07/01/2013 11:21 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

Whoever Said It Wasn't Lying: Perception Is Everything

A union official I correspond with (the international vice president of a West Coast labor union) recently shared an interesting anecdote. He said that whenever he meets someone for the first time and they casually ask what he does for a living, he answers by saying he's a "workers' rights activist."

Because people are, typically, intrigued by his reply and want to hear more, he goes on to explain that his job consists of doing things like making sure retired workers get their pensions, meeting with management to clear up wage or hours disputes, representing employees who feel they've been unfairly reprimanded, and discussing with company officials such on-the-job issues as bullying and sexual harassment.

Almost invariably, people express their approval of what he does for a living. When they ask if he's a lawyer, and are told he isn't, they respond by saying things like, "Wow, what a cool job," or "I didn't even know jobs like that existed," or "Hey, we need more people doing stuff like that." But when he ends the conversation by telling them he works for a labor union, he gets a totally different response.

People are stunned. They appear shocked or confused. According to this fellow, some people actually exhibit hostility at hearing he's a union officer, believing they've been unfairly manipulated, that they've been bamboozled, cleverly tricked into momentarily respecting a person they would otherwise have nothing but contempt for. Such is the warped perception of labor unions.

When I was a rep, I used a slightly different approach with union-haters. After listening to their tiresome litany of complaints (i.e., unions are corrupt, they go on strike too much, whatever economic gains are made are eaten up by monthly dues, they're undemocratic, etc.), I would ask them to name another institution that was solely dedicated to the welfare of working people. No one could ever answer that because there aren't any.

Not the President of the United States, not the Congress, not the state assembly, not the church, not the Chamber of Commerce, not the American Legion, the Elks or the Moose, not charities or philanthropic groups. Only us. The only institution solely dedicated to the welfare of working people are labor unions. And if you can't understand that, you can't understand anything that derives from it.

As for those "complaints," they were rebutted by a simple appeal to reality. Regarding corruption, people confuse unions of the last few decades with New Jersey Teamster locals, circa 1959. But if it's "corruption" that pulls your chain, then look no further than Wall Street, because you could take all the money embezzled by every dishonest union officer from 1959 onward, add it all up, and it would be a tiny fraction of the money Wall Street scams us for every hour.

Union dues are misunderstood as well. Across the board, they average about $50-60 a month, which is a pittance compared to what a union contract provides you. As for strikes, unfortunately, they occur so rarely these days, they're practically a non-factor. And as for being "undemocratic," that's an outright lie. If the government were as wildly democratic as your typical labor union, we wouldn't be using the Electoral College.

Still, even after we made what we considered a pretty decent case for the role of labor unions, most people remained unconvinced. They continued to embrace those deep-seated negative perceptions. Somewhere along the way, organized labor has failed. Somewhere along the way, it has lost its ability to reach the masses.

Granted, part of that can be blamed on propaganda being disseminated by right-wing conservatives, and part of it can be blamed on the loss of America's manufacturing base. But a large part of it is the fault of organized labor for not knowing how (or being unwilling) to promote itself. When you're the only institution dedicated to the welfare of working folks, you have to make that fact abundantly clear.