BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. As the sometimes breathless coverage of the union vote in Bessemer, Alabama, showed, labor stories are having a moment. This after a half century that saw the beat go almost entirely to cede.
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN The labor beat since the 1970s has been in decline.
BOB GARFIELD Christopher R. Martin is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa. He's the author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class.
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN In fact, by this year, there's maybe seven labor reporters at the top 25 newspapers. We don't have any at the networks. None of the cable networks.
BOB GARFIELD Compare that to 1951, when an AP labor reporter lamented that there were only 23 labor reporters between St. Louis and Boston. He said that there should be at least 200. In the course of researching his book, Martin came across two front page New York Times stories, both about transit strikes but written 40 years apart. Exemplifying, he says, the evolution of labor coverage.
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN The first one starts on a rainy day in March 1941, and there are about 3,500 transport workers union members, who are bus drivers, who walked out. And at that time in 1941, they supplied 95% of the surface transportation in New York City, and it affected 900,000 commuters, almost a million. And what was interesting in 1941 is there's very little focus on the displaced commuters. Instead it was mostly about the contract issues between the workers, the bus company and New York Mayor LaGuardia. So the second one we get started on a rainy day in March 1983. And here we have 622 conductors from that United Transportation Workers Union walking out on strike against the Transit Authority. And this stopped commuter lines and it affected about 90,000 commuters. So about 1/10th of the number from 1941. There was a huge photo on the front page showing three businessmen from Westchester, and they look like fish out of water. They're in their trench coats with briefcases on their laps. And they're riding a dirty, graffiti riddled subway car leaving the station and Bronx. And we get a quote from a commuter saying "The idea of such a small minority having such an impact on such a huge majority is just not right." And that really says everything about who The New York Times thinks its audience is by 1983.
BOB GARFIELD Now, one obvious explanation for the disappearance of labor reporting is the same one for the disappearing state house reporter, or theater critic or foreign correspondent; the collapse of the news industry in the digital economy. But you believe there is a deeper and more sinister explanation that began long before the Internet with newspaper consolidation. What did the rise of newspaper chains have to do with the labor beat?
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN Well, what happened, Bob, is that the newspapers, as they consolidated, started to refocus in the late 60s and early 70s on who their audience was. So instead of a mass audience, which would include the vast working class in America, we start to see by the late 60s and early 70s more of a focus on upscale consumers. So their readers tend to be more people who are middle class and upper middle class. They literally stop delivering papers to people in rural areas, and in inner-city areas. And so that has the effect of making the labor beat go into a long, slow decline, and then we start to see the rise of two other beats. The workplace beat, which focuses more on people in white collar jobs and covers things like office romances or what to wear on casual Fridays. And then we also see the rise of a personal finance beat, and so you see the startup of magazines like Money and sections of newspapers talking about investing and things like that.
BOB GARFIELD So after the press, as an industry, you say gave up on the American worker as a reader, it began looking at workplace issues from a different perspective, a consumer's perspective, a heroic captains of industry perspective. How did the framing change?
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN Well, the framing very much became one where the consumer is king, and collective economic action is bad. So, if you look at, for example, a strike report from the 70s on, I mean, it's very much about the consumer. And actually it's kind of a clever way of actually managing objectivity in labor stories. So, you're not siding with management or labor, you're siding with the consumer. But if there's a strike, I mean, the consumer is very much about things going back to the way they are, forget whatever the workers wanted. You don't want your accessibility to the product or service to diminish. You don't want prices to go up. You just want things back the way it was. So, the consumer being king is one of the important frames that we get. Another one is the production process is none of the public's business. So, we don't get to see the process of production very often, which would include necessarily talking about workers and their conditions.
BOB GARFIELD That sounds like suppression. Skewing the news narrative to accommodate advertisers who are uncomfortable with the naked truth. I mean, I could see publishers hoping for that, but newsrooms?
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN You know, I don't think there's a top down edict to say don't cover how the production process is made, but it's not where stories come from, right? So instead, I mean, if you're going to talk about the auto industry, one of the other frames is the economy is driven by great business leaders and entrepreneurs. So, you go talk to the CEOs and talk about what they want.
BOB GARFIELD I want to also ask you about the demographics of the newsroom until the 70s, until Watergate, that is, and Woodward and Bernstein and the glow around them, the reporting profession wasn't as professionalized as it is now. More blue-collar backgrounds, not many journalism school graduates, less elitism. Can some of this loss of interest in organized labor be traced to socioeconomics and culture?
