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 MediaNomics

What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise
 

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September 1998

 

Reporters on Unions: See No Evil
While Other Strike Themes Are Covered, Labor Violence Goes Unreported

Labor has been in the news over the past year, with strikes at a number of high-profile companies. Strike stories have consistently included common themes, but have also consistently excluded one important theme: union violence. At the national news networks, violent acts by strikers arenít considered newsworthy.

Staples of network strike stories over the past year include:

The plight of the striking workers and of the American worker in general. Already predisposed to believe that workers in the U.S. are oppressed, strikes give reporters a news peg to air their views. During the Teamstersí strike against UPS, for instance, CBS economics correspondent Ray Brady twice criticized the U.S. economy for producing too many part-time jobs. Focusing on workers who "have no choice" but to work part time, Brady reported that "across America the number of part-time workers is skyrocketing." Later, he saw "signs of a backlash" against part-time work.

But as MSNBCís Phillip Harper pointed out at the time, "According to the Labor Department, a full 80 percent of [part-time workers] arenít interested in full-time work." The situations of such workers, including students, homemakers, and retirees, donít fit into the mediaís strike story formula.

The problems strikes create for other workers and/or customers. This is a theme especially during strikes at large companies. During the UPS strike, for instance, all three networks focused on companies that were being crippled because they relied on fast shipping. The disruptions to passengers also dominated coverage of the recent strike by pilots at Northwest Airlines.

The point of view of business. The networksí record of reporting the point of view of business during strikes is spotty. During the August 1997 UPS strike, some of the most basic arguments put forth by the company were missing from news reports. For instance, the company argued that it could provide its workers with better pension benefits if it didnít have to subsidize competitorsí workers through the Teamstersí pension fund. For the first full week of the strike, no network story mentioned the pension issue.

This summerís United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against General Motors (GM), though, was different. ABCís Jim Williams noted that "auto analysts say GM has no choice but to trim a work force so bloated it cannot compete with other auto makers." NBCís Robert Hager added that GM was plagued by "old, inefficient" operations that couldnít compete with lean, efficient Ford and Chrysler factories.

But one part of the real story on strikes rarely gets reported at the national level: union violence. Striker violence is deemed newsworthy only by local news outlets, which might be understandable if such acts of brutality were isolated. But David Kendrick, of the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, writes that his organization has recorded 8,799 incidents of union-related violence in the U.S. since 1975. Such incidents, according to Kendrick, include at least 181 deaths and more than 5,600 assaults, kidnappings, and threats, "almost all committed by striking union militants."

This nationwide trend has gone unnoticed at the networks, as have efforts to curb it, such as the proposed federal Freedom from Union Violence Act. A Nexis search reveals that even the print media have ignored this legislation: There have been no stories on it in the past 18 months in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, or U.S. News & World Report.

Stories about strikes in particular, and unions in general, should include this dark aspect of organized labor if they are to be complete.

ó Rich Noyes

 


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