Labor tries to soften image with 'hug a union thug' booth in Charlotte

This Labor Day, unions are trying a mix of celebrity, social media and humor to polish up the labor movement’s image in the eyes of everyday people.

In Charlotte, people will be asked to “hug a union thug” at a CarolinaFest booth sponsored by the North Carolina State AFL-CIO the day before the Democratic National Convention officially begins. Also in honor of Monday, videos are being posted online thanking workers, while actors and athletes will use Twitter to express support for union rights.

The effort comes as labor has seen increased attacks from Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors since the 2010 elections. Unions were unsuccessful in their attempt earlier this summer to oust Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) after he pushed through legislation that curbed some public workers’ collective bargaining rights.

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MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer for the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, said the state labor federation wanted to break down stereotypes regarding union members by dishing out the hugs.

“We see this as an opportunity to dispel that stereotype that union members are mean, scary and violent. What better way to disarm folks than to hug them?” McMillan said. “Union members take care of you in the hospital, deliver your packages and sit next you in church. We are just average folks.”

McMillan hopes the hugs will help draw people into the federation’s booth, which will show videos of union members running the Guide Dogs of America program, rebuilding the Word Trade Center and so on. Further, expect to see photos of people embracing union members at unionhugs.com.

“This will help draw people into our exhibit space and we will be able to show them how unions help build the middle class and why they should support the right to organize,” McMillan said.

The cuddle campaign will be only one aspect of labor’s effort to highlight union members’ and other workers’ good deeds.

The AFL-CIO is asking people online to thank workers for the jobs they do every day. In one video, actor Martin Sheen of “The West Wing” thanked his newspaper delivery person.

Union leaders, like Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers, Harold Schaitberger of the International Association of Fire Fighters and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, also contributed videos.   

In an email sent to activists last week, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler asked people to post videos and thank workers.

“No matter what you do, work connects us all. We depend on one another’s work. Together, it’s how we build, create, teach, re-wire, heal and grow what’s important,” Shuler said in the email. “On behalf of everyone at the AFL-CIO, and the millions of workers we’re proud to represent: Thanks for the work you do. It means the world to us.”

Others are taking to Twitter to support union members.

American Rights at Work, a worker-rights advocacy group, along with several unions — including the Major League Baseball Players Association, the National Football League Players Association as well as the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — have organized a Labor Day Weekend “tweet-a-thon.”

Actors and athletes will be on Twitter to show support for union members and say they’re proud to be part of organized labor, signing their tweets with #unionmember.

The appeal to people’s softer side is necessary to counter union opponents’ attempts to undermine labor, according to union leaders.

“Especially considering the attacks on workers and unions over the past two years, it is definitely incumbent upon us to fight back against the stereotypes and the propaganda of the other side,” McMillan said.

The soft sell also comes as Democrats head into Charlotte for their convention. The choice of Charlotte angered several in labor due to North Carolina’s status as a right-to-work state and having the lowest union density in the country.

“I understand national labor leaders' discontent with the convention being held in an anti-union state like North Carolina,” McMillan said.

But the North Carolina union leader cited several reasons why Charlotte could benefit labor, such as the convention giving jobs to the unemployed as well as union members; the event would highlight labor's struggle for worker rights in North Carolina; and the convention could help Democratic candidates down the ticket in the state.

“For all those reasons, I think it's good that the convention is here,” McMillan said.