Opinion: UAW's 'Mad Men' pull off a PR coup

Michael Saltsman

Don Draper, the fictional advertising whiz in the television show “Mad Men,” once offered this PR advice to a potential client: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” 

UAW President Gary Jones and Region 5 Director Vance Pearson

Draper’s tailored suits and skinny ties might be too fancy for the UAW’s polo-wearing presidential class. But his strategic insight likely informed the union leadership’s decision over the weekend to go on strike against General Motors.

Start the tape last Thursday, which ranks as one of the worst days in the UAW’s 80-year history. That morning, The Detroit News reported that UAW Region 5 director Vance Pearson had been charged by the feds with embezzlement, mail fraud and money laundering, among other misdeeds. If convicted, it would make Pearson the 10th union official caught up in the government’s multi-year corruption investigation. 

More:UAW official charged in conspiracy advising on worker deal with GM

As if Pearson’s indictment wasn’t bad enough, The News reported that two unidentified union leaders in the criminal charges — “UAW Official A” and “UAW Official B” — were in fact union President Gary Jones and past union President Dennis Williams. 

More:UAW presidents Gary Jones, Dennis Williams implicated in federal probe

As recently as last year, Williams said the corruption scandal affected just a few bad apples in the union’s ranks; the subsequent revelations make clear the whole tree might be rotten. 

Over at General Motors, the management team took an aggressive public swipe against the union, describing the allegations as “a stunning abuse of power and trust.” Behind the scenes, the company was preparing a contract offer to keep the union’s 46,000+ members from striking once the contract expired on Saturday night. 

Highlights of the company’s offer included the continued operation of the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant, a new UAW-represented battery plant near the recently unallocated Lordstown facility, an $8,000 ratification bonus and pay increases in all four years of the contract. 

The offer appeared to be an unqualified win for the union. But this past weekend, the UAW’s leadership didn’t have pay raises on its mind — it had the public relations nightmare of a current and past president under federal investigation. An easy “win” for General Motors would signal to a skeptical membership that union leadership isn’t fighting for them, and it would keep the corruption investigation in the spotlight. 

So the UAW did as Don Draper recommended: It changed the conversation. The public relations effect of the strike announcement was almost-instantaneous: On Twitter, Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others tweeted their support for the UAW. 

Progressive writers praised “the union that built the middle class” and urged readers to “stand strong” in solidarity with the UAW. Michigan’s governor visited striking workers and thanked them for “fighting for good jobs and fair wages.” Unmentioned in this outpouring of support for the union was any criticism of its leaders’ bad behavior. 

Some workers seemed unsure what they were striking over; The News interviewed one who didn’t identify a reason but assumed “there must be other things the union is bargaining for ...” The economic hardship caused by a strike — where the pay rate is $250 a week — left many autoworkers concerned about their livelihoods.

The UAW’s public response to General Motors focused on the timing of the company’s offer rather than its substance. But perhaps the substance was always secondary; by Monday morning, the news coverage of the union’s scandal was background noise compared to its above-the-fold national strike.

Mission accomplished.

Michael Saltsman is a partner at Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

More:Everything you need to know about the UAW strike and corruption scandal