Public support of labor unions has reached its lowest level in a quarter century. According to a February 2011 Pew Research Poll Center poll, only 45 percent of respondents expressed positive views of unions.

In his studies of major speeches of the American labor movement, Casey Kelly, Ph.D., a communication instructor for Butler University, has found some key historic messages that unions might use to regain support.

Promoting “Solidarity”

“Solidarity means that an injury to one worker is an injury to all,” Kelly said. “Without collective power and coordinated direct action, workers will struggle to attain rights. Most people do not identify as ‘workers’ but as members of the middle class. They do not see that they share common interests with others.”

Common Interest vs. ‘Special Interest’

Early labor organizations derived their power from grassroots action in actual workplaces, rather than in political lobbying for legislation, said Kelly. Today, when union interests get expressed at the policy level, they are often characterized as parochial “special interests.”

“The rank-and-file become indistinguishable from the leadership and the politicians they lobby,” he said. “This breeds resentment from the political right and non-union workers.”

General Strikes

Kelly said the current protests in favor of Wisconsin’s unionized government workers could mark the reemergence of general strikes by a critical mass of a region’s work force.

“Given the outpouring of sympathy from both public and private sector workers, it seems that the rhetoric of working-class solidarity still has some traction,” Kelly said. Following the model of the Industrial Workers of the World in the early 20th century, union organizers “should work to reframe their struggles as fundamental human rights, rather than some version of affirmative action or special right.”

Refuting Crisis Rhetoric

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other anti-union advocates have employed “the language of crisis” in their efforts to revoke collectively bargaining, according to Kelly. “Crisis rhetoric is often used to justify exceptional or emergency measures to avoid impending disasters, perceived or real. It relies on fear and heightened emotion to mobilize expedient action, supersede deliberation and encourage sacrifice for the common good.

“Repeatedly invoked, crisis rhetoric can turn exceptional measures into the everyday mode of governing. In light of pro-corporate attitudes and laws, workers are likely to be the group to make sacrifices in times of crisis.”

Casey Kelly is an instructor in the Media, Rhetoric and Culture program of the Butler University College of Communication. His research specialties include the key rhetorical texts of American labor and class struggle in the United States.

To schedule an interview with Kelly, contact Mary Ellen Stephenson, (317) 940-6944 or

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