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN Within a news organization there have been several studies that talk about this the reporters and adopt the so-called ideology or whatever the target audience is of that organization. So, you kind of learn very quickly who you're writing for and writing about in an organization. I think there is some truth to the fact that the reporters today are much more professionalized, or college educated, and until just recently, they likely did not belong to labor unions themselves.
BOB GARFIELD Whatever the various causes, a half century of journalistic neglect takes a toll. How is the public disserved by the vacuum of coverage? Absent journalistic due diligence, who has commandeered the narrative?
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN What you find in the shift towards a more upscale audience in the mainstream media then really kind of leaves the working-class, millions of people without a news media that's really speaking to them. So, what happens is that at least one part of the working class, the white working class, gets picked off in the 70s by Christian Broadcasting Corporation and other evangelical types of news media. In the 80s by talk radio with Rush Limbaugh and others in the 90s, by Fox News, now in the aughts, by a number of websites like Breitbart. And so now we have this situation where they're calling the mainstream media elite and that they're the media for the white working class.
BOB GARFIELD You observed the 2020 Gallup poll showed that 65 percent of Americans are approving of unions in general. And you also observed the uptick lately in labor coverage and a lot of focus on the astonishing disparity in incomes and wealth. Given all of the trends, what is the future of the labor beat? And more to the point, what should the labor beat be?
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN I like what a former New York Times labor writer, the late William Serrin, once said, and he said, to write about labor is to really write about work. So it doesn't necessarily have to be people who are members of labor unions. In fact, there is not as many of them these days, but it should be about people who work. And if you talk about people who work, you realize that there is this inequality in most cases that people aren't well compensated. They should be talking about the arcane rules that govern things like elections for union representation. They should be talking about things like the danger for workers. We should talk about the health care of the workers as well. I mean, there's a lot of different things you could talk about and work is the entree into those issues, talking about things that really matter to just regular people.
BOB GARFIELD Chris, thank you so much.
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Christopher R. Martin is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media abandoned the working class. To counter the argument for better wages and conditions made by union organizers, employers may defend the status quo with cautionary videos aimed at workers or their supervisors. This is from a 2018 Amazon campaign instructing its Whole Foods managers how to see trouble coming.
ANTI-UNION PROPAGANDA If you see warning signs of potential organizing, notify your building H.R.M and G.M. site leader immediately. The most obvious signs would include use of words associated with unions, or union led movements like "living wage" or "steward." Some signs are less obvious than finding the actual union flyer. Examples include associates who normally aren’t connected to each other, suddenly hanging out together. Associates who are close suddenly stopped speaking to each other. Unusual complaints or change in passion or detail around complaints or any other associate behavior that is out of character. For example, an associate who normally leaves promptly begins hanging out in the break room for an hour after work each day in order to record. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It was one of a whole genre built around nearly identical anti-union tropes. The effect of work rules on independence and team morale, mandatory dues, ulterior union motives and so on. Here's a supercut assembled with video from Home Depot, Lowe's, Wal-Mart and Target.
ANTI-UNION PROPAGANDA Unions are nothing to be scared of, and the more you know about them, the more comfortable you'll be in dealing with them.
That's right. Now, you are chosen to work in our store because we think you'll help us achieve our vision of being the best company ever.
In your position as a manager here at Lowe's, you need to know how to talk to employees about unions. Organizers try to persuade your employees that they would be better off with the union representing them. The next step is to have employees sign union authorization cards.
When you sign, you may be giving up your right to speak for yourself.
Then you give the union the right to act for you and make decisions for you on workplace issues, whether you agree with them or not.
Everyone here, from the CEO down, want you to be successful. In fact, Target prides itself on our open-door policy.
We don't think that a labor union is necessary here.
Funny thing is, I always thought unions were kind of like clubs, you know, or charities that were out to help workers, right? Well, I found out that wasn't exactly the case.
Unions make most of their money from dues collected from members.
They took dues money out of my paycheck before I ever saw it, just like taxes.
Money for initiation dues and fines and assessments. You get the picture.
Unions are a business.
That's right. I said business, union business.
We've all found a home with Wal-Mart, and we're glad that you've joined the team. Good luck with your new career, and we hope that you never have to deal with the union organizing drive in your facility. But if you do, we hope that this video has given you the information you need to stay in control of your valuable signature and your career. Welcome to Wal-Mart. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show! On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender with help from Alex Hanesworth. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited...By Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineers this week with Sam Bair and Adriene Lilly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD and I'm Bob Garfield.
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