Bargaining success starts with smart strategic comms

With increasing costs for families, profits soaring at big corporations, and public services struggling after years of cuts, it all adds up to one thing:

Workers need wins.

So it’s no surprise that a “summer of strikes” has given new visibility to the collective power of workers. And with high-profile negotiations dominating headlines, this Labour Day more people are paying attention to bargaining efforts across a wide range of sectors.

From actors and writers in Hollywood and beyond, to workers at ports, grocery stores, liquor stores, transit services, automakers and more across Canada, working people are demanding change. And here’s a few things you’ve probably noticed.

Effective spokespeople are as important as ever. SAG-AFTRA’s Fran Drescher is getting lots of deserved attention for taking on the powerful studios, making a powerful and compelling case, and bringing the public on side.

But it’s not just Hollywood where effective communicators make a difference. Across Canada we’re seeing lots of examples of great leadership—and confident, clear communications.

Wages can be worth talking about. For a long time, many labour communicators have assumed that talking about pay is tough. But there’s lot of evidence that that’s changing.

With inflation at its highest in decades and cost-of-living top-of-mind for millions of families, more people than ever understand that wages need to increase.

In 2022, CUPE education workers in Ontario delivered a highly-effective message:

$39,000 is not enough, for education workers or anyone.

And in Manitoba, MGEU has launched a great campaign—Catch Up, Keep Up—to mobilize members in the fight for wages that increase with the cost of living.

It’s clear. When workers talk about the impact of below-inflation offers, people today intuitively understand that that just won’t cut it.

It’s about connecting with where people are at. The most effective bargaining messages are uniquely relevant to the moment, giving them the power to reach and resonate with your audience.

For instance, this summer, we’ve heard grocery store workers saying

“I can’t afford to shop at the grocery store where I work.”

People know it’s true—everyone’s seen the cost of groceries skyrocket—and in just one sentence it explains exactly why grocery store workers need better wages now.

So how do we put all of this into action to keep momentum for workers going?

1. Know your audience, do some research

People’s attitudes, perceptions, and opinions don’t stand still. We’re all constantly being influenced and impacted by the pressures around us (like the anxiety of the cost-of-living, the price of housing, and the sense that few people’s wages are keeping up with prices). Public opinion shifts, and the last thing you want is to miss an opportunity to connect with people’s top-of-mind concerns.
Building an effective communications strategy for bargaining means knowing where both your rank-and-file members and the public are at. We all make assumptions. But it’s crucial to test your assumptions.

2. Frame the conversation.

Making your best case for better wages and better working conditions requires a clear message that connects with your members and the public; shows the contrast between what the employer wants and what you’re working to achieve; and paints the picture of how wins for your members will help to make life better for working people.

You might want to focus on one powerful fact that shows exactly what the problem is. For instance, CUPE 561 members in the Fraser Valley focused their message on the fact that transit workers are making 32 percent less than workers doing the same job in neighbouring communities.

They repeated that fact, over and over, in advertising and earned media—making the case that workers simply couldn’t afford to keep going without higher wages. And after 124 days on strike, members won a six-year collective agreement that narrows the wage gap and introduces a pension plan for these dedicated workers.

3. Equip your team to deliver your message.

Once you have a message backed up by solid research, your communications strategy should always involve training your team in how best to use and share the message. Consider training sessions for your key spokespeople, communications staff, and local presidents to ensure that everyone has the tools they need to communicate with confidence.

And if you’re planning to launch an advertising campaign – from a smaller-scale social campaign to a large multi-platform campaign—don’t forget that there’s lots of ways to get earned media and also ensure that your members can share the campaign and extend its reach.

Of course, bargaining will always throw unexpected curveballs at your negotiating team, but a strong and effective communications strategy will serve you well. It’s about keeping your focus on what connects your members and the public—and how a win for your members is a win for all workers.