The Media Fail Workers in Wisconsin, as Usual

A joke’s been going around the Internet recently:

“A CEO, a Tea Partier and a union member are sitting with a plate of 10 cookies. The CEO grabs nine cookies and says to the Tea Partier, ‘Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie.’”

It’s a nice little joke, but I’d add a capper to it: “And then a reporter walks up and asks the union member, ‘Why are you trying to steal the Tea Partier’s cookie?’”

The joke captures how our economy works: Corporations snatch away the lion’s share, and pit the rest of us against one another for the scraps. The capper, though, exposes how the media buys into the notion that that's the way it has to be.

The frame is strong in Wisconsin, where we’re told the state budget needs “repair,” not by reversing corporate tax giveaways, but only by stripping public workers of their rights. I have been a union member, attorney, organizer and staffer. I can assure you that union power is not what Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker would have you believe it is.

I wish it were.

I wish that unions could make demands at the bargaining table and get the wages, benefits and respect they deserve. But all that happens at the bargaining table is… bargaining. Negotiations. Give and take, horse-trading and, if all goes well, a contract that may not please everyone, but will hopefully satisfy most.

But this much is absolutely true: No union can make demands for money that the employer doesn’t have and expect to get it in a contract. (Of course, Wisconsin politicos have handed hundreds of millions in tax breaks to corporations— so the governor's cries of poverty are as reliable as his claim that he's not trying to bust unions.)

Yet Walker insists he needs to strip state employees of their right to negotiate as a means of cutting costs. His other "repairs" include eliminating dues requirements for union workers, and holding costly annual certification votes to maintain union representation. Are those cost-cutting measures? Not really. In the long run they’re meant to weaken unions and prevent them from bargaining anything at all. But Walker calls this a “budget repair bill” needed to fix a hole this year.

And the media dutifully repeat that language, never questioning whether it’s accurate, despite abundant evidence that it is not. Which leads to the next question: Why are the media so willing to accept a false frame? Short answer: because they don’t know enough to question it.

Consider this: There is no daily newspaper in the country that does not have a business page, or at least a stock market report. That’s important if you’re among the top 10 percent of the population, financially, who own about 90 percent of all stocks. Less so if you’re one of the 130 million Americans who work for a living, or the 12 million who’d like to work but can’t find a job.

But can you think of a newspaper that has a reporter, let alone a page, dedicated to labor issues? If you were looking for a labor reporter, you’d be more likely to find one behind glass in the Smithsonian than on the pages of a metropolitan newspaper. In the labor/management relationship, one side of the story is often ignored.

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It isn’t just that the media rarely cover labor, it’s how they cover it. Wisconsin is just the sharpest example of how labor is routinely portrayed in the media: overpaid, entitled and intractable.

Recall the auto industry crisis of 2008, when half the country was howling for the government to let union carmakers die rather than make loans to one of the largest industries and biggest employers in the country. “If union workers aren’t willing to tighten their belts, they should starve. Why, they make more than $70 an hour!” The cry was repeated endlessly in newspapers and magazines, and on cable, talk radio, and network news.

And it was false. No union autoworker was paid that much. The numbers weren’t even close.

Even after the CEO of General Motors confirmed it was false, saying runaway health care costs were the real problem, the lie was repeated. Why? Because it fit the story that anti-union campaigners have been pounding for decades: Union workers are stubborn and greedy, and bring great companies down. And the media, despite the availability of contrary facts, used the familiar narrative.

Last week, Gov. Walker unwittingly went off-narrative, offering to the faux Koch brother/prank-caller that “5- to 6,000 state workers will get at-risk notices for layoffs” in an effort to “crank up a little bit more pressure” on Democrats absent from the state Senate. A few days later on "Meet the Press", Walker was back on-script, telling David Gregory that “laying off people in this economy is just completely unacceptable.” Gregory didn’t call the governor on his threat of “unacceptable” layoffs as part of a political game. And Walker’s narrative went unchallenged.

Why should any journalist question Walker’s changing, often contradictory story? Why ask how abolishing collective bargaining rights would actually save the state a dime?

Because it’s their job. The media are supposed to hold government accountable and safeguard the public’s interests, including public employees’. So why aren’t they doing it?

There’s no common narrative to compete with the pro-corporate one. The modern labor movement has played defense too long, and the media have learned to see them as losers, not the lovable sort. The opposition sets the boundaries of the discussion.

Wisconsin is a tremendous opportunity for unions to turn that around, as Walker’s overreach and preference for dogmatism over pragmatism shows where his backers’ interests truly lie. And the teachers, clerks and public servants who look a lot like our neighbors have stories to tell that break the frame.

Labor needs to seize this moment and make the media work for them, for the interests of workers, and for the taxpayers who are getting snowed by a governor whose blustery tales have gotten a pass so far.

Dave Saldana is communications director at Free Press, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit working to reform the media. Dave’s bio is here.