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AFL-CIO Plans Ads to Extoll Unions' Virtues

October 26, 1987|HENRY WEINSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

MIAMI BEACH — In a move that is a sign of significant change in organized labor, the AFL-CIO plans to launch a massive television and radio advertising campaign extolling the virtues of unions early next year.

The labor federation's Executive Council approved the $13-million, two-year campaign Saturday, just before the start of the AFL-CIO's biennial convention.

Several influential labor leaders here said the decision to undertake the campaign, which will be called "Union, Yes," reflects a realization that the public image of unions is poor and that labor must have a greater presence on television and radio or its strength will continue to decline.

Strike Stories Cited

"Americans are exposed every year to thousands of radio and TV commercials," noted a research report prepared for the federation. "Commercial messages go where shop stewards, union officers, organizers and union leaflets rarely go: directly into the home, the office, the car and on portable radios. If we're not part of that sea of information, we simply do not exist," the report said.

"The public generally sees unions in the media mainly through stories about strikes," said Thomas R. Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. "Through this medium of paid advertising, we hope they'll see the positive things a union does--giving an individual a voice in the workplace that is expressed in a collective fashion," Donahue said in an interview here Sunday.

The campaign, which will be based on extensive public opinion polling, will have two targets, explained Gerald F. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who chairs the public relations committee of the AFL-CIO Executive Council. The first will be the general public, whose understanding of unions and the AFL-CIO the federation hopes to shape. The other target will be workers between the age of 20 and 40, among whom the AFL-CIO hopes to increase receptivity to union organizing.

Positive Attitudes Cited

Those targets were chosen, in part, because the federation's polling found that a majority of Americans think most employees today do not need unions to get fair treatment and that unions have become too weak to protect their members, along with a number of other negative perceptions. But the polls also showed there is a core group of positive attitudes that a strong advertising campaign could build upon, including the perception that unions improve workers' wages and working conditions.

The campaign was developed by the Labor Institute of Public Affairs, a unit of the AFL-CIO created six years ago with a mandate to give labor greater and more positive visibility on television and radio and to improve the federation's communications with its members.

The ads are being designed by a New York advertising agency headed by George Lois, who did spots supporting the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in the 1960s and against the Greek military junta in the 1970s. However, Lois is probably most famous for the "Think Small" campaign for Volkswagen and a number of other commercial advertising triumphs.

Major Stars Featured

Lois's spots typically feature major stars along with ordinary people and these will be no exception, he said in a telephone interview. Dolly Parton, Dionne Warwick and Kris Kristofferson are among the performers who are under consideration for featured roles in the ads, although no contracts have been signed yet, he said.

He and the Labor Institute's executive director, Larry Kirkman, said they hope to have the first ads on network television by early February. Advertising storyboards have been designed, some copy written and songs have been prepared.

Dues Increase Sought

The 900 delegates to the AFL-CIO convention will be asked this week to approve an increase in per capita dues from the current level of 31 cents a member a month, up to 33 cents in 1988 and 35 cents in 1989 to finance the campaign. It is considered highly likely that the delegates will respond favorably, since they rarely spurn a proposal by the Executive Council.

Still, some labor leaders and public relations consultants have doubts about the campaign's value. Some say the potential benefits of the campaign may be blunted by the Executive Council's decision Saturday to take the scandal-ridden Teamsters Union back into the "House of Labor," as the 12.7-million-member AFL-CIO calls itself.

One official of a large union who is supportive of the "Union, Yes" campaign said he fears "it will have the hollowest possible ring now. It will be seen and heard as an effort to cover this mess," he said, referring to the reaffiliation of the Teamsters.

Donahue disagreed. "The campaign has nothing to do with the Teamsters' coming back," he said, noting that it had been in the works long before the decision to readmit the Teamsters had been made.

'Giving Workers a Voice'

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