What Unions Really Should Have Said in New Ad Campaign

Union workers
Union workers

Do you belong to a union? If so, you're one of a dying breed: As The New York Timesreported last year, union membership has sunk to less than 12% of all workers, its lowest level in 70 years. Looking at last year's headlines, it isn't hard to see why: Between public-sector union fights in Wisconsin and Ohio, attacks against unions from politicians across the country, and Wall Street Journal editorials accusing them of fomenting class warfare, it would appear that 2011 was the year for scapegoating organized labor.

On Tuesday, the unions fought back by launching a $1.5 million ad campaign that they unveiled in Pittsburgh and Austin, and that will soon spread to several other cities. The centerpiece is "Work Connects Us All," a slick commercial featuring firemen, teachers, cooks, and a various other stereotypical laborers as an NPR-toned narrator mouths platitudes like "Work is what shakes us awake every morning ... and knocks us out every night." Here's the video:

At first glance, it's not a bad ad. After all, the unemployment rate is hovering around 8.5%, the "underemployment" rate tops 15%, and there are approximately 6 million long-term unemployed who aren't counted in the official unemployment figures because they've given up looking for a job. Selling "work" in this environment is like trying to convince a starving man that sandwiches are mighty tasty.

So, unions have linked themselves to an idea sure to draw plenty of support. The problem, as critics will undoubtedly point out, is that "work" and "unions" are not synonymous. On the other side of the argument, advocates of right-to-work policies claim that unions increase unemployment by making workers less competitive in the global market. For that matter, union concessions like two-tiered wage scale systems -- in which new hires get paid far less than their predecessors -- have been hailed as the salvation of Detroit's auto industry, and a major factor in the creation of new jobs. In other words, when unions get out of the way, opponents argue, work becomes more widely available.

What Unions Actually Do for You

A more effective way for unions to draw support would be to respond directly to the claims leveled against them. For example, while right-to-work fans argue that unions increase unemployment, there's a considerable body of evidence to suggest that they actually boost employment, as well as the average standard of living. According to Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, Oklahoma's right-to-work policies resulted in a steady rise in unemployment, an average income drop of about $1,500, and skimpier benefits packages for workers. And the impact extends far beyond union members: A 2011 study by the left-leaning Center for American Progress showed that the ten states with the lowest union membership -- North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas -- also have the weakest middle classes. Conversely, where union wages increase, the study showed, so do non-union wages.

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And if unions want to cast the net a little wider, they can take justifiable credit for a variety of work benefits that most Americans today take for granted. Among other things, unions helped bring about minimum wage laws, the 40-hour work week, the end of child labor, and the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which makes it possible for new mothers to take time off to care for their babies.

But perhaps the best way for unions to make the case for their worth would be to use the It's a Wonderful Life approach: Offer Americans a glimpse of what life would be like if unions had never existed. They wouldn't have to look far: 1911's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 workers, illustrates the tragedies that can result from poor workplace conditions, and the 2010 fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 28 garment workers shows that the issue is still relevant today. Side note: the Bangladesh factory makes clothes for Gap (GPS), Sears (SHLD), Target (TGT), and several other American retailers that used to employ union labor, but outsourced the work to countries where unions are persecuted and worker protections aren't on the books.

For anyone who works in America -- and enjoys its worker protections -- unions should be a pretty easy sell. Of course, it would help if the unions could learn to better market their message.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.