Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Public perception of unions during the 1980s

A basic academic rule is that old studies – especially those that are twenty years old – have extremely limited usefulness. But if they can't solve a problem, such studies sometimes still help inform debate.

As this blog has reported and commented on, there is quite a bit of hostility emerging as the current transit strike drags on. While violence and malice obviously shouldn't be encouraged, a 1988 study shows that the appearance of media to "go negative" against unions or at least favour management is nothing new.

Geoff Walsh analyzed the perception of trade unions in both media and by the general public at large in a 1988 issues of the International Labour Review. The following are excerpts from the article (found here, subscription necessary) that provide this debate some historical perspective:
The role played by the media, especially television, in setting the public’s “agenda” – defining political, social and economic issues by order of importance – may help to swing public opinion behind government or employer action against trade unions. In any event, there can be few unions today that do not recognise the crucial part played by the media in shaping their public image – and few that are not concerned about the dismal light in which they are generally shown.
Walsh referenced a number of telling polls from the 80s and decades prior:
  • In 1984, a Gallup poll "found that only 21 per cent of those surveyed had 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of confidence in, and respect for, trade unions." They ranked behind politicians and corporations who were also included in the survey.
  • Back in 1976, a Canadian Institute of Public Opinion survey found that 67 per cent of respondents felt there were "too many troublemakers and agitators among union leaders" – 17 per cent higher than 1966 and 27 per cent higher than 1956
Walsh offered his thoughts about the polling:
What these polls may indicate is an acceptance of basic trade union rights as a feature of democracy, but a rejection of what the public considers to be their “irresponsible” exercise.
Interestingly, Walsh points to unions who recognize their PR challenges. They include the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which wrote in a 1985 report that "To put it mildly, this is what the professionals call "an image problem".

The Walsh study also shed light on the increasing wariness with which organized labour viewed mass media in the 80s. The U.S.-based AFL-CIO, for one, encouraged its members to differentiate betwwen "the bias with which the owners and managers of newspapers, radio and television stations often view unions [and] the ignorance from which many reporters and their bosses suffer."

This is likely not news to many readers. But it serves as a reminder that unions and management have long battled for the public-relations advantage (long before the 80s, of course), and unions have historically found themselves at a distinct disadvantage in that fight.

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