Public Relations and Labor Unions
How labor unions impact an organization’s reputation
By: Jackson Basham
Labor unions are a collective of workers that band together to further and protect their interests. While unionizing became less popular in the late 1900s, there has been a resurgence of unions in recent years. This begs the question; how do unions affect a company’s PR reputation? It is a complicated question and here isn't one single answer for. It can fall to how you measure a company’s PR success and how it responds to the union in many instances. As they've resurged, unions and unionizing efforts have adopted social media and media relations, increasing their ability to change the public perception of a company.
It is pertinent to look at several companies working with unions at different stages to fully answer the answer. First, we'll look at REI and their current fight against workers unionizing. Second, we'll loo at John Deere. which just had a major battle with its union. Third, we'll take a look at UPS, which has long worked with one of the oldest and best-known unions in America.
Currently, REI’s SoHo location in New York is attempting to unionize as the organization actively tries to stop it. How does an active unionization attempt affect an organization’s reputation? Well, it is getting a lot of bad press, especially because the company has billed itself as progressive. As Nicole Ortiz put it in AdWeek, “In the past, most consumers might have ignored a picket line. Not anymore. At the time when more consumers connect their political interests to their brand choices, marketers that are perceived of hypocrisy in any action risk alienating their most loyal customers. And the blow-back on social media can be especially damaging.”
An organization can pigeonhole itself when it tries to union bust while also billing itself as really, truly caring about its employees. MSNCB opinion writer Zeeshan Aleem wrote an article with the headline, “REI's union-busting podcast shows how diversity programs can be abused,” and subhead, “REI is trying to quash a union by weaponizing its diversity, equity and inclusion resources.” And even more biting, Jacobin Magazine ran this article, “REI Wants You to Know They Are Busting a Union on Indigenous Land.” These are in reference to a tactic REI used.
The company released a podcast episode with an interview between Wilma Wallace, its chief diversity and social impact office, and CEO Eric Aritz. Wilma started the episode by saying, “Hi REI. My name is Wilma Wallace… I use she/her pronouns and am speaking to you today from the traditional lands of the Ohlone people.” While the progressivism that the company has continually pushed is great, it doesn't agree with the anti-union rhetoric of the rest of the podcast. As REI states on its website, it “is a different kind of company. As a co-op, we put purpose before profits and act in the long-term interests of our members and community.” In fact, in a press release about “What the Co-op Community Accomplished in 2021,” REI encouraged its customers to “Buy from brands that align with your values… Be a conscious consumer by understanding how the brands you support craft their products and source their labor.” This is a complex sentiment. REI has billed itself as a liberal company and its customers have embraced that, so its efforts to prevent its stores from unionizing might just backfire.
John Deere is an agriculture and heavy machinery manufacturer. It is the largest farm equipment manufacturer in the world. The Guardian reported that approximately 10,000 John Deere employees are a part of the United Auto Workers union. On October 14, 2021, they went on strike after 99% of the union workers voted for it. It also happened to be the biggest private sector strike in two years. The story was widely reported on. A GoFundMe in support of the workers made over $80,000 in four days, according to ABC News. After three rounds of contract negotiation, workers approved a new contract, but not before an estimated a drop of 10-15% in Deere’s output in Q4 of 2021 and Q1 of 2022 occurred.
The strike had a substantial impact on the organization. While the polling company, YouGov, finds that 64% of Americans have a favorable view of Deere, that rating drops to 52% with Millennials. And it might not be far off base to say it is even lower for Gen Z. However, the bottom line is that most of America’s opinion isn't important. They are not the target audience of the company as they aren't buying tractors or other heavy machinery. As Aaron Lehman, a farmer and president of the Iowa Farmers Union, put it, “Farmers have far more in common with those workers on the picket line than with global companies that make massive profit at the expense of both of us.” This is bad for the company, since it's completely reliant on people like Lehman. It needs him to buy its products more than it needs a suburban grandpa to have a favorable view of it.
UPS is a quintessential American company. According to YouGov, 97% of American adults have heard of it. Overall, UPS is viewed favorably by 72% of people. UPS workers also happen to be a part of one of the most famous unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The Teamsters have over 1.4 million members. And while the company has had plenty of fights with its union members overall, it has not hit any significant roadblocks. People still use UPS every day and it remains the largest delivery company in the world. Unlike REI, UPS has not positioned itself in a political arena. And unlike John Deere, it doesn't just cater to a small part of the population. On the contrary, UPS is used by most people. It is a common sight on streets. Practically everyone knows the iconic brown and yellow. UPS has done well with its reputation. It is recognizable and well-respected.
The impact unions and unionization efforts have on an organization comes down to how a company bills itself and how it responds. When it tries to remove employees that it views as problems, that can easily cause the problem to become bigger, like Apple firing an employee for their activist work within the organization. Each of the three companies shows a different facet of how unions affect a company’s reputation. UPS is still well-regarded because it doesn’t focus on the union, and it seek to position itself as progressive or a big forward-thinker. It also remains largely apolitical. John Deere faced scrutiny from the public and a reaction from one of its most important publics because it is in such a niche market. Ultimately, even though some farmers don’t appreciate its contention with the union, they only have so many choices for machinery. As a result, it remains the largest farm equipment manufacturer. While it could be doing better from a PR standpoint, the company is still doing fine from a business perspective. Opposite this is REI, which is is in a difficult situation. Because of the culture the organization has manufactured around itself, the brand's recent choices have left a bad taste in customers’ mouths and will likely have a difficult time recovering. It is important to consider a company's personality when deciding how to work with or against a union. A union makes the reputation of a brand inherently more complicated, so a company has to be specific and purposeful in how it handles a union.
About the Author
Jackson Basham is a public relations and political science student at the University of North Texas. He is expected to graduate May 2022.
Aleem, Zeeshan. “Rei's Union-Busting Podcast Shows How Diversity Programs Can Be Abused.” MSNBC, NBCUniversal News Group, 11 Feb. 2022, https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/rei-s-union-busting-podcast-shows-how-diversity-programs-can-n1288965.
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