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Dear Longshoreman – Strike as a Verb, Hostess in Hindsight

A reflection on the trails endured and the lessons learned from the Hostess strike.

Dear Longshoreman,

The days leading up to the Hostess strike were both nerve racking and exciting. We had convinced ourselves we had to do it no matter the consequences. We had considered all possible outcomes and chose the path we felt best protected our interests. The strike was becoming both real and immediate.

The Union did its part to prepare us for the strike and I appreciate the guidance they provided us before, during, and after the strike. The membership led this effort and the Union guided us through it. The individual members are undeniably better off for this help, no matter what the media believes. But as with all things you can look back and see what could have been different.

Up to and including the early days of the strike we were all focused on the details of our lives- like you should be doing. Catching up on prescriptions, saving up money, researching lines of credit… I wasn’t thinking about how to strike. I just imagined it would be simple and involve standing in the cold. I was only half right.

Me and Froggy standing in the cold.
Me and Froggy standing in the cold in Emporia, KS. Any negative stereotypes come to mind?

A few days into the strike I just couldn’t take the national media reports anymore. They weren’t just wrong, they were false and misleading. It was immediately clear that the national media was reading directly from the company PR sheet with no voice from the Union workers side of the issue. Public opinion matters and we were getting our asses kicked.

In this diary I am going to discuss my media experiences and other lessons learned in hopes that some of you may find it helpful. I believe that if I could do it over again it would have been much better. I believe my Union Brothers and Sisters could have changed the tone of the debate if we had started earlier and been much more aggressive. The facts matter to most people and with a planned strategy we could have done much more. Hindsight is 20/20. If I don’t write this stuff down then I have wasted my experiences.

Join me at the permalink for the full story of my ‘Lessons Learned’.

It started when my wife wrote a letter to the Kansas City Star asking why they hadn’t covered the strike at all. They asked her if she knew someone who worked there and the next thing you know I was being interviewed over the phone by the writer of an upcoming story on Hostess. This article included many of the company fallacies that remain common but they treated my side of the story fairly.

This was an eye opening experience so when I saw a CNN Money article that blew the story I sent a personal email to the author. I pointed out everything wrong with his details and I was very polite. He then called me and we talked for a long time about the Union members view. The next day they published a story that compared the different mindsets of people involved in the strike. It talked to several Teamsters and one of their wives about the strike. I loved this story. It illustrated that there were many sides to the story and proved that it is nothing like the Teamsters vs Bakers myth in the media.

There were two paragraphs of quotes from me in the CNN Money article. I worked a long time on the email I sent the author to make it concise and specific. I was polite but I allowed myself to seem slightly emotional, calculated but pissed. It worked, those two paragraphs of quotes appeared all over the place one sentence at a time. When I searched for Hostess articles, whether they named me or not it was almost always some snippet of those paragraphs. It was like they were the default voice of a Hostess worker for every writer who was too lazy to find one.

I couldn’t be happier. It only happened because I spent a great deal of time on the original email to the CNN Money author. If I had spouted off like the emotional jackass I really am… but I didn’t and it worked. All of this happened before my original blog post Inside the Hostess Bankery went viral. Actually, it is why I wrote it in the first place. Without the confidence I gained from confronting CNN and the Star I would have never typed my first blog post.

Lesson Learned #1 Reach Out and Don’t be a Jackass
Don’t assume the beat writer you are speaking to has it in for you. Their corporate bosses may hate you but the author may have personal experiences that will get you a fair shake. My email was polite and recognized that he simply had not had a chance to familiarize himself with the Union side of the issue. I gave him a chance to do so and he did. With my stereotypes of the media I didn’t really expect it to happen that way.

If you see an article that doesn’t portray your side of the issue then you need to get word to the author directly. There is usually a way to get an email to any author on a site. I consider this the state department approach and it works best with legit journalists.

Many in the national media are hardly legit journalists and will continue to ignore you. You will see your Union portrayed in the most heinous of ways. You will be called thugs and if you are seen in the media then vicious things will be said about you personally, especially in comment sections and forums around the internet. I have learned a few things about dealing with that too.

