Unionbusting was a major theme in 2011; numerous companies moaned to the media about how they were having trouble meeting their costs because of those pesky unions. Some went as far as threatening (and declaring) bankruptcy over union negotiations, positioning labour as the enemy; they’d have to shut down and kill hundreds or thousands of jobs all because of the greedy union representatives. Meanwhile, executives continued to pocket significant salaries and authorize large payouts of money for those unionbusting lawyers they used at the negotiating table, those public relations officials charged with making the union look bad.
The oppositional framing of unions in the media is a topic I’ve covered before, and it’s striking to see how successful it has been, in many ways. The public perception of unions in many regions continues to be negative, based on assumptions that unions are greedy and selfish, and that employees in union workplaces suffer as a result of having a union. The idea that unions cause bankruptcies and make it impossible for companies to operate with their unreasonable demands for pensions, fair wages, and health care is widespread, and thus creates sympathy when companies step up to the podium with a tale of woe about how the union is ruining them.
In 2011, there was a bit of a backlash against executives, but only in some circles. Some executives make millions of dollars annually, and that is before their benefits, which can include health care, personal chefs, free housing, paid vacations, private cars, assistants, and perks like free air and rail travel. Not to mention the hefty severance packages they receive when choosing to leave the company, which leaves them living very comfortable lives in their post-executive world. Companies spend millions catering to the needs of their executives and wooing executives from rival firms, paying substantial sums to recruiters and retention officers charged with keeping executives happy.
Clearly, excessive executive compensation is a serious issue. There were some shareholder revolts in 2011, with people voting down excessive packages or proposing to do so, and there was more public outrage over the issue than in years past. People seemed more aware of the fact that executives don’t just make a lot of money, they make an obscene amount of money, an amount that is truly breathtaking when you actually sit down and crunch the numbers. An amount that is far more than anyone could possibly need to survive, let alone maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
These executives sit at the helms of companies that cut costs by underpaying workers and slashing benefits. Outsourcing to regions where production costs are cheaper. Using unsafe sources so they can get the cheapest raw ingredients and components. Fighting unions tooth and nail to reject any negotiations, not just for better wages but for more basic things like workplace safety. They are charged with cutting things to the bottom line, which they do with relish, without touching a penny of their salaries in most places; those praised for cutting costs at firms do so at no expense to themselves.
And yet, people continue to believe that the financial problems at major companies lies with the unions, not with executives. They believe the rhetoric about how unions are sucking companies dry and unionising is a terrible thing for a workplace. The messaging from corporations has been highly successful in terms of deflecting attention from upper management to people working on the floor to protect workers, ensuring that their work environment is safe and productive and that they receive fair and reasonable compensation. These people, the ones fighting for the workers, are considered the enemy, rather than the executives who are actively fighting the workers.
It is an example of how successful public messaging can be when you have the power to control the messaging, through access to money, through political clout, through being in a position of power already. Executives are interviewed in the media all the time. Less so union organisers. Executives claiming that unions are harming their bottom line are taken at face value, while union organisers pointing out the injustices in the system are written off as selfish and bitter—of course they would attack upper management, right?
People should be asking themselves who the enemy is here: Executives slashing production costs by directly harming workers, or unions advocating for those workers. Executives taking home massive paycheques and benefiting from a dazzling array of perks, or unions fighting to make sure basic workplace health and safety standards are met. Executives exploiting workers to find the cheapest source of labour, or unions working to reduce exploitation. As long as people respond to anti-union messaging by convincing themselves that unions are the enemy and executives don’t need to be scrutinised, real change will be difficult to achieve.
And as long as the media keeps feeding this perception, it’s going to be extremely hard to fight back. When union organisers get a fraction of the press that executives do, and most sympathetic coverage is in progressive publications, it is difficult to get any traction. Educating the public is an uphill battle when you cannot reach the public.
Failing companies blaming unions for falling profits and rising expenses should look to their own executive staff first, because the answer is more likely to lie there than it is on the factory floor. And the general public should be suspicious about public messaging from firms using blackmail techniques to force the hands of negotiators; a company threatening bankruptcy to force a settlement of a new union contract is not playing fair, and the union is not to blame for that, no matter how much public relations executives want to claim it is.