Production Values

Figuring out what's wrong with the media's coverage of organized labor.

| Wed Sep. 7, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

A remarkable headline ran in the Minnesota Star-Tribune last week: "Airline May Be Winning Spin Battle." The airline in question was Northwest, the fourth-largest airline in the country, and the battle was over popular support in its confrontation with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), which went on strike on August 19th after the airline demanded $176 million in salary cuts from the mechanics, plus a workforce reduction of 50 percent, in order to avoid bankruptcy. As the Star-Tribune reported, Northwest has sought to assure passengers that it can keep its airplanes running during the strike, and has managed to alleviate any safety concerns among customers. Rumors run strong that the airline has had serious problems, including chronically late flights, since the strike began, but Northwest has managed to keep a tight lid on numbers and figures. "Frankly," said Paul Maccabee, who runs a public relations firm in Minneapolis, "I think the war of words is being won by Northwest."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Of course, no war of words can be won without help from the media, and the major newspapers, whether consciously or not, offered Northwest a helping hand in the opening days of the strike. The New York Times gushed: "Well-Laid Plan Kept Northwest Flying In Strike," complete with cloying paragraphs on how the airline was still running "smoothly" despite those uppity workers causing a big ruckus. USA Today followed suit: "Northwest Flies Undaunted," expressing admiration for the company's strategy of using scabs—or, as the media dubs them, "replacement workers"—to weather these tough times. Two days later, the Times, came back with a long and enthusiastic profile of the Northwest scabs, noting that they were "taking part in [a] historic moment[]: busting unions, 21st century style." Other headlines swooned over Northwest's ability to keep its stock prices high. And that was just the liberal press.

Reasonable disagreements about the AMFA strike are perfectly possible. While I personally wouldn't buy a Northwest ticket right now, and my first instinct is to support the strikers, the AMFA has certainly gone out of its way to antagonize other unions over the years by poaching workers (the backstory for this dispute is here). The union, meanwhile, has picked the worst possible time to strike—over 130,000 airline jobs have vanished this decade, and "replacement workers" are plentiful—and had no strategy to coordinate with other airline unions, many of whom it has alienated, or otherwise go up against an airline that has been honing its union-busting tactics for years. The AMFA may still prevail—or Northwest may soon go bankrupt, especially now that Hurricane Katrina has sent fuel costs sky high. But regardless of these questions, the alacrity with which the press jumped into Northwest's corner was something to behold.

This is hardly the first time media coverage has shown itself hostile to organized labor. In June, as workers for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco and Oakland threatened to strike, the local coverage managed to cast the labor dispute as a battle between (greedy) workers who wanted a raise and (beleaguered) commuters who didn't want another fare hike and a state facing a $100 million deficit in its budget. No media story that I came across pointed out that BART's workers are paid out of the same operating budget that has been used to pay for the railway's exploding construction costs over the past decade. It was hard to find any story that pointed out that land developers and construction companies—the same interests that lavishly finance election candidates to BART's board of directors—have been pushing continually for further expansion of the railway while keeping payroll down. David Bacon, a former union organizer, warned of the problems this tension would cause way back in 1997. Perhaps, in the end, the BART workers, with an average salary of $67,000, really were just getting greedy (although the idea that workers should just be satisfied with what they already have is hardly a pro-worker sentiment). But the Bay Area press all but assumed that, rather than reporting it.

In a way, so what? It's what one comes to expect from a media increasingly owned and dominated by corporate interests. But the particular way in which the press has covered labor deserves closer attention. Christopher Martin, a communication studies professor at the University of Iowa, recently dealt with this issue in his book, Framed: Labor and the Corporate Media. Martin argues that the media "frames" labor disputes using five key assumptions. First, the consumer is always right: the press will investigate how strikes affect consumers, while devoting scant attention to workplace conditions. Second, the public doesn't need to know about the process of production, or, if anything, can be told in simple terms (as with the BART dispute). Third, business leaders are the true heroes of the American economy. Fourth, the workplace is and should be a meritocracy. Fifth, collective action distorts the market. These assumptions, Martin argues, guide the vast majority of labor coverage.

By way of empirical research, Martin looked at how the three major television networks, USA Today, and the New York Times covered five major labor issues in the 1990s: the United Parcel Service strike, the American Airlines flight attendant strike, the 1994 baseball strike, and the shutdown of a General Motors plant in Michigan. In each, media coverage focused primarily on the effects of consumers of these disputes, helping to close off any possible sympathy or solidarity that the public might generate for the workers. "By addressing us all as consumers," Martin wrote, "the news media diminish citizenship to mere purchasing behavior."

Of course, this wasn't just some perverse side-effect of the "New Economy" ethos in the 1990s, when pundits told Americans, quite falsely, that the brick-and-mortar economy, along with its cumbersome unions, was a thing of the past (ignoring the fact that the fastest-growing jobs in America are still in very brick-and-mortar careers such as nursing, teaching, and truck-driving). Back in 1989, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog, issued a report delivering nearly the same indictment as Martin. Few major media outlets, the report found, carried a dedicated labor reporter any longer. (Important exceptions certainly exist: Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times is a fantastic and largely sympathetic labor reporter, although he wasn't assigned to the Northwest story.) By and large, the labor beat has largely been replaced, in the business sections of major newspapers, by the often-frivolous "workplace beat," while editors show scant interest in labor stories unless something important happens, such as a strike or infighting among unions.

Cable outlets on TV, for their part, devote time and energy to creating and running corporate- and finance-oriented shows, despite the fact that most of them have earned piddling ratings since the stock market crash in 2001. Yet not even PBS has a labor counterpart to "Kudlow and Cramer". One might presume that the market has spoken, and there's just no demand for labor coverage, but union density still hovers at around 12.9 percent, and it seems hard to believe that the potential audience just doesn't exist.

Ultimately, though, harping on mass media coverage won't get anyone anywhere. If anything's worth doing, unions will have to do it themselves. Yet the rapid decline in union density over the past three decades has forced hundreds of labor publications to shutter up, including the 2002 closing of the Racine Labor, a Wisconsin-based newsletter that had survived for over 60 years and had often been held up as a model for other aspiring labor papers to emulate. This state of affairs is a far, far cry from the turn of the 20th century, when the Appeal to Reason, a socialist rag, boasted 760,000 subscribers at its peak. Perhaps the internet will someday revive that tradition; one can always hope. In the meantime, though, the cycle will very likely continue: the liberal media will avert its innocent eyes as business slowly but surely dismantles organized labor, which will put even more worker publications in dire straits, which will in turn convince the Times and the networks that "the people," apparently, demand more stories about workplace gossip and less and less about the means of production.