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Looking for the Union Label in All the Right Places




Cherri Senders wasn’t always looking for the union label. Back in the late 1980s the Washington, D.C. native was writing for the L.A. Weekly, an alternative newspaper that was generous with editorial pleas for social justice but miserly when paying its own workers.

“I saw how exploited writers were,” Senders tells Frying Pan News. “We joined the National Writers Union and were able to go from five cents a word to seven. That’s how I found out about the labor movement.”

About 15 years later a friend of Senders, who by then had started her own communications company, wanted to learn how to purchase union-made baby products, but couldn’t find a way to track down which ones bore a union label.

There had always been Buy Union lists – often out of date and pinned to the bulletin boards of union halls or, more recently, circulated on various Web sites. More often, though, consumers were confronted by the seemingly endless lists of companies and products that unions urged the public to boycott.

Senders recognized a classic marketing opportunity: The hole that needed filling.

“I saw that we needed a Patronize List,” Senders recalls. “Businesses deserve to be rewarded if they have a union shop.”

She thought of creating a one-stop super-list for shoppers who wanted to support high-road businesses and, with the logistical support of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, began researching ways to bring such a guide to life.

“We started with 50 or 60 lists, but found dozens that were out of date or arbitrary,” Senders says. “We took them and cleaned them up.”

The result was Labor 411, which began in 2008 as a printed directory of union-made products – everything from Los Angeles restaurants to camping gear to home cleaning products. (The name was not universally popular – friends cautioned Senders that it sounded too much like Variety’s LA 411 production ad site.) Today Labor 411 has expanded into both printed guides and a Web site that caters to socially conscious consumers in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Click on an item and information about both the manufacturer and the union that represents the company’s workers pops up.

The efforts of a 10-member team at Senders Communications Group to ensure that Labor 411’s lists remain current have made it the top go-to resource for finding union-made products and services. Yet the team faces the hard reality of two historic phenomena – a globalized manufacturing economy and America’s shrinking unionized workforce. These trends have forced Labor 411 into adopting more elastic definitions of what constitutes a union label.

“There’s no such thing as wall-to-wall purity today – the car with the most American parts is a Toyota Camry,” Senders says. Compromise is inescapable. “If it’s put together here in the U.S., and as long as there’s a union member who’s touched the product, it makes it into our book.”

Senders points to the dilemma of “double-breasted companies” – retailers who may have some unionized manufacturing facilities or stores in the United States, but who have also moved some operations to non-union factories offshore.

“We support the American-made Hershey’s,” she says of the U.S. chocolate giant, which also produces candy from factories in Mexico. “Macy’s is another ‘company split’ – it has five union stores around the country, while the rest are not union.”

Labor 411, which is funded by advertising, is easily the most comprehensive of Buy Union endeavors. It also is the most Facebook-savvy and the most imaginative. The Web site is peppered with chatty blog posts written by Senders and several team members, and features product raffles and spotlights on different unions and labor campaigns. A cell-phone app is in the works and the site currently features a Buy Union/Buy American campaign, which urges readers to purchase union products whenever possible. If these are unavailable, it recommends buying American products, even if they are not union made.

One marketing tool has been to promote union products around holidays, the Super Bowl, social events and even cocktails. Sometimes readers will find Labor 411’s unique hybrid categories – one Halloween post, for example, combined union-distilled Bacardi rum and Trolli gummy worms to produce a recipe for Halloween Rummy Worms. (A child-friendly version, called Worms in Dirt, retained the gummy worms but used union-made Oreos and Royal Brand chocolate pudding.)

The printed guide, which is distributed to 17,000 union officials and labor allies, doesn’t have all 4,700 of the listings that are available online, but does feature data on local businesses whose workforces are unionized.

Senders believes it’s important to patronize businesses that treat their workers fairly.

“We’ve always been more interested in telling people what not to do than what to do,” she says, referring to the decades of progressive boycott lists. “We need to convince our own members that if your employer does well, you will do better.”

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