Service Employees International Union Local 660's current broadcast advertising campaign is testament to the fact that unions and more importantly, their members have come to recognize the importance of public relations.

The union, which represents 47,000 county workers, is poised to strike when its present contract expires Sept. 29. If that happens, the usual spate of street demonstrations, sit-ins and the like are on the menu. And L.A. County's hapless residents, already facing the headache of a transit strike, may face the loss of other county services.

To keep the public on its side, SEIU is airing a series of television and radio spots at a cost of $750,000.

When asked if the money might not be better spent on something like a fund to tide workers over in the event of a strike, union Assistant General Manager Bart Diener said only that the appropriation had been approved by SEIU's membership.

Unions like SEIU appear to be getting more sophisticated about using the political process to their advantage. Diener pointed to this spring's janitors' strike, during which sister Local 1877 enlisted the help of political figures such as Vice President Al Gore, Mayor Richard Riordan and then-Speaker of the Assembly Antonio Villaraigosa, as well as celebrities from the worlds of film and television.

That labor action was widely considered a victory for SEIU, especially within the union movement.

"It wasn't the janitors' ability to disrupt services at the buildings they worked that made a difference," Diener said. "It was the fact that public opinion was on their side."

Showing the human side

Local 660 is betting that the county supervisors are more susceptible to public pressure than are the cleaning contractors targeted during the janitorial conflict. "We believe the Board of Supervisors will be sensitive to being portrayed as the bad guys," Diener said.

The commercials begin by portraying county workers as, "L.A.'s everyday heroes." They seek to create a connection between viewers and county workers with lines like, "L.A. County librarians open doors of learning, but can't afford college for their own kids."

The responsibility for this state of affairs is then laid at the Board of Supervisors' doorstep, with the commercials claiming the board "won't pay these everyday heroes a living wage."

"The point of the campaign is that if we're going on strike and disrupting services, we want the public to know who we are and why we're committed to a fair share for L.A.'s working families," Diener said.

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