Winning over publicity opinion to the side of the strikers can be an enormous plus. This is difficult, however, for two basic reasons. First, reaching the public means using the media — radio, TV, newspapers — and the media may be indifferent or even hostile.
Second, public attitudes towards unions and strikes are confused and many people understand very little about either. Some people are anti-union; the best efforts of a Publicity Committee will not change their minds. Others in the general public are pro-union and will be sympathetic. The real audience to reach is the people in between. People who haven't made up their minds because they don't understand why workers need unions or why workers sometimes have to strike.
Here's the catch: the people in between, the ones you are trying to reach, get hit over the head every day by the employer's propaganda machine. In other words, certain ideas and attitudes about workers and their unions are kept floating around out there. People don't necessarily believe them, but if the Local's publicity ignores them — or even worse, unwittingly reinforces them — people will begin to see things the way the Company wants them to.
Here are some pitfalls to avoid:
Hard as it is to believe, the Company may try to picture itself as a little David fighting a Union Goliath. The know that Americans generally love the underdog and so they try to paint unions as huge, powerful organizations that trample over people to get what they want.
Don't let them get away with it. Let people know that the decision to strike was made democratically, by the UE workers involved, by people in their community — not off in some union office somewhere. In fact, it is usually the Company's decisions that are made in some faraway office.
The Company may try to paint itself as a respectable member of the community and the Union as a bunch of outsiders. It is very important for people to see the Union as really nothing more than a group of their own neighbors, ordinary people who are struggling to get their fair share. Or, ways might be shown in which the Company is not being the "good neighbor" it would have people believe it is. Many companies pay little or no taxes — especially locally. Others freely pollute the environment.
The Company may make noises about closing the plant, not only to frighten striking workers, but also to frighten the community and local political leaders. Especially if they make these threats quietly and behind the scenes, expose their game to the public. They are being disloyal to a community that has supported and helped them; the community has given all kinds of breaks to let them make money here, and now they are talking about walking away. Another way to handle it is that they are holding the plant — and the community — as hostages to get the workers to give in. That's terrorism.
The Company may try to show the strike as being caused by greedy workers. It is very important to get the public to understand how modest and reasonable the Union's demands are — in terms they can understand. For example, a pay increase of $20 a week for the average worker. Or, an improved health care package because last year a worker's daughter needed an operation and the family has to take out a second mortgage to pay for it — and let the reporters interview the family involved.
The Company may try to paint the strikers as prone toward violence and may even arrange incidents to provoke it. Historically, violence has usually turned public opinion against striking workers; that is why some companies try to use it. Should such incidents occur, it should be made clear to the public that the Union does not condone violence. If Union members have been injured, point that out. In the case of a provoked incident, the Union should publicly announce that it is going to take aggressive legal action.
Don't let the Company confuse the public by making the issues too complicated for them to understand. Remember, most people understand very little about contracts and strike issues. Don't let the Company pull you into a public "pissing contest" over whether their offer really means 50 cents an hour or just 40 cents. If the Company begins puffing clouds of complication, keep pushing the issues as simple matters of fairness and justice. This will not convince the Company; it may convince the public.
One last point. Do not call the Company stupid, a bunch of fools, or greedy monsters however true that might be. It is a strange thing but true that the more extreme the Company's conduct, the harder it will be to convince people of what is going on. If the Company does something particularly outrageous, or grossly unfair, or blatantly illegal, do not assume the public will recognize it as such, Such things must be even more carefully and more thoroughly explained than usual if they are to have impact.