Increasingly, we’ve become a service economy, which is a shorthand way of saying we sell words, not stuff, and that life is more about marketing than making things.
Take the United Auto Workers union, for example, in the news this week because of their convention. Here’s what the stories all said: The UAW is struggling to survive, much like the industry it organized. The union has lost more than three-quarters of its peak membership, and is struggling to reinvent itself.
They elected a new president at this convention, which is always a great opportunity to get some buzz. So whom did they choose? Some exciting, dramatic new leader? A dark horse who rose from the ranks and presented the union with a new vision?
Not even close. They took Bob King, the UAW vice president who was next in line, and had been handpicked by the existing leadership. King is a worker who went to law school and became a lawyer, and is highly respected for his bargaining skills.
However, this was anything but a democratic process. My sneaking sympathies went out to a fellow named Gary Walkowicz from a Dearborn truck plant. He had the guts to challenge the establishment. Walkowicz thought the union had given away too much in concessions, which may be dead wrong.
But it is probably how a whole lot of workers feel. The woman who was brave enough to nominate the challenger was booed by the delegates, who then gave Walkowicz a mere three percent of the vote, in what was a totally rigged election.
That’s not to say I wanted Walkowicz to win. But I think not really having to fight for the job isn’t likely to be good for Bob King or the union’s image. The UAW desperately needs some favorable buzz, and for the public to see it as something more than a dying old economy labor union waiting for 1937 to come back.
They need some marketing advice, and here’s some, free of charge. General Motors showed them how last week with a move they claimed was an accidental blunder.
Eight days ago, the New York Times ran a front-page story claiming GM had told employees to stop using the nickname “Chevy.” From now on, an internal memo said, it would be just Chevrolet. They were doing this for “brand consistency.”
This was, obviously, stupid, since the term Chevy is as much a part of the American language as Coke.
Everybody in the nation jumped on the story. The Times even disapproved, tut-tutting in a stuffy editorial, and soon the company was saying, we didn’t do it, we didn’t mean it, we’ll stop doing it, we won’t do it no more, and you can still call your car a Chevy!
Everyone thought GM had screwed up. Actually, I suspect they did it on purpose. For a week, everybody talked about Chevys. Waxed nostalgic about Chevys. It was the biggest free advertising coup that I can remember.
Watch for Chevy sales to soar, temporarily at least.
So, Bob King, new United Auto Workers union president: I hope you were paying attention. Now - it‘s your turn.