Mark L. Knapp and James C. McCroskey

This article summarizes some of the writing and research relevant to communication and labor unions, reports the results of a questionnaire survey concerning future cooperative research programs, and presents specific data from a survey of union practices and opinions in oral communication. Much of the writing and research in this area is found in surveys of communication needs or descriptive treatments of training programs. Fewer investigators have concentrated on the behavioral foundations of labor-management interaction and even fewer have conducted intra-union research in organizational communication. There does seem to be some union support for future efforts in intra-union communication research--particularly from the State Central Body Presidents. Research is suggested primarily in the areas of how to communicate the importance of communication; communication patterns between various union dyads; characteristics of successful and unsuccessful communicators; and labor communication in conflict situations. The survey of oral communication shows the current status and disparity between training needed and training offered.

Since 1950 there has been considerable attention given to theory and research conducted and disseminated under the aegis of organizational communication. This body of information is characterized by an emphasis on the behavior of management. Although the term "organizational communication" does not designate a specific type of organization in which to study communication, one readily notes the lack of information concerning communication peculiarities of government, education, labor organizations, or union members as found in business organizations. The focus of this article is the labor union. It is our purpose to: 1) examine representative writing and research relative to communication in labor unions, 2) suggest some future directions for research in the American labor movement, and 3) report the results of a recent research study in the area.


Redding's conclusion that ". . . only a tiny fraction of behavioral research of any kind has dealt directly with labor unions" [22 p. 80] seems a fair summary of the literature. Clearly the writing and research in organizational communication has been largely management-oriented. There appear to be four general areas into which previously accumulated information concerning communication and labor unions can be catalogued.

Training Programs

Since 1954 there have been several descriptive reports of communication training in university and college based labor education programs. [6, 7, 12, 20] These are generally characterized by training in communication skills with an emphasis on speaking skills. Typical subject matter concerns are public speaking, discussion, parliamentary procedure, voice and diction, and interviewing. Posz [20] noted that communication training is often included as a part of union courses which do not explicitly state the relationship in the title.

Labor-Management Interaction

Within this category there seems to be those studies which are relevant to communication in the formal settings (mediation, negotiation, bargaining) and those applicable in any interaction between labor and management.

Keltner's article [14] generates some hypotheses in the mediation process while Landsberger [16] provides a representative study of conflict in this formal setting by applying interaction process analysis to mediation. Dubin [8] and Blake and Mouton [2, 3] further describe the inter- and intragroup effects on labor and management in formal conflict. These authors treat the behavioral patterns of "winners and losers" and suggest an interesting "therapeutic approach" for increased intra-intergroup acceptance and understanding.

The broader aspects of labor-management interaction include all the research focusing on the perceptual differences which characterize each group and which operate in any communication between them. There is evidence which illustrates differences in information, commitments, identifications, past history, and motives. [13] Lawshe and Guion [17] report the areas of agreement and disagreement in the attitudes of 396 management-oriented and labor-oriented officials concerning grievance handling. Haire [10] demonstrates the effect of source identification by showing identical photographs to labor and management groups and identifying a given picture as "a local manager of a small plant" or "the secretary-treasurer of his union." Favorable descriptive adjectives were selected for the photos representing the respondent's own group membership. Haire [11] even suggests that perceptual differences for the terms "union" and "management" begin as early as age twelve. Additional communication problems may develop as management overestimates the union members' understanding and acceptance of good supervisory principles. Conversely, labor may underestimate management's commitment to a human relations approach to effective supervision. [18] Differing self perceptions have also been studied. Porter [19] reports that management emphasizes objectivity and intelligence while labor emphasizes reliability and cooperativeness. In view of these and other perceptual differences it is not surprising that Weaver [25] reported significant semantic distance (as established by labor-management frames of reference) between the two groups. A 1957 examination of written communication in company magazines and union trade journals, however, showed infrequent clashes of these differing ideologies and perceptions. [9] Just as differences may be crucial determinants of communicative behavior, so are similarities, agreement, and common goals. Dual allegiance to union and company has been found to be characteristic of employees in several firms. [21]

Surveys of Communication Needs

In addition to the study reported later in this article, there have been a few attempts to determine various communication needs and desires of union membership. Dee [5] mentions two such attempts--one involving 75 union stewards in fifteen local unions and one concerning "a large number of stewards in the Central New York area." A survey of business agents representing a union of 40,000 members found the agents describing their job skills as: interpersonal relations, matching wits with the management, and a need to remain valued by employees. Competency in problem-solving and communication skills were seen as critical elements for their success. [23]

Field Studies of Intra-Union Communication

This classification concerns those field studies which have actually examined communication channels, networks, and interpersonal relations within the union organization itself. Dee [4] describes the formal channels of communication in a local union while Tompkins [24] focusses on communication between two units of a national labor union. Related works, although not conducted in the labor organization itself, are the case studies reporting the communication of information through labor and management channels [1] and Keown's study of communication flow among union and management groups. [15]


The authors were interested in the feasibility of future research with labor organizations. Questionnaires were sent to three samples: administrators of the 21 existing university labor education programs, the fifty AFL-CIO State Central Body Presidents, and 140 research and/or education directors of the unions themselves. Many of the same questions were asked of each group for comparative purposes. Thirty-eight percent of the union representatives, 38% of the State Central Body Presidents, and 62% of the university administrators returned the questionnaires.

