May 16, 2024 - Business

Big Labor's communications playbook

Grouped column chart showing the number of elections conducted by the National Labor Relations Board and those won by unions from fiscal years 2019 to 2023, with a noticeable increase in both categories in 2022 and 2023. In 2023, there were 1,391 elections held and 1,152 won by unions.
Data: NLRB; Chart: Axios Visuals

Support for labor unions grew in 2023, with workers voting to unionize 83% of the time, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

Why it matters: The success is due in part to an intentional overhaul of their communication strategies, union organizers told Axios.

Driving the news: Union wins have swept the Southeast in 2024, with the United Auto Workers (UAW) recent win at Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant and the Association of Flight Attendants' Breeze Airways win in Charleston, South Carolina.

  • Mercedes workers in Alabama are voting this week on whether to join UAW, with results expected Friday afternoon.

State of play: Labor groups across industries have pivoted to nimble, blunt and personalized communication campaigns that are being deployed through social media, local and national press, and direct outreach to workers.

  • "We utilize multiple tools [like] social media, text messaging, print and broadcast media, podcasts, digital, radio and TV ads, and more to spread our message far and wide," said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.
  • Peer-to-peer texting, direct email and sharing members' stories across social media created a sense of unity, she added.

Zoom in: Labor comms strategists will deploy many spokespeople who can take shots in a way that corporate communicators can't.

  • It's a messaging battle, says Andrew Feldman, founder and principal of progressive communications firm Feldman Strategies — union communicators can pull at the heartstrings with personalized stories, while corporate leaders focus more on the purse strings.
  • UAW relied heavily on the stories of local Volkswagen workers during April's union vote, while SAG-AFTRA deployed actors and spokespeople like its president Fran Drescher during its strike last summer.

Yes, but: Deploying national labor leaders, like Weingarten, Drescher or UAW president Shawn Fain can backfire.

  • "Opponents love to say that unions are just flying into [the workers'] state and don't represent [their] values," said Feldman. "So it's really critically important that when we do have a principal talk, their messaging is rooted in the values of that community — not as an outsider perspective."

Another major shift has been union leaders' ability to communicate quickly.

  • "We now really stress a strong rapid response game — and that hasn't always been the case," said one union press secretary. "If we're playing defense, we're losing, and so the speed has allowed us to play offense and keep corporations or other opponents guessing on our next move."

Meanwhile, the corporations and advocacy groups keep using the same playbook, says Feldman.

  • "Two weeks out from the Volkswagen election, we saw billboards go up with messaging about shipping jobs out of Chattanooga," he said. "And now, days out from the Mercedes election in Alabama, we are seeing the same billboards."
  • Mercedes went a step further and enlisted famed University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban — who owns multiple Mercedes dealerships and reportedly does not endorse the UAW's campaign — to give a motivational speech to its workers shortly after the union campaign launched.

Reality check: "In a big, high-profile organizing campaign like this on both sides there's always some jockeying or theatrics," Sharon Block, executive director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School, told Axios' Nathan Bomey.

What to watch: Labor communicators are focused on mobilizing autoworkers across the South, like Mercedes and Hyundai in Alabama, Toyota in Kentucky and BMW in South Carolina.

  • But the clock could be ticking, notes Feldman. "While it's important to separate organizing and joining unions from politics, a change in the administration is a real threat to the momentum that workers are having right now."

Go deeper: Mercedes-Benz asked Nick Saban to address Alabama workers after UAW launched organizing campaign

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