When picket lines crop up, what happens to symmetrical public relations?

I don’t envy my friends working in corporate communications at Goodyear. It’s been a while since they had to cross a picket line to get to blimp.jpgwork. And if that picket line stays up much longer, those on the line and those in the offices are in trouble.

I’m kind of a tire nut, believe it or not. My career began in the Akron, Ohio, 30 years ago as a young reporter covering the tire business. That year, Goodyear endured a 142-day strike that had the Rubber City tied up in knots. A few years later, the industry was closing plants left and right, and three of the Big 4 tiremakers (Goodrich, General and Firestone) were acquired by foreign competitors and left town. I was way ahead of them!

If you don’t follow the tire biz, (and why would you?) the USW hit the bricks on October 5th, saying their negotiations with Goodyear were going nowhere. The strike affects 12 plants and about 15,000 workers. Personally, I see this strike is a 21st Century referendum on what organized labor can demand from employers in what’s left of industrial America. And, sadly, I foresee a lot of losers in this one.

Goodyear isn’t alone facing the rising costs of labor, health care and pension benefits. The problem confronts every business that’s used to paying its workers a living wage-benefits package. Goodyear has always done that. But given the company’s recent financial travails, Goodyear can’t afford the 1970s mantra of “settlement at any cost.” The world has changed.

Like all the multinationals, Goodyear is managing in the “flat world” that Tom Friedman so clearly described. Goodyear management has read Tom’s book. And I’ll bet the bosses of the United Steel Workers have, too.

Both sides have to be missing the old days. Life was easier in 1976, when the union “targeted” one of the big four tiremakers, and whatever resulted from the negotiations became the industry “pattern.” Oh, there were strikes. But everyone knew it was just part of the process. Everyone played along. The result was a level playing field for the companies, a healthy paycheck for the workers.

Globalization and global competition have turned the tire business — and most others — on its ear. In the process, the unions have taken it on the chin.

A big point of contention in the Goodyear strike is the right of the company to close factories and eliminate jobs. The company also wants to lower its pension payouts to retirees, in essence breaking a promise made years ago — a promise the company can no longer afford to keep.

All this leaves management and the PR folks in a bind. How can you hope to maintain a symmetrical relationship when you’re working to trim wages, benefits and jobs? When you can’t keep the promises on which people have based their lives?

It’s impossible to envision a win-win situation in this strike. If Goodyear pays wages and benefits in line with the American dream, then that dream will almost certainly vanish for all involved. But if Goodyear forsakes its workers and follows the trend of outsourcing work or sending jobs overseas, the company loses goodwill that it spent a century building. And that carries another set of consequences.

Like I said, I don’t envy my friends working in PR at Goodyear. But I feel even worse for those on the picket lines.

The world may be flat in the economic sense. But the playing field isn’t at all level any more. There’s something basically unfair about the whole mess.

One Response to When picket lines crop up, what happens to symmetrical public relations?

  1. When Grunig defined the two-way symmetrical model, I don’t think he envisioned corporations running through fields of daisies hand in hand with their stakeholders (at least not all of the time).

    There are times when you can respond to the needs of your stakeholders, and there are times when your hands will be tied. The important element to remember is that you have to keep listening and you have to keep responding, even if it isn’t what your stakeholders want to hear.

    There is nothing fair about a generation of workers losing everything because they are bound by pracitices defined by the generation before them. Change hurts. Goodyear has to keep listening, even if they don’t have the answer.

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