Back when labor unions were winning the great organizing battles of the 1930s and 1940s, a large part of their successes was, naturally, due to public relations.
Strategy, timing and tactics helped too. But image was important. The bruises Walter Reuther sustained at the Battle of the Overpass were, in the end, far more sweet than a French kiss from old Henry could have been. The photos of the Ford goons beating up young, clean-cut-looking labor leaders instantly set the perception of who were the heroes and who the thugs. In the end, even Clara Ford pressured her flinty husband to give it up and recognize the United Auto Workers.
Today, it seems that most unions have learned nothing and forgotten everything. The Detroit newspaper strike has been dissected too often to justify another exhumation, but the fact is that the unions essentially committed suicide by fighting the battle on the enemys terms, without adequately preparing their membership or the public.
Now while I am proudly nasty, bitter and cynical, I have to confess mild astonishment at the Detroit Federation of Teachers, who despite that example appeared determined last week to set a new standard for alienating the public.
The Detroit schools, you may recall, have been run into the ground by a collection of incompetents, hack politicians and thieves. Last spring, Lansing surgically removed the pathetic superintendent and unprintably dysfunctional board, and turned the schools over to a mayoral-appointed reform squad, which appointed David Adamany temporary CEO (more like all-powerful military governor) to clear the wreckage and come up with a plan.
Suddenly, after years of benign neglect, the press even the Detroit papers! discovered the mess that were the citys schools; the vast physical disrepair and "management" that couldnt get textbooks in the classrooms or toilet paper in the stalls.
Lots of ink has been spent on this, and on the $80 million spent and the thousands of volunteers who swarmed over the schools this summer, trying to make them safe and functional before the 170,000-plus students (nobody really knows how many they have) came back. Labor negotiations were ongoing, too; the contracts for all the school unions expire this year.
Now, teachers had good reason to be wary. For decades, they and the children have been jacked around by contemptible political creatures who tried to use the schools for their own slimy deals. They have had to make do with less, often in Third World conditions and salaries considerably below the metro area average.
They have seen "reformers" (remember the "Hope Slate"?) come and go, and know even if they trust Adamany, who pledges to get salary levels competitive, hell be gone in less than a year, and they will be tied to a multiyear contract.
Yet rather than attempting to communicate this to the public, they managed to make themselves look greedy, lazy and worse in a twinkling last Tuesday.
Their leadership had agreed to work another 10 days without a signed contract. That was really a win-win situation; it would not only have given them time to hopefully finish negotiations, the teachers would have had time to get their side of the story out while getting the kids back in school. But the rank-and-file stampeded, and by a margin varyingly reported from 2-to-1 to 5-to-1, struck immediately.
The instant press and public reaction was sharply anti-teacher. The Detroit Free Press, still labeled the "liberal" paper by simpletons who havent read the editorial page in the last seven or eight years, quickly responded with a frosty call for "quelling this disruption and getting the school year underway."
"Teachers who persist will have to face consequences," the Friendly hissed. Ja wohl. The main front page picture showed a misspelled placard reading "No Way Hosay," clearly calculated to raise questions about teacher competence as well.
Now, guess what? I dont know what the "right" contract is. My wife, incidentally, is a high school teacher, though not in Detroit. But I do know that what matters most is the students, and they havent been well served. Nor has the city. And unless they can reshape this district into someplace parents can send their kids and not feel sick about it, Detroit doesnt have a prayer of really making it back.
Dipping into the Dailies: My reference to the "friendly" reminds me how odd it now seems that the Free Press, back in the days when its circulation was about twice what it is now, really used to call itself that. Does anyone remember that under the touchy-feely regime of the one-time Detroiter David Lawrence, the paper not only gave out bumper stickers with flowing script: "I love my Free Press!!!" but that people, not all of them Rod McKuen fans on ludes, actually put them on their cars?
Lawrence helped get the Freep over being a "news" paper, just as the JOA effectively ended its "liberal" editorial leanings. Editorially, it now mainly supports incumbents, especially those friendly to Knight Ridder financial interests.
Elsewhere, it is mostly trying to carve out a reputation in soft porn.
Last week, in a profile of a young man with muscular dystrophy, we learned how his selfless mother got him a prostitute. "Why dont you do this for him?" the "blond and friendly" hooker asked momma. Haysus, Hosay. Well, so maybe you should get all of your news from TV.
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