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Monday, October 26, 2009

Look for the union label -- just don't put it in your ads without permission (UPDATED)

Posted By on Mon, Oct 26, 2009 at 2:22 PM

As I first reported here yesterday, mayoral candidate Dok Harris announced the endorsement of Ironworkers Local 3 this morning. But Harris has been hearing from another union as well -- and not about an endorsement.

Over the weekend, the Service Employees International Union sent a letter to the Harris campaign, demanding that Team Harris take down an advertisement featuring SEIU members and Gabe Morgan, who is the union's director for Western Pennsylvania.

The ad in question asks "Where's Luke?" and features numerous speakers -- from Barack Obama to local residents -- commenting on the mayor's habit of going AWOL. One part of the commercial shows footage from a protest held at the City County Building this past July. The demonstration, carried out by members of the SEIU and the United Food and Commercial Workers unions, sought to ensure that taxpayer-funded development would provide "living wage" jobs. (Our coverage of the July protest is here.)

The commercial shows union members -- identifiable by their T-shirts -- chanting. Morgan then appears and tells them, "We don't know if the mayor's here or not." The ad has aired on television in addition to being posted on Youtube.

Sent by union attorney Terry Meginniss, the SEIU letter charges that the Harris ad uses the footage of the protest "out of context" and in a way that "distorts the message that was delivered."

Meginnis set a deadline of 5 p.m. Sunday for the campaign to "advise me what steps you will take to meet the demand set out here." The letter threatens "legal and other appropriate remedies against the campaign to ensure that the public is not misled."

In a phone call this afternoon, Morgan told me the SEIU "has been waging a campaign to lift standards for working people in the city of Pittsburgh. And the Harris campaign was tying that on to other footage, and shoehorning it into a political campaign. They took our message out of context, cut it into an ad and used it for their own purposes ... We think the ad implies a relationship that doesn't exist, and to us, it feels exploitive. We take our endorsement process very seriously."

The SEIU has not endorsed any of the three mayoral candidates: The union is remaining neutral in the race, Morgan says, because it has chosen to advocate for specific policies rather than politicians. 

Would the SEIU be satisfied if the Harris team just took down the ad? "We'll see what happens," Morgan told me.

I'm waiting for a call back from the Harris campaign, and will post their response here. (UPDATE: Harris' campaign manager did respond -- see below.) But for now, I'll note that nothing in the ad suggests Harris has been endorsed by the SEIU. And the July protest was a public demonstration, attended by local TV news and lots of people with cameras of their own as well. Moreover, as I pointed out to Morgan, plenty of demonstrators did complain about the mayor's absence during the demonstration. Some joked he'd surely be around if they were golf celebrities or campaign contributors. 

"Did those union members tell you they were supporting Dok Harris?" Morgan shot back.

So I'm not sure what legal requirements apply in this situation. On the one hand, it's a real bad idea to use people's likeness in an advertisement without permission. On the other hand, labor activists were staging a public protest, about an issue of concern -- an issue that Harris has made part of his campaign. (As Harris' Web site makes clear, the candidate "support[s] tools ... to ensure that publicly funded development actually supports our working families.")

But speaking politically, as opposed to legally? Talking to the SEIU before rolling out the ad would have been a smart idea. 

UPDATE: Michael Capozzoli, the Harris campaign manager, got back to me this evening. His first response was "Ahhhh, uhhhhhh, ohhhhhh ... and you can quote me on that." 

Capozzoli was, shall we say, puzzled by the SEIU's response to the ad. "We have the utmost respect for the SEIU," he said. "They're a very important voice for the working families in this city." But, he added, "We're confused, because they've been at loggerheads with this mayor since he took office." He reiterated the point I've raised above -- that Harris has been much more sympathetic to causes the SEIU espouses, like wage guarantees on developments funded with city tax dollars. 

As for the legal claims made in the SEIU letter, Capozzoli says "We're very confident that we didn't use any material inappropriately. They were in a public place, doing a public protest publically." 

The footage, he says, was shot by independent filmmaker Chris Ivey, who has been shooting footage for the Harris campaign. 

But Capozzoli says he empathizes with the SEIU: "When you're shaking up the status quo, even the good guys can get scared." Members of the Harris campaign itself, he says, have been told they'll never find political work in Pittsburgh again. 

Capozzoli says the ad was scheduled to come off the air Wednesday anyway, when it will be replaced with another ad. In any case, he adds, none of this will disrupt the Harris campaign's momentum. "This race is a lot closer than any of you can really report," he says.

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