And Now, a Message From Our Sponsors — the Organized Working Class

The “union label” ads of the 1970s are a reminder of how labor tried and eventually failed to win a battle for the airwaves.

Illustration by Christoph Kleinstück

In the depths of YouTube lurk a pair of grainy TV commercials from the 1970s that tell the story of the labor movement’s efforts to remain culturally relevant at the onset of an employer counteroffensive.

The first shows a multiracial group of women workers from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) singing a tune that seems to echo from generations of factory workers past: “Look for the union label! / When you are buying / A coat, dress, or blouse! / Remember somewhere / Our union’s sewing / Our wages going / To feed the kids / And run the house!”

The public service announcement and its jingle were so ubiquitous at the time that they were widely parodied everywhere from Saturday Night Live — with Bill Murray and Gilda Radner of the American Dope Growers’ Union singing, “Look for the union label!” — to contemporary sitcoms’ plots about unionization on series such as WKRP in Cincinnati. Later generations might have come to know the ad from ’90s sitcom Boy Meets World, or its appearance during a commercial break on one of the only extant recorded copies of the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special.

The second video, for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), is a jokey reedit of a real 1970s pro-union PSA that, decades before it was uploaded to YouTube, was passed around local TV stations for laughs — far too vulgar for the airwaves. In it, the original narration has been swapped out with the voice of a heavily accented outer-boroughs “Teamster” telling viewers how important AFSCME union members are to the functioning of society — the joke in this version being that the new narrator is speaking in a wildly profane and stereotypically coarse working-class vernacular: “There’s a union out there called AFSCME, and they’re bustin’ their balls for ya, doin’ a lotta shit work you take fuh granted!”

This pair of pro-union messages — one serious and sentimental, one parodic and hilarious — offers a testament to an era in which the American labor union was powerful, influential, and deeply woven into the fabric of American society. So ingrained, in fact, that they could promote themselves on national airwaves with catchy jingles between commercials for potato chips and Budweiser.

In both promos, union members seek to remind the TV viewer at home that victories for unions are victories for American workers and consumers as a whole — and that those gains can be reversed if the unions don’t keep fighting. At the beginning of one of the ILGWU’s ads, we hear a voice say:

There used to be more of us in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, but a lot of our jobs have disappeared. A lot of the clothes Americans are buying for women and kids are imports. They’re being made in foreign places. When the work’s done here, we can support our families and pay our taxes and buy the things other Americans make.

And while the joke AFSCME narration is wildly off-color, clearly the real ad underneath contains images of union members hard at work everywhere in frontline, essential jobs, making a damn good case for just how socially vital that work is — road repair crews (“We plug up the holes in the road so ya don’t fuck up your car”), crossing guards (“We got broads out there who keep your kids from gettin’ run over”), and sanitation workers (“Making sure your kids don’t drink piss from no fuckin’ water fountains”).

But the relationship between television and the labor movement was anything but harmonious, even then. Right around the time these ads would have been in heavy rotation in 1980, a big labor stoppage by both the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists was happening. It, too, was about the future — the residuals that actors would receive thanks to new entertainment technologies like cable and home video.

Actor Ed Asner, a prominent SAG member and household name thanks to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was a de facto spokesman for the striking workers, helping to catapult him to guild leadership in 1981. But his rise at the dawn of the Reagan era may have led to the imminent cancellation of his series Lou Grant, a show that tackled social issues of the day from a decidedly left-for-network-television stance. And as has been seen recently in the past few months with the threat of strikes from the IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the film and television industry’s workers are still being exploited, while the pandemic has put behind-the-scenes entertainment workers on the hook for unsafe lengths of shifts with no breaks.

Labor knew that, in an America increasingly ruled by television, it was vital for their survival to have a presence on the rapidly expanding cable and satellite airwaves. At a 1984 press conference mentioned in a New York Times article from the same year, AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland said of TV, “If you’re not on that box, you don’t exist.’”

Of course, it was Kirkland’s 1980s and ’90s tenure that saw the rapid drain of American manufacturing jobs as well as one of the single biggest orchestrated government campaigns to bust a union in world history: Ronald Reagan’s unilateral firing of the wildcat-striking air traffic controllers from the PATCO union. Union commercials with the humble aesthetics of the ILGWU and AFSCME ads, a rarity even in the 1970s, soon disappeared entirely from the airwaves. In the 1980s, what union-produced PSAs there were simply touted the unions’ electoral endorsements — saying nothing about their workers’ actual role in daily American life. Labor union membership plummeted.

That AFSCME outtake was funny and cutting enough to make the rounds of VHS trading circles back in the analog ’80s and ’90s. And when a content-starved YouTube went online in the mid-2000s, it became one of their very first viral hits back in 2007.

In the YouTube comments below all these old union PSAs, you can find numerous funny, touching, and tragic tributes from union members to their comrades. It’s clear these ads still evoke something in the American worker’s psyche. We can see back to a time when the labor movement was in decline — but aware that if it didn’t fight it out in the public arena, it would lose its gains in an avalanche of coming corporate consolidation and globalization.

Whatever the purely nostalgic appeal of these ads, union members remember this kind of representation in the broader cultural landscape and connect to it on a deep emotional level. Is it any wonder that, in an era of renewed left politics, we’re all yearning to be like the workers of AFSCME: “hard-workin’, tax-payin’ people like you [who] don’t take shit from nobody”?