Union members and non-union members: Your experience about strikes
November 2, 2017 7:44 AM   Subscribe

Strikes seem to be impending for various unions in my part of the world. I am looking for what needs to be communicated to the general public by the union during or right before a strike. This is mostly a US question, but experience from outside the US is also welcome.

When you have encountered strikers, what did you wonder about? Was information about the strike accessible to you? Do you understand scabbing and the arguments about not crossing picket lines? What are effective ways of communicating the causes of the strike? Do you feel like you usually know?

Union members: How important is communicating with the general public or with non-union workers at a large enterprise? What have you found successful or unsuccessful?

My perception is that unions generally don't communicate well and clearly with the general public and that most people don't understand what scabbing is, or that crossing a picket line is controversial. Because of deunionization and general American anti-worker sentiment, most people don't understand things like how cash flow from well-paying jobs benefits a city, or how wage and benefits freezes cause a decline in buying power, or why unions collect dues and what they do with them. And this lack of information affects how people feel about strikes.

Obviously one union can't change the perceptions of an entire large community, but I would like to have a bash at it.
posted by Frowner to Work & Money (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up poor-ish. We always had food. We always had utilities. But, my mom was widowed with six kids in the late 60s, when it was hard for women to get jobs and impossible to be paid or treated fairly. At one point, she was an admin at a soap factory. Technically management staff and not part of the union. When the union went on strike, her choices were to cross the line or lose her job, her car, and the trailer we lived in. Her father and uncles were part of the first sit down strikes in Detroit and it killed her to cross that line, but she had no choice. And those strikers were merciless. She came home crying more than one day from the things they said to her and her car was vandalized at least once that I remember. I grew up pro-union. I am pro-union to this day. But in those days, as an angry 15-year old, I was plotting on how to firebomb the shelters that the strikers were using at night.

My point in telling this story is that that union could have cost the labor movement the support of me and my entire family. (One of my brothers still thinks all unions are shit because of that time) What I would suggest is that you communicate to your union members that not all "management" is their enemy. That some people are trapped between the bosses and the strike and are making the best of a terrible situation. That these people could be allies, if treated with respect and understanding. And that treating them poorly may cost them allies now and in the future. Some of those people have children. And they will go home and tell them about their day. And if those stories don't start with an explanation of the importance of organized labor; with an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of your underlying claims, the way that the stories my mom told did, you could lose the next generation.

How did I get up on this soapbox? Anyway, I hope your cause is just and your outcome positive.
posted by qldaddy at 8:09 AM on November 2, 2017 [13 favorites]

Don't do stuff like this. That's an extremely pro-union area of the country, but that spectacle left a lot of people with a bad taste in their mouths (base pay for longshoremen is about 2x median income for the county).

It's crucial to explain how this will benefit not just the union but the larger area. If you can get this kind of media coverage, it's helpful, but not when the result is this.

Like qldaddy, my father was a manager involved in labor negotations. He's not a bad guy; he moved up through the ranks and was as sympathetic as they come toward the union. But he was the breadwinner for 4 people, too. When there were strikes, people were unbelievably nasty to my parents. Realize that that doesn't really benefit anyone, and try not to do it.

The more you can develop relationships with reporters now and get your information out there, the more credibility you have, assuming that it does end well and benefits everyone, not just those in the union.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 8:53 AM on November 2, 2017

Response by poster: To clarify: I'm looking for specific ways to communicate with the general public about the issues behind the strike - probably via signs, press releases, flyers, etc. There is zero possibility that there will be any storming of anything, any vandalizing of cars, or any negative behavior toward non-union staff going to work.

I'm also looking for your experience as an audience - when you see strikers or signs, do you feel informed? Why or why not? Where do you get your information about the issues behind the strike? Are you familiar with what scabbing is? Are you familiar with which particular actions constitute crossing a picket line?

Although I am taking away, so far, that people are not receiving effective communication from unions, because no one is reporting anything that they have seen, any information that they take from signs, flyers, press releases, etc, so I assume that unions are universally doing it wrong.
posted by Frowner at 9:06 AM on November 2, 2017

If it's not just about money, communicate about the other issues 10x more than about the money stuff. The general public, non-union members, and even some union people will automatically assume you are striking (only) over salaries. It's really hard to get other messages across, but it's important because people are often more sympathetic to strikes about conditions etc.
posted by lollusc at 9:10 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

When you have encountered strikers, what did you wonder about?

Nothing - that's a dispute between the workers and the business and has nothing to do with me.

Was information about the strike accessible to you?

To be honest, I've ignored strikers, so the information was probably accessible to me, but I wasn't interested in it.

Do you understand scabbing and the arguments about not crossing picket lines?

Not particularly. I don't believe I have anything to do with the strike, and hence, arguments against crossing a strike line are irrelevant to me. Further, I find the use of the term "scabbing" to be biased language, which I tend to view quite negatively. I don't think I need to support people just because they're in a union. I don't consider myself a "worker" with ties to every "worker" in the world (I also don't consider myself "management" - I consider this distinction not helpful). I also don't feel like I need to abide by a union's declarations - it's an organization I'm not involved with, why would I listen to the union?

