Say two hefty organizations decide to combine forces. Leaders see synergies. More important, they want to grow their market share by delivering services in new and innovative ways. To reflect this, they want a shared identity that is simple yet evocative. It’s a scenario familiar to anyone who’s seen the inside of an M&A deal or a rebranding campaign. But the partners in this case are two of Canada’s largest unions, the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers, whose respective executives voted to merge last year. They plan to consummate the deal at a founding convention in August.
A critical piece of the merger puzzle is a new name, which will be expected to carry a lot of freight and work in both official languages. The two unions represent over 300,000 workers in industries that run the gamut of Canada’s economy, from carmaking to fisheries, phones, TV stations, casinos, retailers, life insurance, even freelance writers.
“We’re looking for a single word,” says Susan Spratt, co-chair of the communications committee for the merger. “We don’t want it to be an acronym at all.” She likens the process to what a brand-savvy entrepreneur does when repositioning a business.
To that end, the CAW/CEP collected 5,300 survey questionnaires and held focus groups with members and non-members. It then hired Stratcom, a lefty communications agency, to grind up all that feedback with its own creative spices and produce a catchy brand that will pass muster with a far-flung membership.
Like all unions, the CAW/CEP wants to expand its reach. But the new union will aim to recruit members without necessarily organizing an entire workplace. “No one’s ever done that before in North America,” Spratt says. “It’s a different way of looking at the movement.” For a big union with many conservative, older members, that identity shift will likely mark a break with tradition. After all, the history of North America’s labour movement is an alphabet soup of unhelpful acronyms: USW, LIUNA, UFCW, AFL-CIO. Not exactly a brand-friendly approach, especially after you layer on the numbers for locals and districts.
In the past decade, just one union has emerged with a highly compelling brand: Unite Here, the offspring of successive mergers between unions representing garment, hotel and restaurant workers, has spent the past several years organizing hotel and casino staff. It has pushed for better working conditions by threatening strikes on the eve of major conventions or tourist season. It even set up an events-booking subsidiary that markets its services to groups that want to hold their conventions in union-friendly hotel chains.
Unite Here’s PR, web and social-media campaigns are uncharacteristically savvy for a union. It enlists celebrity spokespeople such as actor Danny Glover and Martin Sheen. Its communications strategy “makes it real,” says Trish Hennessy, a director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “They talk about working conditions and tell stories about what it’s like to clean up hotel rooms.”
Some other labour organizations have followed suit, including Toronto CUPE locals which, in the wake of a privatization drive by Mayor Rob Ford, have run several hearts-and-minds campaigns depicting individual city employees talking about the public services they deliver. “There is a shift in how the labour movement is talking about what their members do,” says Hennessy. “It’s reaching a new kind of sophistication.”
The CAW/CEP will unveil its new name in May. Whether it turns out to be a genuine improvement remains to be seen.
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