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Advise Labor Unions on an Image Makeover

Originally published on the BNet Blog

February 25, 2011
Sean Silverthorn (Editor, HBS Working Knowledge)

When BP service station dealers came under attack from an angry public during the oil spill, I asked my readers to come up with a plan to help them rebuild relations with their former customers. You were brilliant - take a look.

Now it’s time to crowdsource another huge marketing challenge. Organized labor is being shelled like no time in its history with Ground Zero being Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker is fighting to cut union benefits and sharply limit public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Other states are taking notice, and the right side of the political spectrum seems in a mood to undercut the power of public unions.

Being the incredibly talented marketer you are, the unions have come to you to help them make their best case to the American people. They believe there is widespread misunderstanding about what unions do, how they do it, and how they benefit local communities. What’s your plan?

I’ll give you a starting point. Earlier this week a panel of experts on labor unions convened at Harvard Kennedy School on the topic, "Collective Bargains: Rebuilding and Repairing Public Sector Labor Relations in Difficult Times."

The panelists laid out their own roadmap for unions to follow, but I think we can do better. They said:

  • Become smarter negotiatiors. Public-sector unions should become better at the bargaining table by using digital technology to sharpen their negotiations and give the process greater transparency, said labor expert and MIT professor Thomas A. Kochan. The days of back-room deals are over.
  • Rebuild trust. Taxpayers don’t believe public employees are efficient. Labor doesn’t believe elected officials look out for their long-term interests. Education is the answer, said Jeffrey Mullan, CEO and secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Give rank-and-file workers more a say in labor negotiations, and educate the public about the critical jobs public employees perform.
  • Counter the perception union workers are overpaid. When controlled for workers’ job skills and levels of education, Kochan said public employees earn 11 percent less than their private-sector counterparts, and 3 percent less when government workers’ fringe benefits, such as health coverage, are figured in.


Read coverage of the discussion in the Harvard Gazette, Labor’s Lost Love.

It’s clear that organized labor, especially public workers, needs to get its story out. But I think these three recommendations only scratch the surface of what is possible. What do you recommend?

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