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Business: Telling the Employees

4 minute read

Where Management Misses, Unions Score

INDUSTRY in the U.S. will spend an estimated $135 million this year to put out about 10,000 house organs aimed at strengthening ties—and improving communications—between worker and employer. The industrial publications range from crudely mimeographed sheets in small plants to handsome, slick-paper magazines by big corporations, such as General Motors’ LiFE-size G.M. Folks (circ. 500,000), and the DuPont Magazine.

Despite the immense outlays for company publications, a growing number of industrial editors are worried. They are well aware that many of the company publications are doing a poor job compared to the hard-hitting crusading of some 500 national, regional and local papers published (at far lower cost) by labor unions. Complained Koppers Co. President Fred C. Foy: “Union publications are fighting with both fists—fighting in unity and sometimes with complete lack of regard for the Marquis of Queensberry rules . . . The question is whether management will get in the ring too or lose the battle for the minds of its employees on an editorial TKO.”

Why are so many company publications in danger of losing this battle? The chief reason is that the majority deliberately pull their punches. Unlike union papers, which thrive on dispute and energetically exploit any issue that affects the worker’s welfare, most house organs concentrate on personal notes and chitchat. They not only shun controversy but steer clear of any stories on company policies and problems. A recent survey of 75 house organs in the Los Angeles area showed that only 15% made any attempt to communicate management plans and policies, almost all the rest were filled with social and personal items.

Actually, surveys by Westinghouse and other corporations have shown that employees are least interested in personal items. What they want is stories on such subjects as the company’s plans for the future, its employee benefit program, new orders for the company. Union officials recognize the failure of many companies to use their publications effectively. Said an Omaha A.F.L. leader: “There are so many ways the company could put their point across. If they’d come out in their house organ and explain why they’re going to do this or that, who’s going to be affected by a layoff, and how long it would last, then the employees would be able to make their plans. More often than not, they’d be willing to cooperate.”

One reason company papers put out such a bland diet is that they are too often published by employees on loan from personnel and advertising staffs who have no newspaper experience. Furthermore, they have no contact with top management, have no idea of what goes on in the president’s office. Some editors, in turn, often show an ostrich-like attitude to important stories, e.g., one southern industrial editor insisted that a topic like the Guaranteed Annual Wage “did not apply” to his 60,000 C.I.O. readers. During the bitter strike by the Communications Workers of America last spring against the Southern Bell Telephone Co. in nine states, Bell’s slick-paper employee magazine blandly ignored the strike—the single topic of greatest concern to its readers.

In contrast to this negative approach, more and more corporations are changing the editorial content of their magazines in an effort to keep, the employees up to date on all aspects of the company. For example, some 30 monthly tabloids published by the Ford Company for its U.S. plants give detailed reports on union negotiations. On-the-job grievances, once the exclusive domain of the labor press, are now thoroughly aired by companies such as Milwaukee’s Line Material Co.,. which devotes an inside cover each issue to employees’ complaints and answers. General Electric runs columns of answers to employees’ questions on company problems and policies. Republic Steel uses its house organ to give employees a graphic breakdown of profits, has backed it up with a do-it-yourself picture story on cutting costs. Some corporations, such as Westinghouse and Standard Oil Co. of Ohio, regularly devote space to broad economic and political questions, e.g., private v. public power.

But many companies still hold back, fear that employees will lose faith in the corporate publication if management tries to express its views or discuss union-management problems. Yet, polls of employees by both management and unions have shown that, in general, employees put more faith in what they read in company publications than they do in union papers. And publications which have dropped the social notes in favor of stories on corporate problems have found that their readership has jumped. Concludes one company president: “In many companies, we just haven’t given employees a chance to hear both sides of the question. It’s about time we started to do it.”

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