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Joanna Weiss

Unions are losing the PR battle

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / February 27, 2011

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HERE ARE the three major players in the Wisconsin labor battle: loud politicians, billionaire refinery owners, and middle-class people who want the right to bargain for benefits and working conditions.

Why is it that the middle-class folks are drawing so much hate?

Granted, labor in Madison has its share of supporters, including some people from Egypt who ordered pizzas for pro-union protestors. But nationwide, sympathy has plummeted: According to a new Pew Research survey, only 41 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of unions, compared to 58 percent in 2007. A separate Pew survey last year found a decline in people who said labor unions “are necessary to protect the working person.’’

And union-packed rallies and red-meat speeches have done little to quell the resentment of the middle-class voters who — with the help of campaign contributions from the refinery-owner Koch brothers — helped elect politicians like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in the first place.

That worker-on-worker ire is partly a function of proximity. As Norman Adler, a former political director of a New York public union, points out, it’s hard to fathom the finances of a billionaire, but easy to understand that the guy down the street pays a $100 less each week for health insurance.

But union-bashing isn’t limited to Tea Party types, says James Greene, a professor of history and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Even the mainstream media that were historically sympathetic to union causes — and composed largely of union members — have grown more critical, largely spurred by stories about urban schools that have cast teachers’ unions as impediments to progress.

Yes, unions have sometimes overreached, over-entrenched, and used collective bargaining as a form of highway robbery. But they’ve also stopped selling themselves to the public. And they’ve turned into victims of their own success.

We take for granted basic workplace safety, child labor laws, public school classes with 20 kids instead of 40, the existence of the weekend. Now, we see unions trying to protect their benefits, rather than explain their usefulness. They’ve been waging an us-vs.-them battle, and in Wisconsin, Walker has shrewdly cast “them’’ as the struggling taxpayers.

Instead, unions need to start focusing on matters of common ground and common need. There are, after all, other stories to tell. If you want to appreciate what union members do, watch a public school teacher keep order in a class of first-graders.

More importantly, there are plenty of labor battles still to be fought, both in the public and private sector — over workplace flexibility, sensible sick-leave policies, 401(k) matches, and, yes, reasonable pensions. Should we cede them to the supposed goodwill of executives like the Kochs? Or should we make sure there’s a countervailing force to represent the middle class, both in the boardroom and in national politics?

You know how the Kochs would answer. And to a large degree, the Wisconsin assault on unions is a proxy for a larger effort to cut off a major source of campaign money and legwork for Democratic candidates.

But unions’ substantial political organizing force hasn’t helped them much, of late. Tight elections are won not by pleasing the party faithful, but by wooing independents. Democratic leaders, if they want to beat the Walkers of the world, must appeal to voters without union sympathies. And if there’s anything clear about politics today, it’s that appeals to generosity don’t work. The voters are in it for themselves.

So how do unions start looking sympathetic? Not by battling the middle class, but by building it. The most successful unions today are the ones that have focused on organizing: seeking out new industries, drawing in new members, reminding the public that labor still has an important role. The 100 housekeepers laid off by the three Boston Hyatt hotels in 2009 are among the best advertisements around for a vital labor movement.

In Massachusetts, the Service Employees International Union has lately concentrated on unionizing low-wage workers — people who have designs on joining the middle class. In recent years, its ranks have swelled with 25,000 personal care attendants, 15,000 janitors, thousands of hospital workers and security guards. It’s a strategy that seems to work nicely. If you can’t win them over, sign them up.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.