No matter how nice it may be, ritual coverage of Labor Day doesn’t begin to make up for routine media themes the rest of the year. We’re accustomed to a negative spin about American labor. In other contexts, we might recognize those themes as signs of implicit bias, outright prejudice or even bigotry.
For instance: Most of them are fine as individuals. But as a group, they’ve got to know their place. Otherwise, they could gain control and undermine our country.
News accounts may portray workers as admirable — but when they struggle in an organized way, in solidarity with each other, it’s often a different story. And when American workers encounter an iron fist from on high, quite a few leading pundits are inclined to hail the suppression as a triumph for the national interest.
The widely syndicated New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is still rejoicing that Ronald Reagan busted the PATCO union early in his presidency. "The most important thing Mr. Reagan did was break the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, which helped break the hold of organized labor over the U.S. economy," Friedman claimed last month.
Like many of his colleagues, Friedman goes along with the notion that much of this country’s economic strength depends on keeping uppity workers in line. "U.S. companies are quick to absorb new, more productive technologies because they can easily absorb the cost of the new investment by laying off the workers who used to perform that task," he wrote in an Aug. 20 column. "And as the overall economy becomes more productive, those workers get rehired elsewhere."
For a pundit who is contemptuous of labor, it doesn’t matter that much suffering results — for fired employees and their families — when corporations quickly "absorb the cost of the new investment by laying off the workers." The human anguish is a mere trifle. Nor is it worth mentioning that for the workers who eventually "get rehired elsewhere," the new jobs frequently pay lower wages.
Like other members of despised groups, workers are often handy scapegoats. Friedman looks across the Atlantic and turns up his nose at undue solicitude for employees. In the exalted realm of ultra-modernization, he clucks, "the Europeans have moved slower because their rigid labor laws make it very hard, or very costly, to lay off workers."
What we rarely hear from American mass media is that downsides for corporate investors are apt to be important upsides for working people. In Germany, for example, the "rigid labor laws" include a 35-hour work week — a monumental victory for the German labor movement, won with a wave of strikes early in this decade.
In the United States, longtime labor journalist David Bacon points out, mass media outlets avoid exploring more humane alternatives — even within capitalism — such as "an economic system that relies on high wages and limits the work week in order to promote employment." Despite all the rosy economic reporting, many Americans are not counted as unemployed because they’ve stopped looking for work. Millions of others are working longer hours than ever while real wages remain stagnant.
"There’s a bias in the media which reflects a discomfort with workers organizing to try to change conditions rather than just being victims of them," says Bacon, an associate editor at Pacific News Service. The major media are functioning with a constricted range of vision — "a blindness to inequality in the workplace and inequality in the economy."
Considering the sources that dominate the news frame, that blindness is not surprising. And the problem extends well beyond the corporate-owned media. In a recent study of public television programming, Vassar College sociologist William Hoynes found only faint glimmers of light from labor.
"Coverage of the economy is, more than international or domestic political coverage, dominated by one social sector — the business class," Hoynes concluded after assessing programs on PBS stations. "Corporate representatives account for more than half of the sources," while 20 percent of sources represent Wall Street. Overall, "three-quarters of the sources in economic stories are from the corporate or investment world." In sharp contrast, non-professional workers and labor representatives together account for less than 3 percent of the voices on the air.
Largely excluded from mass media, American labor can seem like "the other" — talked about but rarely heard. No wonder so many pundits find it easy to express fear and loathing.