AFL-CIO Takes Action with New TV Broadcast of Work Connects Us All

February 6, 2012

By Barbara Goldman

© Bil Zelman

AFl-CIO "Work Connects Us All" Broadcast campaign

In these difficult economic times with more than four jobless workers for every one available job, America’s jobs crisis continues. The AFL-CIO, America’s largest federation of 57 labor unions, is taking action and putting on a new face for the modern worker. With its first campaign in over a decade they are reaching out to the public to show the shared values associated with work.  They are calling on congress and the administration to get America back to work.  As part of this new muscle, the AFL-CIO has produced a groundbreaking broadcast piece,“Work Connects Us All,” which contemporizes and humanizes an institution that has traditionally been seen as a polarizing brand. 

The concept behind this new TV spot is to promote the universal truth that modern work creates shared values and these values unite all Americans, whether they are union affiliated or not. The :60 second film – not a commercial-  is entirely different in style and substance from what people expect from the usual union fare. It is very contemporary, exciting and artful and not political.  It’s a manifesto that calls for standing up for the values we all share. They chose to make it in a :60 second format to allow it the time to make a big, important statement to provoke conversation and recruit support.

work built country

The AFL-CIO hired award-winning, New York  City-based indie social engagement agency, SS+K , known for such iconic work as the yellow wristband campaign for Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong organization, as well as its recent Cannes Lion kudos for Coca-Cola’s Honest Tea.  With SS+K’s guidance, the AFL-CIO uncovered the essential element — the values that surround work today for the modern worker and speak to all people, regardless of politics.

“We chose to approach our TV assignment in an unconventional way. Truth and connection were at the core of the strategy and it was important for that to be a key component in the visual language of the spot,” says Kelly Fagen, SS+K’s Exec. Producer, TV.  It was important for the agency to find a photographer who could realize the message the AFL-CIO and the agency wanted to communicate and who could make them and their audience feel what their subjects were feeling.  The SS+K team researched a lot of photographer candidates, looking at personal as well as commercial work, as that indicated the kind of honest connection they wanted with real union workers. 

Exec. Producer Fagan and CCO/ Creative Director Kash Sree went with advertising photographer Bil Zelman.  Zelman is known for his candid portraiture and his spontaneous, photojournalistic style. He has  photographed and been sought after  by countless celebrities as Taylor Swift,  John Legend,  Jerry Seinfeld,  Ozzy Osbourne, Kristen Wiig  and such  corporate companies as  Apple, Guinness,  Coke Zero, LensCrafters, Crest, Intel, Lee Jeans,  Sony Music,  Sony Pictures and many other top brands. No matter what the job, Zelman brings an honesty and natural feel to all his subjects.

The AFL-CIO “Work Connects Us All” broadcast spot was Zelman’s first project with SS+K and his photojournalistic style was perfectly suited for the look they needed. “Bil’s work is technically beautiful but it was his connection to the subject that made him the perfect choice for us.  During pre-production, Bil took the time to review hundreds of candidates for the photo shoot to help us find the people who would help us tell the story best,” says Fagan.

SS+K chose to make the AFL-CIO assignment in a :60 second format to allow it the time to make a big, important statement in order to provoke conversation and recruit support.  The backbone of the spot is the script, the manifesto, declaring to the world that work is one of the core values all  workers share and that the work  we all do every day is what builds and powers a civil and humane society.

One of the biggest challenges on the “Work Connects Us All” spot was that both client and agency wanted to feature 30 real union workers in their actual uniforms and avoid casting actors entirely or purchasing unauthentic wardrobe.  Traveling and casting was done by producers, KWC Productions.  They traveled to many locations that included:  New York, NY,  Hartford and Fairfield, CT, Albany, NY, various towns in Long Island, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, PA, Chicago, IL, plus  towns in Westchester and New Jersey, and they even pulled in candidates from as far as Portland, OR, Austin, TX, Washington, D.C. and Albany, GA.  The team shot both stills and motion of each union worker.  Bil Zelman and the SS+K team chose their final 30 talent picks remotely. The final 30 were then flown to a warehouse location, with filming done over a two-day period in New York City.  For Zelman, the AFL-CIO “Work Connects Us All” project turned out to be one of the most perfectly cast jobs he has ever done.


Creatively for the spot, Zelman needed compelling visuals that would hold modern, (otherwise known as short), attention spans for a full 60 seconds, which is very long for television.   Zelman decided to blend the power of stills and stop-motion with motion-camera takes.  Essentially he was filming the spot twice in one day and blending the two together in the final edit. “There’s honesty, tradition and heritage inherent in still images and blending the two helped us to make a bold, impactful statement,” says Zelman of his process.

He used a Canon 1DSM3 for the stills and shot with the lowest resolution raw files and an Arriflex Alexa for the motion portion. The Alexa beat out the RED in the final decision as playback is achievable without a separate workstation and DIT and its images look more like film.  A full set of Cooke prime lenses, Fischer #10 dolly and track, about 20,000 watts of HMI’s and a laundry list of light modifiers and grip helped him and his team achieve a very natural and unlit look. “It sounds funny but it can take a lot of lights to make something look “less lit,” adds Zelman.

The finished spot for the AFL-CIO’s “Work Connects Us All”  rolled out initially in the three pilot cities of Pittsburgh, PA,  Portland, OR, and Austin, TX on January 17, 2012, and it will go national a little later in the year. It is already getting a lot of press from The Huffington Post, Fox News, Daily Kos and more media outlets daily.  SS+K could not have been more pleased with the outcome and the attention.  “We loved Bil’s work. There was something natural yet cinematic about it, at the same time.  Human yet rich.  He reaches in and finds the beauty in people,” says SS+K COO Kash Sree.

Bil Zelman is currently directing still photography and film out of Southern California, where he lives with his wife, two dogs and a bunch of old motorcycles. You can also see more of  Zelman’s work and view his blog at

AFL-CIO “Work Connects Us All” Credits:
Client: AFL-CIO
Agency: SS+K
CCO: Kash Sree
Creative Director, Art: Tim Hanrahan
Creative Director, Copy: Tony Stern
Copywriter: Nathan Phillips
Art Director: Alvaro Rivera
Copywriter: Nathan Phillips
Art Director: Alvaro Rivera
Director of Production: John Swartz
Executive Producer, TV: Kelly Fagan
Director/Still Camera Operator: Bil Zelman
Cinematographer: Aaron Phillips
Producers: KWC Productions