By Bob Bussel, professor emeritus, University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center
According to New York Times media columnist Ben Smith, labor has suddenly become a “hot news beat.” Smith suggested several reasons for this new status. Strikes and organizing campaigns against some of the country’s most prominent employers have captured public attention. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed widespread discontent in the workplace. And a new generation of journalists has emerged that is committed to writing about labor issues.
This outpouring of labor coverage offers important lessons for unions.
For years, many of us in the union movement have complained about biased coverage from corporately controlled media. We have also lamented the lack of journalists who understand labor issues. However, I am convinced these obstacles can be overcome. From my earliest days in the labor movement, the unions I worked for often received favorable news coverage. We got it by taking visible actions such as boycotts, strikes, and organizing campaigns that proved difficult for the media to ignore. We developed long-term relationships with journalists. And we established ourselves as reliable sources of stories worth covering.
Even before the recent wave of union activity, we were seeing more media attention to labor. In 2011, mass protests opposed attempts to roll back workers’ rights in Wisconsin. Occupy Wall Street made economic inequality an issue that gained serious press coverage. Later, teachers’ strikes swept the nation, beginning with the Chicago Teachers Union walkout in 2012 and continuing with the “Red for Ed” strikes. These strikes featured shrewd messaging such as “teacher working conditions are student learning conditions” and “the schools our students deserve.” Often, teachers told compelling personal stories that provided additional insights about these messages.
We’ve witnessed similar creative labor actions closer to home. Scabby the Rat has become a well-known symbol of unfair labor practices at construction sites. The Rosie the Riveter brigade that appeared during UFCW Local 555’s 2019 negotiations with Fred Meyer presented a powerful story about wage structures that treated women unfairly.
Of course, as former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse recently observed, “There’s a big story the media usually misses about unions—how, concretely, they improve workers’ lives.” Unions provide higher wages, predictable scheduling, affordable health care, apprenticeship opportunities, and a strong voice on the job. Because those stories lack the drama of the picket line, it will take more work to get the media to tell them. However, the pandemic has created the opportunity for us to highlight how a union job permits “essential work” to occur under conditions of dignity, respect, and safety.
I don’t mean to suggest that the media will always pay attention or give labor a fair shake. However, I am confident we can get our stories told more often and more fairly if we are persistent, creative, and cultivate relationships with journalists. Most importantly, we must continue to produce activities worth covering. To rephrase Joe Hill’s final words: “Don’t mourn. Publicize.”