The AFL-CIO's first contested presidential election in 40 years gave the labor movement a brief moment in the media spotlight in October. Although TV news largely ignored the story (on the night of the election, ABC's Nightline was devoted to the new baseball season), daily newspapers that rarely focus on labor ran front-page articles on the "new dawn" for U.S. unions.
Though more serious and sympathetic than the attention the mainstream press usually gives to unions, much of the election coverage still drew heavily on corporate-owned media's stock images of organized labor as disruptive yet marginal, both aggressive and moribund.
Labor's diminished influence and the "bitterness" of the contest between the Service Employees' John Sweeney and interim AFL-CIO president Thomas Donahue were dominant themes, resulting in headlines like the Christian Science Monitor's "Labor Slugfest Over Reviving Lost Clout." (10/23/95)
Mainstream journalists zeroed in on the idea that the change in AFL-CIO leadership would mean more "confrontational tactics" by unions. Some media accounts made the appeals by workers and labor advocates for more assertive, proactive leadership sound like a call for armed insurrection.
New president Sweeney, a mild-mannered union executive who endorsed the AFL-CIO's health care compromise and has supported conciliatory labor-management "cooperation" schemes, became a fire-breathing radical in the press: One Washington Post story (10/25/95) referred to Sweeney convention delegates as "shock troops," and managed to repeat the word "militant" or "militancy" seven times.
Sweeney's comment that it may be necessary to "block bridges" to defend workers' rights was quoted to the exclusion of virtually anything else he said. The New York Times (10/26/95) even claimed that the Sweeney slate "promises to blockade the economy," though just what that means wasn't explained.
While the press kept the focus on potentially "disruptive" spy on and harass strikers, for example--were hardly mentioned. The Washington Post Company itself threatened to "permanently replace" its printers when they struck a few years ago. But aggressive management maneuvers like that were missing from the paper's speculations (10/25/95) about labor's return to "bare knuckle tactics."
Unions' defense of workers' rights, on the job and in the political arena, is often described as "troublemaking" by the press. But when it comes to helping people, labor is dismissed as weak or "irrelevant." Even those stories that seemed to celebrate the "revival" of the AFL-CIO couldn't help but ring hollow when they appeared in newspapers that virtually never acknowledge the positive effects of unions on workplaces and workers' lives.
Press accounts of the AFL-CIO election were also shaped by major media's skewed view of economics, which generally implies that what's good for corporations is good for everyone. In a condescending editorial entitled, "Labor Wakes Up," the New York Times (10/26/95) lectured that unions "will need to develop a new, sophisticated understanding of the economic forces that have contributed to the weakened position of American workers. Demonizing corporations, while emotionally satisfying, will not deliver the new skills and productivity increases needed to give American workers more jobs at higher wages."
The Chicago Tribune likewise used its Oct. 28 editorial on Sweeney's victory to caution that "rather than confrontation by unions, what's needed is cooperation, flexibility and constructive participation to help workers increase their skills, productivity and wages."
Perhaps the editorialists aren't reading their own papers: As stories in the mainstream and business press have reported, worker productivity is at its highest level in years, resulting in skyrocketing corporate profits. The problem is that many companies have increased their "productivity" by laying people off and cutting wages--not by creating well-paid jobs or investing in employees' "skills."
The real question is what this says about the priorities of corporate owners. But that's a question the corporate-owned press takes pains not to ask, even when they describe the worsening economic conditions facing increasing numbers of U.S. workers in the midst of this "economic boom."
Labor Media Watch is a joint project of FAIR and the Labor Resource Center at Queens College, CUNY.
Unions and Other "Perks"
While the leading establishment daily claimed in editorials to support the changes at the AFL-CIO, it was clear that they didn't intend to change their approach to covering labor. An October 24 New York Times story reflected business as usual: The article described how New York City's Omni Hotel had been overwhelmed with applications for a handful of job openings.
Reporter Frank Bruni decided that this was due to the hotel industry's generosity and kindness to workers. Bruni told of one Omni housekeeper who "makes more than $10 an hour with full medical coverage and a pension. She is indeed among a lucky lot."
Of course, the "lucky lot" the woman belongs to is that of unionized workers, which has everything to do with both her wage and her benefits. But the Times gave the credit to the corporation: "What [job seekers] felt they could get with the Omni corporation...was possibility, security, hope."
The article finally mentioned the role of unions in the third to last paragraph. "Their positions at the Omni, like those at many hotels in the city, are union jobs, which they said was one selling point." Benefits like paid sick days were described as "little perks" that Omni bestows on its "lucky" employees, instead of what they are--hard-won union gains.
If media outlets refuse to acknowledge the role unions play in improving workers' lives, they can hardly be expected to understand the significance of the change in union leadership. Moving the labor movement forward is a tough struggle; getting the press to move with it will be at least as hard.