Labor unions have a big problem: Americans don’t like them as much as they used to. Luckily for the union cause, labor has a plan to right the sinking ship—ditch, or at least replace, the “union” label.
The latest numbers paint a bleak picture. Public approval of labor unions has dropped nearly 15 percent in the past ten years. It’s currently hovering just a few points above its all-time low of 48 percent in 2009. That’s a far cry from the 75 percent approval rating unions enjoyed in the 1950s.
Then there’s the membership crisis. Union rolls have been steadily shrinking for decades. Private sector union membership is at a 70-year low, and union members as a percentage of the workforce has tumbled from 28 percent in 1954 to a mere 11.2 percent this year. Last year alone saw a substantial loss of roughly 379,000 union jobs.
It’s not hard to explain these numbers. Take the last month, for instance. November saw Hostess implode after a disastrous bakers union strike, taking the Twinkie with it in the process, a dead-on-arrival Walmart union walk-out on Black Friday that made headlines but hindered no one, and an annoying but ineffective SEIU strike at LAX. Early this month, a strike at West Coast ports threatened to put a damper on holiday retail sales.
When you consider these incidents, it’s no wonder that Americans are turning away from the union brand. Yet Labor, well aware that its popularity is on the wane, has found a way to reverse its fortunes: a rebrand.
Welcome to the “Worker Center.” These organizations are little more than labor unions by a different name. They organize unionization pushes and even bargain using union-style brinksmanship and corporate campaign tactics. Yet unlike an official labor union, worker centers don’t have to abide by federal labor law.
These organizations already exist. OUR Walmart, a worker center affiliated with the UFCW, organized those failed Black Friday protests. The Restaurant Opportunities Center—which was originally supposed to be called the Restaurant Organizing Center—is another. ROC, which has nine local affiliates in major American cities, is now actively trying to unionize the restaurant industry. A similar organization, Fast Food Forward, has initiated ongoing strikes at New York City’s fast food chains using professional union organizers to aid in its mission.
The AFL-CIO, not to be left behind, has also started a rebrand. Its non-union union organizing group, “Working America,” is technically classified as a “527.” That’s the same tax-exempt status used by political action committees and political parties. Based out of the AFL-CIO’s D.C. headquarters, Working America boasts some three million non-union members—people which the AFL-CIO still counts on its membership lists.
It’s a sorry state of affairs when labor has to abandon its longstanding brand. Yet for many Americans, “union” has become a dirty word, precisely because of debacles like Hostess and Walmart. Rebranding the movement might just be its only hope.
But rebranding isn’t a guarantee of success. Companies like Comcast (now Xfinity) may have been successful, but others like Blackwater (now Xe) didn’t exactly pan out. Many of the failed attempts ultimately flopped because their name change was not accompanied by any corresponding change in tactics or purpose. Some things just can’t be whitewashed with a few new words.
Unions should take heed. In the long run, self-examination might be more beneficial than a mere name change or a repackaging of the same-old message. Perhaps Americans are shying away from unions not because we’ve changed, but rather because Labor has turned away from what made it great. Unions should reclaim their heritage, not rebrand their their name.