What are effective ways of communicating the causes of the strike?

Tell me why it affects me. Is the company doing something illegal? Is the company doing something unsafe? Is the company making subpar products? If the answer to those is no... why do you think I should help you? It's not self-evident to people like me why union declarations matter.

Do you feel like you usually know?

Sure - but only because I read the news. Further, I don't think I'm viewing it neutrally. Locally, the unions I know of (mostly Boeing/SPEEA) don't give a impression that they are doing anything useful beyond adding business costs for no value.
posted by saeculorum at 9:11 AM on November 2, 2017

I've never personally encountered any union activity. There's things like the writers' strike that happened in the film/TV industry a whiles ago, and that voice actors' strike more recently, but those were things I read about, not things I experienced.

I do agree, however, that if someone is desperate for work -- needs a roof over their head and food in their bowl -- it's unreasonable to blame that person for taking work regardless of a strike going on. That just seems commonsense compassion. It's possible unions actually do have a whole history of offering viable alternatives to people in such desperate straits, but if that's the case, it is not something I have heard about.
posted by inconstant at 10:36 AM on November 2, 2017

I reflexively support unions and wouldn't cross a picket line unless my dog were on fire on the other side of it, but if you encounter a picket line and are wondering why they're striking, ask them! Strikers are usually very willing to talk to you about why they're on strike.
posted by Automocar at 10:42 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was raised orthodox AFL-CIO, so I'm sympathetic to unions in general, but I still get confused by picket lines -- some are clearly informational only, while some are 'please don't cross this picket line', and it's not necessarily obvious which. (Like, a line outside an office building? Who exactly are you picketing, and do you want me not to enter the building at all, or what?)

Signs and handouts with a clear message for what a supportive passerby should do would be helpful, and that's for the part of the populace that's knee-jerk pro-union, so not even needing to be persuaded.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:05 AM on November 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

Oh, this is a specific issue that comes up a lot -- management trying to introduce tiered benefits/salary structures that disadvantage new hires as against current employees. It may not be at issue in any of your particular strikes, but if it is, I think it's something that people who don't think labor movement don't understand easily, so you need to be very explicit about explaining that it's a management technique to break solidarity in the workforce.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:50 AM on November 2, 2017

management trying to introduce tiered benefits/salary structures that disadvantage new hires as against current employees.

In the circumstances I've seen (noting that this my personal experience, absolutely not evidence of widescale behavior), unions have defended those structures, not attacked them, which has not endeared me to them. So... in agreement with LizardBreath, I'd hope unions are explicit on who they are trying to help.
posted by saeculorum at 11:54 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

What I have more often seen is anti-labor propaganda accusing unions of favoring incumbent senior workers unfairly over junior workers and new hires, and using tiered structures as evidence of that favoritism. That's a large part of the point of the tiered structures from management's point of view, to set up that argument. I'm not saying that no union ever welcomed the initiation of a tiered structure, but I'd check your sources on why you believe it to be true in any specific case.
posted by LizardBreath at 12:02 PM on November 2, 2017

When we have a strike locally, the local TV stations usually give it some airtime. Same with the newspapers.
posted by irisclara at 12:12 PM on November 2, 2017

When you have encountered strikers, what did you wonder about?

Where they rent the inflatable rats from, to be honest?

The SEIU strikes I have walked past have often done a good job of explaining to passerby what's going on by means of signage and t-shirts. They, like other successfully-organized strikes I've walked past, employed clear, understandable slogans in their chants and on said signs/t-shirts, which indicated both why they were striking (poor working conditions, lack of benefits/security/fair pay) and what they hoped to obtain from the strike.

I've seen other strikes where I've had no idea what was being picketed. Sometimes this is because of the positioning of the picket line -- if you are in front of a large building that contains multiple workplaces, you're forcing employees of unrelated businesses to cross (which isn't really fair) and you're likely just confusing passerby, since they may not be able to tell which business you actually have a grievance with. This is compounded if you have unclear signage (it's best if you can put your employer's name and/or your union on those signs and shirts).

One communications hurdle is really vague signage -- one incident that comes to mind was a protest centered around this really big sign outside a big office building that said 'ASBESTOS KILLS,' which... yes? But are you protesting its presence in your workplace? Are you working for a construction firm which isn't taking steps to protect you when you're removing it during building renovations? Is your company denying settlement payouts to retired ill employees? Give me something to work with!
posted by halation at 12:40 PM on November 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think the most effective way to reach people, which I never see done, is to draw parallels to personal abusive relationships. Like, would you go grill ribs with a guy who beats his wife? How about if his wife is your friend? No? Then why are you buying a fucking burger at a place that robs, cheats and economically abuses its employers. I would like to see signs that say, "Our manager gets paid 5x what we do and just stands around during rush, but we can't get smoke breaks. When you go in, ask him why!" List out the small abuses that are done every day. Then list out the big ones, and connect the dots *very clearly* and *very graphically.* Name names. Show what not getting that raise does to your life. How hard it is to feed yourself or your family or get medical benefits. Show how easy it would be for management to do those things, how little it would cost them, and yet. Make them look like assholes.

