There's no denying that, in the world of commerce, slogans are gold. A catchy, cleverly written slogan, no matter how illogical or misleading, has an excellent chance of attracting customers. Take Nike's "Just Do It" campaign from some years ago. That catchy slogan was a huge hit, despite no one actually knowing what the phrase meant, or what, precisely, it had to do with Nike products.
In the world of politics, slogans are poison. Smearing a candidate as a "liberal," as a "tax-and-spend Democrat," attacking national health care as "socialized medicine," portraying government assistance as a "nanny state," calling fixed time-tables for leaving Iraq or Afghanistan "surrender dates," using "death panels" to frighten the elderly -- all of these emotionally charged appeals have worked in the past and continue to work.
But rather than rise above this sordidness, America's labor unions need to join the club. This on-going battle between labor and management is not about anything so noble as political ideology. Not hardly. It's all about money -- about who has it, who wants it, who needs it, and, if Jesus were alive, who deserves it. Convincing people who make $120 million a year that they can actually live on $105 million won't be easy. But as the man said, If you're serious about winning, you don't bring a knife to a gunfight.
Here are three approaches:
(1) Sponsorship. The term "middle-class" still resonates with Americans, and because the notion of a shrinking middle-class is a source of dread, labor needs to exploit that dread. It needs to remind people that not only is the middle-class slipping away, but since the 1880s organized labor has been the sole defender of the American worker. Not the government, not the church, not charitable organizations. Only the unions. When union membership was high (in the 1950s), people prospered; when it was low (like now), people struggle. Simple as that.
Stop labeling opponents as "anti-union." That tepid accusation won't win supporters, not in today's anti-union climate. Instead, give these anti-union groups a good smearing by referring to them as "anti-middle-class" or "anti-people" or "anti-family" or "anti-American." Merge this campaign with prevailing anti-government sentiment. Turn it around and accuse those states that are eliminating the right to collective bargaining of trying to crush the American dream.
Make sure the public knows that police, firefighters, nurses, and teachers are not only the good guys in this battle, they're our neighbors, friends, and benefactors. And while nobody took those modest jobs to get rich, they did take them in the hope of breaking into the middle-class. What's our government telling them? That while there's no limit to what the wealthy can accumulate, belonging to the middle-class is a pipe dream?
(2) Patriotism. Present these anti-worker zealots as "traitors." Remind people that if they want to see some old-fashioned American patriots, they should visit a union hall, because that's where they'll find them. Emphasize the fact that unlike investment bankers and CEOs, many union members and their children are military veterans. And be sure to mention that countries that are/were America's enemies (e.g., Cuba, North Korea) have outlawed labor unions. That's what dictatorships do. They ban unions.
Appeal to national pride. Wave the flag. Show proud union members wearing military uniforms or union colors, marching in parades, demonstrating that labor and democracy go hand-in-hand. Bring up the fact that labor activists all over the world are being intimidated, imprisoned and even murdered, and remind people that -- unlike Wall Street bankers, who invest in foreign markets -- union members not only earn every nickel in America, they spend every nickel here as well.
Indeed, patriotism could be the locus point where the Tea Party and labor intersect. Those anti-government TP'ers who say, "Give me back my country!" need to know that Big Business is playing us for suckers, maximizing their international profits while cheating working men and woman who live right here the U.S. Clearly, corporations have launched an all-out offensive. And the only entity with the will and the resources to mount a counter-offensive is organized labor.
(3) Economics. Remind everyone that there is, and always has been, strength in numbers. Without the muscle supplied by an organized collective, workers become isolated -- marginalized, fragmented, reduced to "lone wolf" status -- susceptible not only to being picked off, one by one, but to having management play them off against each other. It's been done throughout history.
Also, remind them that the people who want to destroy America's unions (the Koch brothers come to mind) are the same people who oppose the minimum wage. Even as the gap between rich and poor, and rich and middle, continues to widen, America's fat cats stubbornly cling to the view that the federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour), meager as it is, is still too high.
It's time for organized labor to demonstrate not how reasonable they are, but how mean they can be. It's time for an all-out fight. Worst case? We get ridiculed and humiliated, we lose the support we already have, and we get our rear-ends handed to us in a sling. Best case? We save America.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org