By Eric Wolfe
Here’s a simple fact: Union workers’ wages are 27% higher than their nonunion counterparts. You can look it up.
But guess what? Facts don’t matter much in shaping public opinion. In the age of 24-hour news, smartphones and the internet, the message with the most accurate information is rarely the one that resonates; instead, it’s the message that people hear the most often that usually sticks with them. Even if it’s not true.
That’s why anti-union corporations and political strategists have spent decades repeating the same bogus claims about unions, calling our members “thugs,” our leaders “corrupt bosses,” and our unions “a thing of the past” that can’t do anything for workers today.
These corporate messages don’t square with the fact that unionized workers earn substantially more and have better benefits, but they’ve been repeated so consistently for so long that many Americans now accept it as gospel.
So you have to wonder, what if union members developed a consistent message of their own? A message based on the truth instead of lies?
On the last Saturday in February, more than 60 Organizing Stewards and other IBEW 1245 members came to Weakley Hall to explore how they might “change the narrative,” replacing the long-standing and often-repeated corporate rhetoric with a story that tells people what unions really are.
“As activists, we know what the union’s all about, but for some reason no one else is getting the message, even among some of our members. We want to turn it around. We want to show our members and the public what labor is all about –working people standing together for the good of the middle class as a whole,” said IBEW 1245 Communications Organizer Rebecca Band.
Prior to joining 1245’s staff, Band worked for the California Labor Federation, where she and Communications Director Steve Smith spent years poring over public opinion research, focus groups, polling, and expert analysis to come up with a new narrative around unions that “everyone can use, all the time.” Regardless as to whether you’re talking with somebody at work, at church, at the dinner table or on a political campaign—these conversation-starters have been proven effective when it comes to connecting and engaging people around our issues.
“These are messages that work. We know they work because we tested them,” Band said. “They work with Republicans, they work with Democrats, they work with Independents, they work with people who hate all parties, and they work with people who hate politics.”
Here’s what all that testing showed: most people don’t have a clear idea of what unions are really about, and what they think they know is mostly anti-worker misinformation spread by CEOs and their cronies. But the research also found that almost everyone can connect with the idea that the middle class is being systematically dismantled by CEOs, Wall Street bankers and their lobbyists who outsource our jobs and slash wages and health care—all so that they can get bigger bonuses for themselves.
But there is one force that can stop the greed and growing inequality. That force is working people standing together in unions. It’s a simple but powerful message that enables us to connect, inform and engage people who may have previously written off unions altogether.
IBEW 1245 members spent the better part of the day trying out these themes in various one-on-one exercises. It didn’t always come easy at first, but as the day wore on it became clear how these messages could be incorporated into just about any conversation—especially in the workplace whenever some misinformed worker starts regurgitating Rush Limbaugh’s latest whopper.
Members freely strayed from the workshop script to begin sharing the experiences they’ve already gained while trying to talk to fellow workers about the union.
Samson Wilson, an Organizing Steward from NV Energy, told of his efforts to talk about the union with an anti-union fellow worker, who basically considered any such conversation a form of harassment. For Wilson, these encounters have become an exercise in keeping his cool, and he knows you can’t quit trying to reach workers who’ve swallowed the corporate line.
“Patience over time, and integrity, will get you there,” Samson said to a round of applause.
Tom Bird, who honed his skills in the fight to defend retiree medical benefits at NV Energy, reassured other participants that they all have the ability successfully carry these messages to the public.
“Even though you might not remember some of this information word-for-word, you will have it in the back of your memory. And when you go to recall, a lot of this will pop back up and you will be using this information when you least expect it,” said Bird, who is chair of the Yerington Chapter of the IBEW 1245 Retirees Club.
Business Manager Tom Dalzell called the day’s activities “a really interesting exercise.” He noted the recent vote by workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee who narrowly rejected union representation.
“How did the other side convince those workers at Volkswagen to vote against their own self-interest? And how do they do it time after time?” Dalzell asked.
Dalzell said that unions “have the better story and the better message and the better vision,” and that IBEW 1245 will keep working on better ways to get that message out to our members and to the wider world. Dalzell also plans to bring the “change the narrative” training to other parts of the union later this year.
For more information on changing the narrative, contact Rebecca Band at firstname.lastname@example.org.