The Harrah’s hotel and casino sits on the river between Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa – so that gambling doesn’t technically take place on Midwestern soil. I wasn’t there to gamble but to give the keynote address to a gathering of a couple hundred meatpackers. In particular these were union organizers for poultry, pork and beef plants from around the country.
Normally, this kind of task would fall to Axel or Joe, but neither of them were available, so I had taken the morning flight out of Providence. Axel had warned me that I’d need to be the opposite of professorial for this crowd, so I’d left my suit jacket and black shoes at home, and cleansed the powerpoint presentation of its pretentious phrases.
The faux-formal trappings of the hotel’s ballroom, with it’s chandeliers and conference center décor seemed an odd setting for the motley crowd of unionizers, but that was clearly more the room’s fault than theirs.
The union wants to see comprehensive immigration reform – including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrant workers. They want to upend a status quo that has devastated working class industries throughout the economy. The challenge (and the thing we had been hired to help with) was to convince the million and a half rank and file that they should support this. My talk was to present our research on how to change the conversation about illegal immigration.
This, boiled down, is the communications strategy that we’ve recommended for them:
Certain Big Business like Illegal Immigration – and play a “Game” to keep it that way.
They want to hire illegal immigrants, want them to stay illegal, and don’t want the immigrants to get legal status.
Why hire them? Undocumented workers are a cheap and exploitable work force. They don't ask questions. They work long hours in bad conditions. It’s like the opposite of a union workplace.
Why keep them illegal? The lower their status, the fewer demands they can make.
The “game” hurts all workers
When there’s a large group that gets stuck with low wages and bad conditions, it brings the average down for all workers.
Also, because employers pay them so little, illegal immigrants often end up needing tax-supported social services just to get by.
A hostile environment towards immigrants ends up hurting all workers. Our own feelings are used against us.
A hostile environment helps the companies play the Game. This environment means that the illegal workers – who are basically pawns – really can’t speak up about pay or conditions.
And this environment actually keeps us stuck in the status quo, because it means a lot of people won’t support laws that let the immigrants become legal citizens (which would put a stop to the Game). So, because we’re angry at the immigrants, businesses get to keep their exploitable labor supply.
The findings we had on how this works were solid and crystal clear and so it was easy to present it with the matter-of-fact confidence that this crowd appreciates. I’d been told that my talk would be the main obstacle between them and the buffet and bar afterwards, so not to expect much in the way of questions. But we actually had a lengthy discussion afterwards, with dozens of excellent questions and comments. These union members are the ones who have to sell the rank and file on the idea that not only should we let these Hispanic illegals get citizenship, but we ought to get them into the unions. So they are hungry for ideas on how to reframe the topic.
It was a gratifying evening as I spoke with people at the bar afterwards and listened to them each processing the narrative into their own idioms – the white, ex-Navy curmudgeon from Alabama; the young black guy who credited us with helping to finally get the Tar Heel plant unionized; the grandfatherly man with his three Hormel plants to oversee; the DC contingent who want to take this story up to Capitol Hill; the young woman with thick glasses who wondered how to get people to act on all this; the local professor who wants a copy for his students to read.