WASHINGTON – The AFL-CIO on Tuesday launched a new advertising campaign to promote unions as a voice for all working people, a move that comes amid declining membership and growing hostility to organized labor in a number of states.
The effort began with television ads airing in Pittsburgh and Austin, Texas, and will expand to Portland, Ore., and other cities in the coming months, officials said. The initial cost of the campaign is $1.5 million, but that is expected to increase as more cities are targeted.
AFL-CIO officials say the ads use a fresh approach to highlight what unions stand for at a time of growing debate over income inequality. The ads come as states like Wisconsin and Ohio have moved to curb the bargaining rights of public employee unions and taken other measures that could weaken the clout of the labor movement.
"This campaign showcases the values that America's unions share with all working people: hard work, quality work, and how every one of us is connected," said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler.
The 30- and 60-second ads feature workers such as firefighters, nurses and miners with a voiceover saying, "Work doesn't separate. It's what binds us together. I teach your kid, you fix my car, he builds my city, she keeps it safe. Work is what connects us."
It is the first time since 1997 that the AFL-CIO has spent heavily on a national campaign to raise the image of unions. Back then, unions represented about 14 percent of American workers, down from 20 percent in the early 1980s.
The most recent numbers show unions now make up only 11.9 percent of all workers, and just 6.9 percent of private sector employees. And unions have increasingly been on the defensive as some states — seeking to trim budget deficits and lure new businesses — take on both public and private unions. Republicans in Indiana, for example, are pushing to make the state the first in more than a decade to ban labor contracts that require employees to pay union fees.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the 11-million-member labor federation is trying to become a greater part of the conversation that has been dominated by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
"The trade union movement was effective in reducing inequality and boosting the middle class, but unions have not really benefited from all the public discourse this time around," he said.
Follow Sam Hananel on Twitter at http://twitter.com/shananel