Some places like Fox and Forbes are never going to give your side a fair shake. They are too busy creating a caricature of you to actually care about details. The facts will never be known to their readers, unless you step in.

Lesson Learned #2 Comment Sections are the New Placard Signs
The comment section of media websites should be viewed the same way as a sign in the hands of picketer, except effective. No one driving by me was swayed by the sign in my hand, funny as it may have been. People who read my comments admitted to cracks in their armor with some regularity. Facts do matter to most people, even some right wingers. Do this becausethere may be a thousand casual readers in the comment section for every loud mouth commenter.

If a casual reader is exposed to company propaganda in the form of a news article and then reads a few comments ranging from hateful to dishonest, then you have missed an opportunity to reach that reader. Your adversaries clearly got through. That is what losing a PR war looks like in real time.

Try to comment early in the lifetime of the article. It may be at the top of the comment section for good. This is why I would search for new article postings ‘within the last hour’. Besides, after a few hours you have missed out on most of the readers anyway.

If it was too late to be at the top then I would reply to one of the first comments in hopes of keeping my words in sight. There is no shortage of angry right wingers posting everything about your Union from fantasy to libel. Pick one at the top and respond POLITELY, even though they don’t deserve your manners. Respond to the distortions, not the commenter.

If you present the facts most sane people will see your side. No need for hysterics or living up to stereotypes about Unions by getting overly heated. You will never convince most of the actual commenters but you will give readers a reason to question the article. Your politeness and details will make the anti-Union people look uninformed and emotional to casual readers. There are many people willing to support your cause, they just can’t see it in all the junk thrown at them. Show it to them one comment at a time.

If the commenter responded to me it was usually an insult and that is the perfect ending. The casual reader first sees an anti-Union comment followed by a factual and polite pro-Union comment. Then they see a rant by an emotional child. Leave it there to wilt on the vine in public shame. If they say something sounding like an effort to debate then continue your already winning strategy and respond. NO right wing anti-Union zealot can go more than 3 comments without looking like a jerk. You just need to keep resorting to facts and they will crack. Although I admit I have a hard time resisting sarcasm.

I would also spend time on public forums searching for threads about Hostess. They were everywhere. Each forum is it’s own beast and they all need to be dealt with differently. A liberal forum is a waste of your time but it will make you feel good. A conservative forum is fun but you likely won’t be changing to many minds. I focused on the non political forums that had threads going long before I came along. Forums ranging from horse ownership to the Portland Trailblazers were talking about Hostess and sometimes even my comments from other places.

These forums are crawling with casual readers who are easy to reach with facts. Since they are non political they aren’t likely as bombarded with misinformation to begin with. This new found info will go with them on their internet travels, especially Facebook. If someone on these forums is a right wing zealot then respond to them politely with facts and they look even stupider here than they do on mainstream media websites.

Lesson Learned #3- When you’re right, you’re right.
Most people can tell. Don’t fall into the trap of being an easily stereotyped Union ‘thug’, and believe me, it won’t take much to be accused of it. Your honesty and politeness will win.

I had an experience with Forbes magazine that I think illustrates the media’s cowardice and how you can call it out. They posted an article called ‘What Republicans can learn from a Twinkie’. It told the story of the company (republicans) who ran the economy with knowledge and the Union (democrats) who wouldn’t even negotiate fairly or stop with the selfish demands. It was up for less than an hour.

I had the good fortune of being the first comment. I pointed out a very detailed breakdown of the failure of the authors facts. I pulled out my calculated but pissed demeanor and shredded the foundation of her article. As per routine I repeatedly hit the refresh button to look for new comments. After about 10 minutes my comment disappeared. I posted a new, shorter comment. It was up for about 15 minutes then the whole article disappeared and still has not returned. I emailed them but have never gotten a response. I can only assume fear of looking like hack journalists in light of the facts caused the article to be taken down. After all, when you’re right, you’re right.

It is easy for me to sit here and talk about my successes but the goal is to prevent the failures. My #1 failure was reacting to the media, instead of developing a strategy. I should have built a team of local members to do the same thing with me. In fact, there should have been a team at every local. We could have bombarded any article that popped up with facts, filling the comments with good info.

