portrayed as corrupt and greedy, the AFL-CIO should list the salaries of the top 100 union leaders in the country, and juxtapose them against those of America’s CEOs and Wall Street bankers.  Compared to businessmen and hedge fund managers, union leaders will appear as paupers.   

Labor’s overall message should be this:  Without unions to represent America’s workers, there would be no checks and balances, there would be no push-back, there would be no resistance of any kind, save for the weak labor laws that now exist—the very ones that are being loop-holed with impunity.  Without some concerted form of resistance, business would have a free, unimpeded hand.  That’s not a hypothetical.  It’s a fact.  

David Macaray

David Macaray

David Macaray, a former union rep, is a Los Angeles-based playwright and the author of It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor and Night Shift:  270 Factory Stories.” His latest book is “How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows:  Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About India But Were Afraid to Ask.” He can be reached at

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