Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Labor & the Media
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Although organized labor remains one of the most important institutions of American life, the mainstream media's coverage of labor and of working people generally can only be described as rotten. As a print and broadcast reporter, editor and commentator who's covered labor for more than 40 years I'm all too aware of that.

Once, during periods of intense union activity, during the drives of industrial unions for legal recognition in the 1930s and forties, the great labor-management conflicts after World War II and up to the 1970s, the media covered labor extensively, if not sympathetically. Just about every newspaper had a labor reporter or two devoting full time to the subject. But labor coverage has been shrinking steadily with the steady decline in union membership.

There have been exceptions to the media's general indifference to labor. The struggles of the United Farm Workers, for instance, have been covered thoroughly. But that's because, like the industrial workers of the 1930s, farmworkers are fighting for basic rights, for the very right of their union to exist, and doing so in very dramatic, easily covered, attention-grabbing fashion.

Today, in any case, very few newspapers, and certainly no broadcast outlets, have labor specialists, even though the need for them is probably greater than it ever was. Labor has become a subject no less complex than politics, education or any other subject that gets specialized media treatment. That includes, of course, business.

What's more, there are still some quite dramatic stories to be told of workers aside from farmworkers who still must fight for the simple right of unionization.

It should be more than enough, anyway, that most people work for a living, and in fact define themselves by their jobs. They obviously would be interested in -- and obviously need -- expert information about that most important aspect of their lives.

It's workers, furthermore, who make our society go -- the people who do the actual work of society rather than those who finance and direct the work. What workers do, and under what conditions they do it, should be a prime concern of the media.

But despite all that, despite the interest, despite the need, the general public gets virtually nothing that's of any real value about working people and much that's prejudicial to their collective action.

Consider the coverage of strikes, just about the only union activities covered at any length by most newspapers. To them, labor is news only when labor is doing something that's highly visible and easily explained in the simplistic, violent and melodramatic terms of labor versus management, like a war or athletic contest. Editors love strikes. Conflict. One group against another. Angry charges and counter-charges. Exciting stuff that sells newspapers.

The issues? They're normally explained, if explained at all, way down in strike stories, and usually cursorily. What mainly counts to the media is how a strike affects the general public -- how it inconveniences the public. A strike breaks out, and sure enough, reporters run around breathlessly with notebooks and microphones in hand, take some photos and video footage of pickets marching around and talk to bunches of people on the street about how terribly inconvenienced they are.

Lacking a thorough explanation of why strikers took the drastic action of walking off the job and little mention of the financial sacrifices that entails, the general public -- including other workers -- has little basis on which to decide whether to support particular strikers. People often know only of the trouble they may have caused others and so oppose them. That's particularly so if the strikers are public employees, whose walkouts almost invariably are attacked by media editorialists.

The management actions that prompt strikes -- frequently the shoddy treatment of employees -- typically are barely reported. It's unions that are cited as the cause. It's unions, after all, that call strikes. It's unions that are portrayed as aggressors -- often as unreasonable aggressors, striking for purely greedy reasons.

And I'm sure you know that management makes "offers" to strikers, but they make "demands;" that their unions are led by "bosses," management led by "executives."

Newspapers and the broadcast media, at any rate, are not much interested in the issues and behind-the-scenes activities that would adequately explain organized labor to the general public. They generally don't want talk and thoughtful analysis of labor issues. They want action. The simpler and more dramatic their coverage, the better.

Contract negotiations? Boring and too complicated. The very concept of collective bargaining seems to escape the media's understanding. The media are not much interested, either, in such matters as the serious on-the-job hazards faced by many workers and the poor enforcement of the safety laws designed to protect them.

The list of other important labor issues neglected by the media is a very long one. Newspapers, for example, regularly tell readers that union membership is shrinking, but rarely -- if ever -- report that a principal reason for that is failure of the government to adequately enforce the laws which supposedly guarantee workers the right to unionize without employer interference.

It's also rare for readers to be told that unionized workers, whatever the industry, are much better compensated and otherwise better treated than non-union workers in the same jobs. If readers thought about that, they might wonder why union ranks are shrinking nevertheless and come to the obvious conclusion that employers are indeed blocking workers from unionizing.

The media are at least partly responsible themselves for declining union membership, for the low understanding of and interest in unions by many people, particularly the young. Just about the only thing many of them know about unions comes from the media's sketchy and often negative reports.

The media's coverage of labor's political activities is no better than their coverage of labor's economic activities, possibly even worse. To describe it as highly biased and ludicrously inaccurate would not be an overstatement.

