Labor’s Playbook: Time to Learn From NFL Players to Craft Public Message

Roger Bybee

We must face a tough reality: Even in the midst of an ongoing slump hurting the majority of Americans, labor has been almost completely unable to get its message through to the general public.

Nothing makes this more clear than labor’s continuing low approval rankings. An August poll conducted by Gallup showed that only 52 percent of Americans have favorable views of unions, the second-lowest ever recorded since Gallup began documenting this trend 70 years ago,” as Akito Yokishane reported on this website.

As Sarah Palin would say, WTF?

The objective conditions of life should have all of us plundered peasants marching on the CEOs’ castles with flaming torches to get a bailout for working people. After all, we’ve got 15 million jobless, 11.5 million working part-time or giving up the futile job search, and 10 million families worried about losing their homes through foreclosure.

But rather than CEOs having to dodge flaming arrows and boiling oil, somehow, it’s organized labor running for its life. Public-sector unions are now under especially fierce attack. 


What creates and reinforces this distorted perception of labor? First, we must note the pervasive antiunion bias in mainstream media coverage, exemplified by the ludicrous but widespread claim that UAW members on the assemblyline were hauling in $73 an hour in wages.

Public employee wages and benefits are also inflated absurdly in the media, even though the Economic Policy Institute has documented that public pay and benefits are actually about 12% lower than private-sector workers with comparable education.

In the same fashion, unions are consistently blamed in corporate media outlets for failing to acknowledge the reality” of corporate globalization, which means that corporations should quite reasonably keep on demanding wage cuts without the media offering any context of corporate profits, CEO pay, or what competing (and much higher-paid) European workers are earning. Mainstream media, in both news articles and opinion pieces, almost
unanimously embrace the hollow concept of free trade” and the
endorsement of an unrestrained race to the global bottom on wages as
a natural outcome of heightened competitiveness,” as discussed
here and here.

This slanted depiction of reality may not square with the direct experience of millions of Americans, who see no end to the bottomless greed of Corporate America. Against this backdrop, Mike Elk’s recent call for a new outbreak of
guerrilla journalism” exposing the wealthy funders and mouthpieces of anti-workers attacks is most welcome.

But this guerrilla activity needs to be sustained by the U.S. labor movement engaging in its own large-scale communications campaign that helps to change the context in which unions operate.


Labor needs to continually spotlight corporate greed and outline clear-cut, positive alternatives to society’s subordination to the rule of profit maximization. To lay it out simply:

1) Labor needs allies, badly. As Jesse Jackson has long stated, Labor, your cause is right, but your patch ain’t big enough.”

We need to locate and draw upon the public interest and thereby bring in more patches” of support — from environmentalist, from communities of color, and others shut out of power — to form a larger and warmer quilt,” as Jackson puts it.

2) Labor needs clear and compelling messages. An effective message has three aims:

  • to directly identify the opponents creating problems for realizing progress and justice;
  • outline the solution based on widely-shared moral values, and 
  • request very specific actions in which others can help our cause. 

(For a concise and excellent explanation of this approach, I highly
recommend the brief but brilliant Spin Works!” by Robert Bray.)

When put together in the right fashion, this simple Problem-Solution-Action formulation can serve as either a quick elevator speech” to a key legislator or the outline for a 20-minute talk to an audience hungry for more details.

3) We need to train a vast corps of members and allies to spread our message. A union president may articulately explain a union’s
position in a news conference, but it can be easily negated if a 
cynical or unsympathetic reporter chooses instead to quote an uninformed member sitting in a bar near the plant, as I have often seen occur. 

The only solution is to reach every member with newsletters and updates, and to use every possible medium to blanket the community. Moreover, having just a couple of prepared speakers is woefully insufficient to reach all possible media outlets and potential allies that labor now requires. Instead, we need to multiply the number of people who can understand and articulate the basic message.


Back in the 1982 NFL Players Association’s strike, as I discussed last week, the union began by crafting a strong message stressing that the owners were merely an impediment to a great sport (“We [the players] are the game”).

They trained the NFLPA members to speak to every public meeting they could, developed their own media, and seized every opportunity to spread their message on commercial media.

Ultimately, the players out-strategized and out-hustled the owners, winning a remarkably radical demand for a guaranteed percentage of the wealth that they create.

While the NFLPA is putting many of those lessons to work against the NFL owners’ threat of a lockout next month, the 1982 NFLPA strike created a playbook from which the rest of the labor movement could also learn. 

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue