Labor Day may be a fitting tribute to America’s workers. But what about the other 364 days of the year? Despite all the talk about the importance and dignity of working people, they get little power or glory in the everyday world of news media.
What if the situation were reversed?
Once a year, big investors and corporate owners could be honored on Business Day. To celebrate the holiday, politicians might march arm in arm through downtown Manhattan with the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Donald Trump. Executives could have the day off while media outlets said some nice things about them.
During the rest of the year, in this inverted scenario, journalists would focus on the real lives of the nation’s workforce. Instead of making heroes out of billionaire investors — and instead of reporting on Wall Street as the ultimate center of people’s economic lives — the news media would provide extensive coverage of the workplace.
For instance, such coverage would reflect the health hazards that workers face. On an average day, 18 Americans die from on-the-job injuries while an estimated 165 people die from occupational diseases. Other daily work-related figures include 36,400 injuries and 3,200 illnesses.
If media outlets can keep us so closely informed about stock prices every day, they could also keep us posted on exactly which industrial workplaces are killing and injuring America’s workers. Much of the toll is less than obvious: Researchers have found that for each American killed by a workplace injury, nearly 10 job-related deaths occur due to disease.
If these grim events were reported on a daily basis, with the intensity and attention to detail now reserved for coverage of the stock market, then our society would be much more aware of working conditions across the country — and there would be more public pressure for improvement.
In a more labor-friendly media environment, televised punditry wouldn’t be dominated by pro-corporate forums like "The Capital Gang," "Hardball," "The McLaughlin Group" and ABC’s "This Week" — which, not coincidentally, are made possible by union-bashing firms like Archer Daniels Midland and General Electric. In contrast, prominent TV programs would present the outlooks of people who don’t ride in limousines.
Public television — now featuring the "Nightly Business Report" show — would also be willing to air a regular program that might be called "Nightly Labor Report." In this media dream world, National Public Radio would not continue to include a "business update" as part of hourly news broadcasts without also providing a "labor update" at the top of each hour.
The biggest-circulation dailies would not be limited to corporate-owned newspapers along the lines of USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Instead, at least one of the most widely distributed papers would be owned and operated by a coalition of labor unions. And the editorial pages would routinely publish a real diversity of views.
On the magazine racks, periodicals like Business Week and Forbes (motto: "Capitalist Tool") would have to compete with equally bankrolled publications such as Labor Week and Solidarity Forever (motto: "Worker’s Tool").
Congress would not get away with changing the name of Washington National Airport to Ronald Reagan National Airport, as occurred in 1998. A pro-labor media atmosphere would make it politically untenable to name the airport after a former president who smashed the air traffic controllers’ union early in his first term.
Not content to gush out a steady stream of platitudes about "democracy" and the "free market," the news media would probe the concept of workplace democracy.
Right now, the mass media rarely explore the idea of extending democratic principles to the institutions where Americans work for a living. It’s as though we’ve been conditioned to believe that our most exalted political values — free speech and the right to vote for the leaders of powerful institutions — should not intrude past the workplace door.
A few decades ago, satirist Tom Lehrer recorded a song about National Brotherhood Week. "It’s only for a week, so have no fear," he chortled. "Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!"
Labor Day lasts 24 hours. Too bad we need it.