Lesson Learned #4 Develop a Rapid Response Team to the Media
Every local office has articulate and intelligent people with computer skills. Coordinate a team of them. Develop a plan for responding to articles and a way for them to tell each other about new ones as quickly as they can.

If each local office has developed a team then the different teams from the many locals can coordinate on this process. Now there is an army of voices on the Union’s side all over the internet calling out inaccurate articles directly to the author and in the comment sections. This would have affected potentially millions of readers for the Baker’s Union. I wish I would have organized this. My personal 15 minutes of fame may have been limited but the overall effects would have been far greater.

I also waited too long to get involved. As employees we were banned by the company from talking to the media until the strike. The Company had been laying the PR groundwork for years and ramped it up in the final months. I didn’t even start responding to media lies until 4 days into the strike. The national storyline was set in stone by then.

Lesson Learned#5 Don’t wait, Anticipate!
The company is going to lie. The media is going repeat those lies. The right wing media will make up additional lies. Don’t be surprised and don’t wait for them to set the national tone. Have your team(s) ready to go on day one. The minute you have approval from the Union to speak publicly hit the ground running.

I should have prepared a list of specific and detailed talking points to give members of the team. Make sure they all understand each point. Choose people who can incorporate these details into their writing, without just copying the text. Each person needs to tell their individual story, but they will need the details to make the story hit home for casual readers. Don’t use the dumbed-down and image heavy fact sheet that the national Union is sending to the media.

Make a bullet point list of specifics for your team. Maybe list the ten biggest points and allow the members of the team to choose for themselves which are relevant to them as they travel the internet. A common mistake is the belief that people can’t handle too many details. I would say that the more accurate the details are and how well they relate to an individual’s story affects how many details a casual reader can handle. In fact, lack of details in a personal story will have an opposite effect, calling your comments into question. They can pick from the list as they respond to specific comments. Try not to be long-winded like me.

Lesson Learned #6 Unions are Uber-Capitalists, not Commies
The most ridiculous claim you will encounter is that there is something rather Soviet about banding together and trying earn a living. Go hard at this lie. You would think that Republicans could understand this… and you’d be right. The average person who is a Republican voter can be won over on this issue, I have witnessed it dozens of times.

Not every Baker in Lenexa is a leftie like me. Yet every Baker in Lenexa voted for the strike. One of the most instrumental striking members in Lenexa is a conservative. We have screamed at each in the break room for years, but when money was on the table, all of that went out the window for both of us. The reason lies in the universal capitalist desire to get paid for your time. It’s just not that complicated.

Lesson Learned #7 Don’t be Distracted by Emotion Based Questions
Respond politely and continue down the path of relevant facts. There is no reason to spend time discussing how your ‘family is handling this’. Needless to say, your family wants you to succeed and one step is getting your word out into the media.

Lesson Learned #8 The Truth About Ownership’s Motives
Call them out for what they are really doing. Dare reporters to ask the questions you want to ask. Stay away from sounding like you want revenge. You only want what is yours. Revenge on ownership is irrelevant. Don’t let the media label you as a spoiled overpaid revenge seeker. This is about your pension, your paycheck, and the US economy. It is only personal because you are a person.

At Hostess I found out much to late that people didn’t understand that hedge funds were separated from Hostess and really stand no chance of losing money. To this day most people think the the ‘company’ lost money in this deal. But most people assume the ‘company’ is the owners not hedge funds. This should have been front and center from the beginning.

Lesson Learned #9 Succinct Language is Everything to a Reader AND a Reporter
Don’t ramble. Unlike this epic screed I have posted, you need to get to the point! This is a list of opening lines I used to get attention. I would then get specific about the details. Some of them may be reworked to you’re own scenario.
1) The company used closure as a mechanism for busting the Union.
2) It will be hard to replace the job I have, but it will be easy to replace the job they were trying to give me.
3) This company generated $2.5 Billion last year, what they lost was a rounding error.
4) They collected our money for over a year and refused to send it to the pension. Any self-respecting person has to stand up for what is theirs.
5) How long should we allow bullies to steal our lunch before we stand up to them?
6) The pension is underfunded because they stole the money meant to fund it.
7) By Union ‘bosses’ do you mean elected Union officials?
8) Union members are hyper-capitalists, using leverage to look out for their personal interests.