You know, that business of labeling organized labor as "Big Labor," the presumed equivalent of "Big Business." Thus the AFL-CIO is treated as the equal of the hugely wealthy corporate entities that dominate political and economic life. And although organized labor is an advocate for the working people who make up the vast bulk of the population, union and non-union members alike, labor is characterized as a "special interest."

Rarely is there any mention of labor's political efforts at the local, state and national level in behalf of all working-class Americans. Rarely are readers told of labor's position on the major issues of the day. Rarely are the views of union leaders and their rank-and-file reported.

There is one major exception, however. Labor's views on trade are widely reported -- and usually depicted as reactionary attempts to halt growth of the global economy that the media and their corporate, labor-exploiting friends so dearly love.

The media also somehow seem unaware that unions are democratic institutions, that those union "bosses" are elected. That's especially evident in the reporting of union contributions to political campaigns. Newspapers often cite complaints that a union contributed funds to a candidate or campaign without a vote of the membership, but neglect to report that the contributions were made by elected union representatives whose duties include taking such political actions on behalf of the members. They often ignore as well that the representatives' support for candidates or issues is in many cases authorized by direct vote of their unions' members.

But though the media make a big thing about the supposed undemocratic nature of certain unions, if not all of them, they somehow never speak of the not quite democratic nature of the corporations that unions must battle.

Most newspapers now put almost all of whatever labor stories they do cover on their business pages, a very hostile environment. The stories naturally are read by people with business interests, and naturally are angled in that direction. Most of the readers undoubtedly look on the stories as information about what business' labor adversaries are up to. And those Sunday business section supplements full of advice to white-collar workers seeking better working conditions -- never are they advised to organize.

So why is labor coverage so bad?

The main reason, of course, is simply that newspapers are owned by large corporations, and large corporations -- surprise! -- are not fond of unions. They cut into profits, and that's what corporations are all about -- the more profits the merrier.

There's also this: Newspaper advertisers and thus newspapers are increasingly seeking readers in the relatively affluent suburbs outside the city centers where unions and union supporters are concentrated. There's far less interest in labor -- if not outright opposition -- among many of those with relatively high incomes whom newspapers and their advertisers covet.

Nor are reporters and editors necessarily friends of labor, although many are union members and in fact owe their standing in the middle and upper middle class to the success of their union. In the days when labor was covered extensively, most reporters and editors were as poor and as poorly treated as the working people they covered. But today they're well paid, well treated and at the top of the newspaper pecking order, where they tend to identify with management.

There are non-mainstream media that do cover labor thoroughly -- union newspapers, naturally, alternative papers, liberal magazines, and most notably among others, the Detroit-based monthly, Labor Notes, and the Communist Party's People's Weekly World, as well as a few broadcast and on-line outlets such as LaborNet.

The labor-friendly non-mainstream media do perform the essential task of informing and unifying union supporters. But as vital as that is, much more is needed. Labor must make its case to the broad general public if it's to win broad public support, and it can only do that through the mainstream media.

Unions themselves bear some of the blame for the mainstream media's poor labor coverage. It's understandable that many unions view newspapers as enemies and refuse to share information with them. But unions have no choice except to at least try to cultivate particular reporters who might be sympathetic -- to complain about poor coverage, certainly, but also to press hard and as skillfully as they can for better coverage, however high the odds against them.

Unions shouldn't run from the media, but reach out to explain their case clearly and forcefully, treating media as they would unfriendly employers whose at least grudging cooperation they win through skillful negotiations or, as a last resort, through public protests, demonstrations and picketing.

Mobilizing public opinion in support of better labor coverage would help immensely. Whatever else they are, the people who own the media are businessmen. They are selling goods and services, and they'll sell just about anything the public is willing to buy, or wants to buy. For even if better labor coverage gave aid and comfort to the media corporations' labor enemies, it would increase the corporations' profits, their No. 1 priority.

The best hope for decent media coverage of labor lies in the growth of unions. The steady decline in the percentage of workers belonging to unions has made unions seem less important and thus less newsworthy to the media quite apart from the media's natural anti-unionism. But though the media surely can be blamed for part of the decline, unions themselves must take some of the blame. They've seriously neglected organizing over the past few decades.

The media, remember, don't necessarily cover what's important, be it labor or anything else, unless it also happens to be popular with those whom their advertisers are aiming at, or involves the powerful and influential. That's how maximum media profits are made.

If unions become big again, you can be sure they will again get big media coverage. Maybe even fair media coverage. Who knows? Miracles do happen.

Copyright Dick Meister