Dispelling Union Corruption Myths: How Unions Can Change the False Narrative
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Unfortunately, the words ‘union’ and ‘corruption’ often go hand-in-hand in people’s minds.
It’s no secret that labor has a sordid past. There have been some bad actors who used their position of influence to exert pressure on workers and make a profit off their fear. However, what a lot of people don’t realize is that those bad seeds are the exception, not the norm.
The problem is that the media and anti-labor corporations continue to perpetuate the myth that unions are corrupt organizations. They focus on sensationalizing stories of the few who have done wrong and completely ignore the stories about those doing good.
And because unions have a more difficult time reaching people with their positive labor messages, those negative narratives tend to prevail. To overcome this reputational scar, unions must find a way to change that narrative.
Positive Union Messaging Gets Overshadowed by False Narratives
Unions do a lot of good for their members, for their communities, and for workers across the country. Yet, most people don’t know about those good deeds because the positive contributions unions make tend to be ignored or overshadowed by headline-making actions of a few.
Corruption Makes Better Headlines
Unions and the media have always had a contentious relationship that has impacted the way the media presents unions.
A three-year study published in 2013 by Dr. Frederico Subervi, co-editor-in-chief of “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Communication,” shows not only the lack of stories about labor unions on the major networks but also how many of the stories that do get covered are framed by conflict for which workers and unions are faulted, not management.
A big reason for that is reporters covering labor issues lack experience in the complexities of labor-management relations, wrote journalist Ed Finn for The Independent in 2018. “Lacking such insight, their reports invariably are confined to a ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ approach, sometimes even to a ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ perspective. If the strike is settled peacefully, the employer is praised; if the strike occurs, the union is blamed.”
In covering labor news this way, the media is doing a disservice to unions and workers. Because people, in general, accept the media’s presentation of news as reality, they accept the corrupt characterization painted in the news and learn not to trust — and therefore decline to join — unions.
But the reality is that the majority of unions are led by good people who do good work. “For every high-profile story that is in the media about a corrupt union leader, there are thousands of regular, honest leaders who are never profiled,” notes the International Union of Operating Engineers.
The Corruption Narrative Helps Management Break Workers’ Trust in Unions
Anti-union companies that fight workers’ unionization efforts have latched on to the false corruption narrative, using it as a key message in their union-busting campaigns. Managers play to workers’ fears of union corruption to plant seeds of doubt and create distrust between workers and the union.
“Real-life examples of corrupt union leaders living high on the hog off members’ dues are very rare,” writes the Socialist Alternative team. “It is a scare tactic that management uses to stop our unions.”
It’s effective because the company has access to its workers that unions do not. They can post these messages in break rooms, communicate them in captive audience meetings, and blast them in emails. Unions simply do not have the same level of access to workers to be able to refute corruption claims.
Unions Must Find a Way to Change the Corruption Narrative
That said, it’s up to labor leaders to find a way to change the narrative. They need to focus on educating workers and the public to build more positive relationships and increase memberships. Some ways to do that are:
- Share positive union news. Unions don’t need traditional media outlets to get news out. Encourage all union members to share positive union stories on social media platforms. That’s a good way to reach a lot of people, including reporters who might pick up the story.
- Focus on local reporters. Try building a relationship with local reporters. They may be more inclined to cover the union in a positive light when it’s doing good in the community.
- Establish a good relationship with the local community. Residents can be the union’s greatest advocates. Join them in community service efforts and build a reputation for supporting the community and advocating for its people.
Making these small efforts could make a big difference in dispelling the myth of union corruption. As union leaders tackle this initiative, a tool like UnionTrack® ENGAGE® can help them coordinate community service efforts and disseminate positive union messages for members to share.
Images used under license from Shutterstock.com.