Research Cooperation

The State Central Body Presidents seem to believe unions would benefit through research cooperation with communication specialists. Over 94% of the respondents felt that such cooperative research definitely or probably would be beneficial. However, the union officers themselves do not appear to be as firmly committed to research cooperation. Slightly over 50% of the union officers felt cooperative research would definitely or probably be beneficial. The figures were virtually the same for attitudes about national and local cooperation within both groups of respondents.

Many respondents volunteered comments indicating they were very much aware of the importance of communication problems and the need for research and training. Over a third of the respondents indicated they believed increased communication training was likely in their union or state. There is, however, very little ongoing research reported by these individuals. None of the university labor education respondents indicated any formal study of communication needs for unions in their area. Similarly, less than 10% of the union respondents report that a communication specialist has analyzed the communication activity within their union on either the national or local level. This does not mean programs are designed without consultation with union representatives, but it does present some doubt that communication training programs, even if increased, will be designed to meet definite needs within the individual unions. This finding also reemphasizes how little we actually know about the communication activity in this setting.

Future Research Possibilities

In an effort to determine specific directions for future research in communication for labor organizations and members, each of the three groups sampled were asked what they perceived to be major problems in this area which needed immediate examination or solution. The results of these responses augmented by the authors' analysis of current research deficits suggest the following list of guidelines:

1. The most frequently mentioned need cited by the respondents was that of developing ways of making all levels of union membership aware of the value of effective communication. Some spoke of motivation, interest, or attendance at training, but essentially it is a problem in making union members feel the importance of communication in something other than a detached way. In the same manner we might investigate ways in which the academic community communicates with the labor community.

2. A series of research studies were suggested concerning the communication relationships between various levels of the union organization. For instance: (a) communication patterns and breakdowns between the international office and the local office--with the 1964 auto strike and the anti-MacDonald revolt in big steel as examples of the latter, (b) communication patterns and breakdowns between union officers and rank and file members--a relationship in which the social distance continues to increase, © communication patterns and breakdowns between stewards and members, (d) some respondents suggested examining the communication patterns of specific individuals such as negotiators, regular members, or stewards--one respondent asking about the role of the steward in union discussions in large meetings and his role in smaller groups, (e) communication patterns and breakdowns between workers and other socio-economic groups in the community, and (f) communication between organizers and organizees. A specific problem in the latter area was reported to be an organizer with a great deal of experience with blue collar workers trying to organize white collar government workers. Some suggested further study of communication networks, media, union grapevines, and organizational barriers in unions. There also seems to be a need for measuring attitudes toward a range of communication concepts in union organizations. In short, we need to conduct a series of studies in the labor organization parallel to those already initiated in the business organization.

3. The review of the literature indicates a number of studies which have investigated several characteristics of union and management communicators. There is a need to continue to quantify these characteristics of successful and unsuccessful union-management communication within the business organization itself, but perhaps more important, to explore the unique aspects of the union members' dual organizational affiliation and how it affects his communication in various situations. Communication studies similar to Purcell's work in dual allegiance would greatly clarify the communicative characteristics of individuals who belong to both the business organization and the union organization which often have conflicting values and goals. One union officer suggested a direction for study when he asked how a union would communicate with its members to insure greater union identification.

Another important area currently receiving considerable experimentation in the laboratory is that of conflict. Studies which test these laboratory findings in the field environment of mediation and negotiation would be valuable. The description and/or testing of laboratory findings in persuasion is a fruitful area in the bargaining setting. Keltner's hypotheses of communication and mediation still await testing.

4. The area of written communication in labor-management relations is relatively untouched. The study of various dimensions of communication in contracts and publications seems warranted.

5. Another problem mentioned by a number of respondents was that of establishing speakers bureaus to build the "voice of labor." This would provide field settings for replicating studies of speech-making in the classroom.

6. Finally, there was some interest in the area of training research. We need to continue comparative research on what training is needed and what training is provided. Equally important is the question of training effects. Will the effects of training in labor organizations parallel those in business organizations? The characteristics and behaviors of effective union trainers, and the integration of communication concepts in courses without the "communication" label in labor education programs are also questions worthy of investigation.


In addition to the data concerning communication research possibilities, the questionnaire survey provided the following information about oral communication.

Perceived Importance of Oral Communication

The three groups sampled (union officers, state central body presidents, and administrators of labor education programs) were unanimous in rating the importance of oral communication abilities as "vital" or "quite importance," for union officers and shop stewards. Some, however, felt such abilities were "of little importance" for regular union members. College administrators were far more convinced that such communication abilities were of little importance to regular members than were the union officers or state presidents. The data suggest that in the opinion of the people surveyed, the need for proficiency in oral communication increases directly with the increase in one's union rank and responsibilities.

