Business Columns & Blogs

The world’s a stage when it comes to unions

You are a public relations consultant tasked with burnishing your client’s image. You might suggest defying the law and a judge’s order, or perhaps blocking commerce, engaging in physical confrontations with law enforcement officials ...

What’s that? You think those are ideas guaranteed to lose friends and alienate people from your cause?

Then you must not be giving advice to unions, who have adopted exactly those tactics in recent contract negotiations (the Tacoma teachers) and jurisdictional disputes (the Longshore union at the Port of Longview).

In neither case did the union involved endear itself to the general public. The teachers strike meant disruption of the start of the school year, and violation of Washington’s ban on public-employee strikes. In the Longshore dispute, the fight is a turf battle between two unions, not exactly a cause likely to rally the general public’s support.

In both cases, the disputes are occurring against a backdrop of a prolonged recession and high unemployment; with so many people wondering whether they’ll have a job tomorrow, they’re unlikely to expend much sympathy on those who remain employed.

Which is the point worth remembering: What the unions, at least in those two cases, have figured out is that pleasing the public is vastly overrated.

Warm fuzziness has never been an image the ILWU has tried to cultivate. Still, the tactics employed in the Longview dispute are a bit of a head-scratcher, given not just the bad public relations but that the ILWU has a decent contract-law case to make in court.

But the ILWU isn’t trying to win favor with the general public, which has no say over who handles containers and cargo at the ports. Its audiences are other unions and the port owners and operators. The message is clear: This is our territory. Don’t get any funny ideas about letting someone else in.

In the case of Tacoma schools, the public may pay the bills, but it has little say in how contracts are awarded. The teachers union’s audience is members of the school board, who do make those decisions.

Wouldn’t public support be helpful in exerting pressure on the board? Yes it would, and in some cases (grocery store clerks come to mind) unions actively seek to sway public opinion. But in the case of schools, strikes are as likely to generate opponents as supporters.

There is one other audience union leaders are playing to: Their own rank and file. Unions are highly political entities; being seen as conciliatory to management is a good way for a local or national leader to become an ex-leader.

There are potential long-term consequences – shipping lines that, over time, shift their calls to less troublesome or expensive ports, or taxpayers who take out their frustrations by voting down levies and bond issues. In the latter case, at least, teachers can take comfort in knowing that taxpayers are often a forgiving bunch, prone to like specific teachers even if they don’t care for the union.

How unions make risk-reward calculations will be fascinating to watch next year when Boeing finds itself in negotiations with both the Machinists union and SPEEA (representing engineers and technical workers). The non-Boeing general public doesn’t tend to have a lot of sympathy for Boeing strikers in the best of times. But the general public doesn’t buy airplanes. In this case the audiences are Boeing management and the airlines.

A strike would pose some huge long-term consequences for the company, the unions, Boeing employees and the Puget Sound region. Whatever goes into the unions’ decision, public opinion isn’t likely to be a factor. Your views about labor’s causes and the merit of strikes might be interesting; for the moment, it’s also irrelevant.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at