Tell passersby exactly what you want them to do!

SIGN: "Stop and talk to us!"
SIGN: "Don't go inside until we get our raise!"
SIGN: [map] "Here's a place down the street where you can get a burger from a chain that actually cares for its employees. Tell Manager Rob why you're not coming in!" (You could set up a giant whiteboard and have everyone who about-faces put down a tally mark. It's a fun game, people will want to add to the board, and it's a huge snub-you to the bosses! Look at all the business they're losing! You gotta direct them to other resources, cuz.. lazy consumers are gonna consume.)

Spell it out waaaaay more than you think you need to. Most of the working class is being treated just as poorly as you — let them see how they're being fucked over too. You have to bypass that reflexive "Just work harder!" embarrassed millionaire shit that's beat into us. We're all working hard. 40 hours is more than enough. Minimum wage will never do the trick.

Also, aesthetics matter. Digital literacy matters. The kids entering the workforce have been LOL-ing since they were three years old. There's no excuse for ugly signs when we have Photoshop and the Internet. In this day and age, that's a red flag that you're behind the times which (falsely) implies your concerns are also. Set up Facebook events. Live tweet what's going on. Use humor! Play music! Make it a party. Disdain is way more effective than guilt or shame. People hate to feel as if they're uncool or don't belong. Make it uncool to cross the line.. laughable. Make the petty power-grabs of managers.. laughable. Embarrass them! Drop the classic union standbys in public – no "Working Class, Unite!" – there's so much anti-union sentiment that those old lines will hit a brick wall. That stuff's for the converted.

And you better be fighting sexism and racism and homophobia, all of it, from inside. You should have a broad swathe of chatty, friendly, relatable people on the picket lines. With name tags! Don't let ol' grizzlies get in tense political arguments. Be the awesome in-group, and let everybody in. Especially: You need women in positions of power and out front.
posted by fritillary at 2:55 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Make sure your negotiations and your public message match up.

The nursing union I'm most familiar with has often advertised that they are striking because of "patient safety" concerns (i.e. too many patients with not enough nurses). That message plays well with the public, and I believe that the concerns are real.

Unfortunately several recent strikes have been resolved when the employers caved on demands about benefits and pay, even though the union had lost ground on the staffing ratios/patient safety concerns. The general public got the impression that what the nurses really cared about were their own paychecks and benefits, and that they had been lying about their motivation for striking. It made the patient safety thing seem like a cheap attempt to win allies. I think this disparity between messaging and actions has cost the union a lot in public support over the past several years.

For what it's worth, a lot of the public debate in these situations has taken place in our local newspapers' op-ed pages and via radio advertising, with both sides and the public all contributing strong opinions.
posted by vytae at 6:05 PM on November 2, 2017

Every strike I’ve heard about was about pay. I’ve never seen a picket line in person and would cross the street if I saw one. I learn about strikes from the news so that’s the only way your reasons for striking are going to reach me. All the union guys speak too vaguely about what is the reason for striking, so I tend to see it all about the money.
posted by SyraCarol at 7:04 PM on November 2, 2017

In the UK, and particularly London, we have frequent train strikes. The unions always claim it's a passenger safety issue yet their demands only ever seem to get resolved by giving them more money. So I'd prefer more honest communication than misleading PR
posted by JonB at 12:35 AM on November 3, 2017

The unions always claim it's a passenger safety issue yet their demands only ever seem to get resolved by giving them more money.

What have the unions ever done for us (Australia)
What have the unions ever done for us (Britain)
What have the unions ever done for us (USA)
posted by Thella at 12:54 AM on November 3, 2017

Every strike I’ve heard about was about pay. I’ve never seen a picket line in person and would cross the street if I saw one. I learn about strikes from the news so that’s the only way your reasons for striking are going to reach me. All the union guys speak too vaguely about what is the reason for striking, so I tend to see it all about the money.

That is exactly what I meant in my comment above. People are predisposed to assume it's all about pay. (For example, our union has been organising strikes the last couple of months for three reasons: 1. the university fired all the administrators and made them reapply for their own jobs, but reduced the number of jobs so it's some sort of horrible hunger games; 2. the university announced they are removing all outer limits on teaching workloads; and 3. salaries increases not keeping pace with inflation. The university has now come to the party on salaries (two strikes ago, in fact), but we are still striking because of the other issues. Yet the only media coverage I've seen has been all about greedy academics not being satisfied with the offered salary increases. And the union organisers have not been the greatest in communicating - all the signage, their official posters, press releases etc still restate all three issues. And even some of my colleagues were surprised when I was talking to them the other day and pointed out the two non-pay-related ones, because they hadn't realised.)
posted by lollusc at 5:10 AM on November 3, 2017

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