AFL-CIO spots labor vainly against image

By Published on .

Advertiser: AFL-CIO
Agency: Bozell/Eskew, Washington
Ad Review rating: Two stars

Labor day! No doubt you observed the unofficial end of summer by honoring the sweat and dedication of American workers. Perhaps you saluted them by wolfing down hot dogs, perhaps by taking in Jerry Lewis' bathetic tele-shakedown and former-star-studded showcase, or perhaps by being involved in a major highway pileup.

But in case all of these traditional activities somehow overshadowed the holiday's actual significance, you are in luck, because the AFL-CIO is going on TV to project what its creators call a "vibrant new image" of the U.S. labor movement. Yeah, well, good luck.

"What I really like about my job is that the union is there to back us up," says cheerful sous chef Erin McCarthy, of Culinary Local 226, in one of four spots from Bozell/Eskew, Washington, working with political shop Shrum, Devine & Donilon. "It gives us the security and respect at work that we deserve."'

We see Erin, small and meek, at work in the kitchen, and also with her two kids at home--one moment posing with her ethnically diverse co-workers, the next moment hugging and kissing the baby.

"We're Not a Bunch of Lazy, Greedy Goons!" is not the theme line, although it may as well be. Seldom will you see a campaign that so vividly reflects the lingering image problems it seeks to mitigate.

Big Labor should be at a moment of historical opportunity. For all our economic prosperity, the standard of living and job security for workers have steadily declined. Ruthless corporate downsizing, outsourcing, two-tier wage systems and other manifestations of what you might call just-in-time personnel policies have left millions fearful of what tomorrow may bring. And with federal enforcement of worker-protection statutes gutted by Republicans in Congress and demi-Republicans in the White House, unions would seem to be the logical place for employees to turn.

Yet AFL-CIO membership has been on a 20-year downward slide. Whereas 1 in 3 private-sector workers belonged to a union after World War II, only 1 in 10 does today. Organized labor can't seem to get organized--presumably because of the images Big Labor continues to conjure.

Corruption. Violence. Paralyzing work rules. Extortive work stoppages. Mob ties. Raided pension funds. Crooked Teamster bosses vanished and presumed submerged. Maybe these are largely stigmas of a checkered past, but often enough we're reminded of the checkered present. For example, no sooner had the Teamsters won a major PR victory when the UPS strike was settled--with the bare minimum of savagely beaten scabs--than Teamster President Ron Carey had his election overturned for campaign fraud. Oops.

So here's Bozell/Eskew with the kinder, gentler AFL-CIO.

No striking thugs in this campaign. Sure, we see one (proud) autoworker and one (articulate) ironworker, but there's also Arthereane Brown, a pretty and softspoken nurse out to save you from the evil HMO cost-cutters.

See? Unions are nothing to fear, just regular folks trying to get an even break. Won't you be one of them?

It seems this is not just an image campaign; it's an organizing campaign, an oddly soft-pedaled appeal to potential members who might otherwise not see the benefits of membership. Hence the actual tagline: "You have a voice. Make it heard." Unfortunately, this is all so folksy and gooey and Pollyanna that those benefits are obscured.

Unions may have a voice, but they're laboring here to have it heard.

Copyright August 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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