Training Needs in Oral Communication

One question was designed to assess the perceived quality of the oral communication skills for the various levels in the union hierarchy. Respondents were asked to rate skills in oral communication as "high," "moderate," or "inadequate." The estimated skill, like the perceived importance, varied directly with the hierarchy of position in the union. Regular members, a group not directly surveyed, consistently received more "inadequate" ratings than the officers or shop stewards. There appears to be a major difference between the state presidents and union officers as to the degree of skill. About 50% of the union officers thought fellow officers were "highly skilled" in oral communication while 10% of the state presidents agreed. The implication for training seems to be that most groups will probably not perceive themselves as "inadequate" in these skills and will see positive increases in skill proficiency as their status in the organization increases. Although there was strong support from the union officers and the state presidents for training in oral communication at all levels, there was agreement that union stewards had the greatest need for such training.

As to specific types of areas or training, there appeared to be strong support for public speaking, discussion leadership and participation, and little support for interviewing. There was some disagreement between union officers and state central body presidents about training in parliamentary procedure and interpersonal communication. The union officers were more strongly committed to the former while the state presidents showed heavy commitment to the latter. Concerning this problem, the administrator of the labor programs at UCLA said, "As we see the problem in California, the interest is shifting from practice in parliamentary procedure to everyday communication skills."

Training Programs Currently in Operation

Several questions were asked to determine the nature of existing oral communications. About one-half of the union officers who responded to the survey indicated that their union has had, at one time or another, some training program in oral communication. Only a third of them, however, indicated that such a program was in operation as the time of the survey. Approximately 60% of the state president respondents indicated that they were familiar with one or more union sponsored oral communication training programs in their state. All of the labor education administrators indicated that training in oral communication was included in their programs.

Union officer and state president respondents indicated that about one-fourth of the oral communication training programs with which they were familiar were conducted in their entirety by individual unions or state central bodies. The majority of the programs, however, were conducted in cooperation with colleges. Most said their training took place at regular intervals. None of the state central body presidents thought training in oral communication was continuous while almost a third of the union officers and college administrators felt it was. Instead, a large proportion of the state presidents felt training was conducted on an infrequent basis.

The instructors in these programs are about equally divided between college and labor personnel. Among the college instructors, the labor education administrators reported that instructors in this area are more often from the labor education department or departments other than from those specializing in the study of oral communication.

Eighty-five percent of the college respondents said that teachers needed special qualifications to instruct labor audiences. These generally fell into four categories: 1) a willingness to emphasize the practical aspects of the topic, 2) a sensitivity to adults in general, and the worker in particular, 3) some understanding of the structure and functions of unions, and 4) not antagonistic or biased toward unionism.

One question asked the union officers and state presidents to indicate services provided by local and national unions when such training is offered. Both groups agreed that the national union generally provides for instructors, instructional guides and materials, and little else. In response to the services provided by the local union, the state presidents and union officers were in total disagreement. A large percentage of union officers felt that the local union organizes and administers its own program while an equally large percentage of the state presidents thought just the opposite. Further, union officers said that the local unions generally did subsidize training for members offered by outside agencies; a large majority of the state presidents said that local unions did engage in such subsidizing. The reason for these inconsistencies is unknown but may be directly related to intra-union communication breakdowns.

Previous responses established a felt need for training in oral communication for all levels, but particularly for the stewards. A follow-up question showed union officers were receiving most of the training. The group receiving the least training in this area were the regular union members. A far greater percentage of the college administrators felt regular union members were receiving such training than either of the union associated respondents. The significance of such training for the rank and file is vividly illustrated in the observation.

Yet this rank-and-file worker, anonymous and unimportant though he may seem, is at the base of American society, and unless one knows what he is like one cannot fully understand the society. In the last analysis his voice, so seldom heard, is the decisive one. [25]

Table 1 reports the need and current training offerings in various areas of oral communication as perceived by the three responding groups. A comparison shows that the rank order of the types of training needed and the types of training offered is almost exactly reversed. For instance, public speaking was ranked as the area in which training was most needed, but it ranks fourth among the areas in which training is actually offered. Also, training in parliamentary procedure was ranked fifth among training needed, and is ranked first among training offered. A considerably greater percentage of college administrators thought training in interviewing was offered than did either of the other two groups, with none of the state presidents indicating the existence of such training. The "other" training offered by the colleges in this area included such things as "radio and television speaking," "communication theory," "sensitivity training," and "role playing."


Perceived Needs and Offerings in Oral Communication Training*

Responding Group Public Speaking Parliamentary Procedure Discussion Participation Discussion Leadership

Interpersonal Communication

Union Officers 60.9














State Presidents 52.6














College Administrators








*Figures represent the percentage of respondents who indicated the given type of oral communication training was included or needed in the program(s) with which they were familiar. Figures in parentheses represent the perception of what is needed; other figures represent what is offered.


The paucity of communication research in general and behavioral research in particular is obvious. Although the difficulties of such research are manifest, this study indicates there are labor leaders willing to commit themselves to such investigations.

Anyone interested in the theory and application of communication principles in the American society in toto cannot ignore the seventeen million members of the adult population who are associated with labor organizations.


This study was supported in part by funds from the Speech Communication Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


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