Media Ignoring Labor Union Successes

Sally Field in "Norma Rae"

Labor unions have had some tremendous successes in recent weeks, but you would never know this from the mainstream media. The Teamsters won bargaining rights for 7600 workers at Continental Airlines, which only rated a small non-bylined story in the Business Section of the New York Times and was ignored by other national media. UNITE HERE Local 11 is waging an inventive contract campaign against Disney that included several workers on a week long fast, a tent camp out, and candlelight vigil outside Disneyland — all providing good photo ops — yet media outside Southern California ignored these efforts.

Even worse, the February 15 New York Times ran a story on Disney’s promotion at the Epcot Center in Florida of a “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” charitable project. The contrasting Disney coverage is but one example of how the media has shifted its approach to labor activism so that such stories are treated as strictly local news. Yet news about corporations, as well as local shootings, fires or climate events, get national coverage.

One reason that I write so frequently about labor activism is that the mainstream media has largely abandoned this entire area of news. The past month alone has seen NUHW’s landmark victory at Kaiser, the Teamsters victory at Continental, solidarity between IBEW and UNITE HERE in rallies in Las Vegas, and between NUHW and UNITE HERE in Southern California protests, yet all only garnered local coverage.

The reasons are many. Few newspapers still have a regular labor reporter, with those like Phil Dine at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Steve Franklin at the Chicago Tribune now gone without being replaced. The Washington Post no longer has a reporter covering labor exclusively, nor the Boston Globe, nor the Detroit papers.

The rare stories that editors allow to go forward are increasingly assigned to business reporters, who lack the knowledge of labor issues and must tread carefully to avoid alienating the corporations they regularly cover.

Norma Rae Would Be Ignored Today
The absence of labor reporters is a symptom of a larger media trend that now sees union activism and elections as deserved only of local coverage, while corporate news wins national attention. So the New York Times reports on Disney’s public relations event in Orlando, Florida is reported by, while UNITE HERE’s far more newsworthy event at Disneyland gets only local press.

Similarly, the Teamsters victory at Continental was based in Houston, and theHouston Chronicle’s business section ran a very positive account of the workers 13-year struggle — with five prior defeats — to win unionization. But the rest of the national media largely ignored the story, with the Times running a small non-bylined story in the Business section.

It was not so long ago that union struggles warranted national coverage.

For example, the Teamsters’ 13-year struggle at Continental sounds a bit like the longtime campaign by southern textile workers to organize a union at J.P. Stevens. This struggle became immortalized in the film Norma Rae, which was based on Crystal Lee Sutton’s real life role in winning support for the union.

Now I don’t know if anyone at Continental held up a large sign with the word “Union” as Sutton did, and the work conditions at Continental are likely not as onerous as those found in textile mills. But I suspect there were a number of gripping human stories surrounding the Teamsters 13 year struggle that deserved national attention, yet were ignored.

Sutton’s death last September justifiably received widespread attention. I’m sure the longtime union activist would recognize the irony that her death received far more media attention than is granted to any worker in an ongoing labor struggle; if Sutton held up the sign “Union” today, few would ever hear of it.

East Coast Bias
In addition to restricting union successes to local coverage, East Coast bias may be at play. I saw this firsthand on Cesar Chavez Day last March 31 when neither theNew York Times nor Washington Post even mentioned Chavez, despite his birthday being a holiday in California and several other states (and the recent Inauguration of a president whose “Yes We Can” campaign theme was borrowed from the UFW’s “Si Se Puedé.”).

As with the J.P. Stevens campaign, Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement received significant national media coverage in an era when the media still framed labor struggles as national stories. Today, the New York media appears to see the UFW’s rise as a California story, ignoring all three books about Cesar Chavez and the UFW released since the fall of 2008, including my Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (in contrast, New York media gave major coverage in 2009 to two books on the legacy of conservative East Coaster William F. Buckley).

East Coast bias is part of the reason for the lack of national coverage of UNITE HERE’s Disney campaign, NUHW’s David and Goliath victories over SEIU, or the alliance between UNITE HERE Local 226 and IBEW 1245 that on February 9 brought over 400 workers to a street protest against Nevada Energy in Las Vegas. But this East Coast bias does not apply to national coverage given to other West Coast events, such as the recent transit station beating in Seattle or crime and climate stories, which, like stories about corporations, are seen as national.

Deciding What’s News
It makes a difference when Disney Corp. gets New York Times coverage for its charitable endeavors, while its effort to raise health care costs for UNITE HERE workers at its famed Disneyland Hotel is ignored. It also makes a difference when a national story line emerges of declining union membership and labor on the defensive, while the national media ignores NUHW’s victory at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, part of the largely non-union St. Joseph’s Health Systems.

The media blackout of labor success’s contributes to a popular mindset that unions are outdated, and that their failures are self-inflicted, rather than a direct result of hostile employers and anti-union labor laws. The popular media image of labor “bosses” has no place for stories of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka getting arrested in support of striking hotel workers; we are far from the days when the arrival of a national figure like Trumka can get the media to “nationalize” a labor struggle, even when it is part of a nine-city national hotel campaign.

When you read about dwindling newspaper readership, consider how the struggles of working people are no longer considered newsworthy. It’s not just the Internet that has driven down circulation; rather, it’s hard-pressed workers not finding stories that have meaning to them, and then saving money by canceling subscriptions.

Randy Shaw

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron

Published by the LA Progressive on February 19, 2010
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About Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Director of San Francisco's Tenderloin Housing Clinic and the Editor-in-Chief of the online daily newspaper "Beyond Chron." He is the author of three books, "Beyond the Fields", "The Activist's Handbook", and "Reclaiming America".