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1/23/2005

It all starts with communication

How many times have you heard the question, “What were they thinkin’?” when hearing about something that some folks did that was particularly dumb. Take for instance, the election of George W. Bush, and you get the picture. Yet, beyond general questions like this lays a science and the business it spawned for the sole purpose of finding out what they were thinkin’. I’m talking about polling and survey research firms (and union communication is a must).

After the election you heard and read a lot about voters who were thinkin’ about social-cultural issues (God, guns, and gays) and ignoring the war and the economy. You also heard that there is an ideological split between two major factions of the electorate among voters who were thinkin’ more about the war and the economy than social-cultural issues.

We know all this thanks to the sciences of polling and demographics. The purpose of polling voters is to find out what they are thinkin’ at any point in time, which issues are most important to them and which candidates they are more likely to support. We accept that if enough random folks are surveyed, important data can be discerned and analyzed according to specific statistical methodologies and reliable predictions about the likely outcome of elections posited. We view the data garnered through polling as fact and make important and expensive decisions based on these facts about what voters are thinkin’.

Voters are also polled post-election to determine whether the predictions match actual outcomes. Of course, these post election conclusions are designed to determine how voters are likely to vote in the next election, and the cycle of polling and surveying to find out what voters are thinkin’ goes on and on.

Another aspect of finding out what folks are thinkin’ is perhaps a bit more sinister than polling and survey research. It is called psychological evaluation. Just as it is important to political parties and candidates to find out what voters are thinkin’, there is another group that also finds it important and useful to find out what folks are thinkin’ – employers.

In order for employers to find out what prospective employees are thinkin’, they often employ psychologists who administer psychological evaluations to find out whether perspective employees are a good “fit” for the organization. Among other things, these evaluations are designed to measure a person’s group orientation, allegiance, and views on authority. Lots of employers submit perspective employees to a whole battery of tests to measure these things and make hiring decisions based on what a person is thinkin’ according to their evaluation.

Not surprisingly, employers use these devices to avoid unionization by weeding out prospective employees whose responses indicate likelihood for joining or supporting a union vs. someone who exhibits greater allegiance to the employer. Among questions not of a psychological nature are those that elicit background information and add to the profile of the perspective employee. Questions such as whether any family members are union members are considered highly determinative of whether a perspective employee would support a union. By employing these costly and time-consuming pre-employment evaluations, employers like Wal-Mart can cull out prospective employees who are thinkin’ that a union at Wal-Mart might not be such a bad thing.

By now you might be wondering where all this talk about what folks are thinkin’ is going. Well, if you are a regular reader of Resist Oppression you may have read previous columns about the importance of understanding the founding principles of the American labor movement during this period of debate and evaluation. You know about the importance of influencing public opinion in a positive and continual manner in order to inculcate the spirit of trade unionism in younger workers and the unorganized masses. This week’s offering asks the question, “Do the unions that comprise the American labor movement know what their members are thinkin’?”

While organized labor has used reputable and reliable polling firms to gauge the responsiveness of union members to issues and candidates in political campaigns it really hasn’t done a very good job of using the available tools to delve into what union members are really thinkin’. Perhaps this explains why labor’s post-election polling showed that only 65% of union member households voted for the labor endorsed candidate – John Kerry. Perhaps the reason why a third of union member households voted for Bush is that labor doesn’t know what its members are thinkin’ and haven’t been able to tailor our message to their interests.

It is ironic that organized labor engages in polling union members about their voting habits, yet ignores the potential for really finding out what union members are thinkin’ by employing these same polling techniques on a wide range of issues and subjects in order to develop a clearer member profile so that organized labor can respond to their needs and interests in a much more comprehensive and effective manner to re-invigorate the union movement – beginning with our current membership.

Organized labor can also take a lesson from employers by developing a background profile of union members’ that includes demographics and other key pieces of data to determine how to better influence what they are thinkin’ on a variety of importance issues. Imagine a database of union members that reflects far more than their basic information about age, gender, length of membership, address and phone number, and instead contains information about whether they are veterans, gun owners, where they bank, shop and play, level of education, incomes, number of children, etc. Combining this data with information gleaned from polling, surveys and focus groups will give organized labor a much better understanding of what union members are thinkin’ and be able to respond accordingly.

Many believe the American labor movement’s primary source of power is the muscle, energy and economic might inherent in its millions of current and retired members and their families and without their active involvement there is little hope for revitalizing the American labor movement. Without a much clearer and precise understanding of what union members are thinkin’ there is little hope of activating labor’s most precious resource.

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