Focus on getting your point out in a simple manner, then offer a few more lines of depth for those who keep reading.

Lesson Learned #10 Gather the Evidence: Letters, Memos, Public Statements
I wish I had started doing this years ago. I could have built a public opinion court case against them. When I needed a copy of the Pension Borrowing Letter I needed to chase it down through other members. There is so much more that could have been done with a little planning. If there are members with specific stories of getting mistreated then gather those stories up. They will be great anecdotes in your travels.

On a side note, when I published the letter it confirmed what I had been saying all along. It dramatically changed the tone of the arguments I was encountering online. I also noticed this kernel of truth popping up on Facebook and in forums and comment sections everywhere. Many mainstream articles started acknowledging the possibility if not calling it fact. It was a month later the Wall Street Journal decided to pretend like they had ‘broke’ the news. How do you break a story that the Union has been screaming about for years? A story that has been written about hundreds of times? I don’t get it. I don’t care either. I know that posting that letter was the best thing I did and if you have something similar you should get it ready.

Lesson Learned #11 Don’t be Afraid to go on Television
Everything I have said above is also true for TV. The difference is that people are looking at you. Be aware of your appearance. Usually I have a large bushy beard and dress like a cheesey 50’s cowboy. My wife pointed out that people would not take me serious on TV and she was right, whether it’s fair or not. I got trimmed up and dressed little more ‘normal’. It was a good move. One of the best ways to beat someone in debate is to contradict their initial assumptions. The only stereotype the media respects is ‘everyman’ or ‘average joe’ or ‘susie sweetheart’.

Try not to use slang or specific language that will help your adversaries paint a picture of you as a hillbilly, redneck, hippie, thug, gangster, or whatever they pull out their ‘minds’. Part of that is keeping your emotions in check. Men will be portrayed as ‘thugs’ and women will be treated like ‘bitches’. Like it or not. Give them no ammo.

My specific goals in going on TV were planned out in advance. I was going to describe the pension theft no matter what. I was also going to be polite and make them look rude by contrast if they forced it. I was also planning to remain calm and calculated but the more I talked the more pissed off I got. The first visit to CNBC was a success. The second…

In my second visit I allowed them to overwhelm me by interrupting me and focusing on distracting details for questions. I allowed them to waste valuable time talking about the attendance at mediation, an irrelevant point, a planned distraction. I blew it on that topic but I was able to right the ship by staying focused on the relevant details. By the end though I was on the verge of losing control, which was of course the goal all along.

Notice how in the second video the dweeb states ‘is this who you want as a negotiating partner’. That is a planned line meant to anger me. I have since seen countless examples of this line being used in similar situations dating back years. Be ready for it and make fun of it. I am lucky it ended where it did. Calculated but pissed works, pissed and screaming doesn’t.

The build up to going on TV can be nerve racking. Try to think about your message to stay calm. By the time I was on air I was so focused on the details that being on camera didn’t matter anymore. I only had an earpiece and couldn’t see anyone. That helped also. I could focus on what they were saying in my ear instead of distractions. It was like yelling at the radio except that it responded!

I am proud of the fact that I didn’t allow him to just state falsehoods unchecked though. I tried not to interrupt anyone early on but I knew the viewer could see me and read my body language. If someone lied I tried to send subtle hints. Like Biden in the debates, not Obama. Judging from the comments I received I believe that it worked. I did find that by the end of the interview that I had to interrupt or I would be left out. I looked and felt much more emotional than I have at any other point in this process. But my facts were straight and the theft was real so I suspect my bubbling emotions served as a verifier of sorts for many viewers.

I hope that some of my experiences can help you prepare for fighting the good fight online and in the media. I believe it mattered to the tone of the national discussion about Hostess and I wish we had done more of it, much earlier, as a coordinated effort.

Good luck!

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