FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS: why labor actions are not news, by Akilah Monifa


It’s a typical Wednesday evening in November and it’s raining again. I hear loud chants outside my office window, the same ones that pierce that air three times a week, every week: “Union–Yes! Marriott–No! Union bashing’s got to go! What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now! Hey there Marriott, you’re no good! Sign that contract like you should.” When I first heard the demonstrations, I searched the newspapers for an explanation. None was forthcoming, and by now I’ve nearly incorporated the chants into the usual street sounds wafting up from Fourth and Mission Streets. Still, I wonder: Why is a major, ongoing union demonstration not news?


A major challenge to exploring this question is the power of the news media, perceived and real, as an employer and as a shaper of public opinion. Reporters don’t want to anger management, and union members fear the consequences of slamming the media even when they feel that they have not been treated fairly in the past. Some journalists and union representatives would speak only off the record; editors did not return phone calls. Nonetheless, interviews with those who were willing to take on the subject and an analysis of Bay Area news stories (I focused on newspapers because of the ease of tracking coverage through databases such as Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis), reveal patterns that have worked against labor coverage.

Left for Dead
Although left for dead by the major media after its diminution during the Reagan years, the labor movement has recently shown signs of resurgence–particularly with the successful UPS strike. In fact, some union supporters argue that the movement is more exciting and active than it has been in decades. But several trends in news coverage work against reflecting that perspective:

*The elimination of labor beats. During the unions’ nadir, newspapers pulled reporters off labor beats and largely relegated coverage of employment to the business section, which typically focuses on company news, not worker issues.

Ilana DeBare, who covers workplace issues for the San Francisco Chronicle, says certain labor stories fall through the cracks between the Metro section and Business section–they’re not seen as the purview of either section, so the coverage may not be as clear. Recent examples are the Kaiser strikes and strawberry worker organizing campaign. The former was seen as a healthcare issue and a regional issue and the latter as a regional and poverty issue. So there was confusion as to which department should cover the stories.

When business reporters do write articles about labor issues, they’re framed within the perspective of business executives and owners, which results in a pro-management bias, says Chuck Idelson, a communications specialist at the California Nurses Association (CNA). It’s generally assumed, Idelson says, that a labor story requires a business quote for balance; but business stories do not require a quote from labor. And when labor stories are covered by reporters on other beats, they’re framed within the perspective of the typical sources on that beat, he says.

He offers the California Nurses Association’s four 1997 strikes against Kaiser Hospital Foundation in Northern California as an example. The strikes were covered by local newspapers, but when a healthcare expert was quoted, that person was always a board member of a hospital. Thus the primary issue was defined as cost control, rather than as patients’ rights to care.

*Definitions of news. Long-term labor “actions” such as the Marriott picketing usually do not fit into media definitions of news as breaking events, hot rumors, and stories with definite beginnings and endings.

Eric Brazil, a general assignment reporter for the San Francisco Examiner who has done his share of labor reporting, sees organizing stories as tough to cover, partly because of the longevity of the campaigns.

The Marriott struggle has been going on since 1980, when Marriott was awarded the right to build the hotel. The company promised the Local 2 Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union that it would not interfere with employees’ rights to union representation, but when the hotel opened in 1989, Local 2 had to sue to force Marriott to recognize the union. A string of court actions finally ended with a union victory in 1996, and negotiations for a union contract have been ongoing since November of that year.

Tim Reagan, media coordinator at SEIU Local 790, says media like to hear “the s word”–strike–and that focus overlooks important non-strike campaigns aimed at improving working conditions, protecting workers from harassment, and other serious issues. He also sees a difference in how union actions are covered depending on who the union members are: Local 2 employees, for example, are mainly people of color and women–not usually newspapers’ main focus.

Mike Casey, president of Local 2, estimates that 90 percent of newspaper stories about organized labor involve strikes, union corruption, and obligatory Labor Day coverage. “The voices of the working people are not heard, and it is [because of] cultural ideas within media that define what is news and isn’t,” he says. “Workers face incredible obstacles in organizing unions. Often federal labor laws are violated, with companies being punished very lightly with a slap on the wrist. If union organizers violate federal laws, it makes the front page even before a trial. But allegations of a company violating federal laws are rarely covered.”

*A perception of reader disinterest. All the reporters interviewed mentioned that labor stories are a hard sell. Sally Lehrman, a former business writer for the San Francisco Examiner, says that newspapers typically do not think their readership is interested in labor stories. DeBare talked about the need to make any labor story “sexy” and not just of interest to labor junkies.

*A lack of pressure by unions. A few union representatives are willing to share responsibility for the lack of coverage in the print media. They note that unions sometimes lack savvy about how newspapers work and how stories get assigned. Those who don’t understand deadlines pressures, feel that they’ve been burned in the past, or resent reporters’ limited knowledge about union campaigns may fail to return phone calls. Few local unions have a designated media representative.

Signs of Life
Despite these problems, some in the labor movement believe that unions can and should tell their stories through the news media and are analyzing coverage of recent strikes to see what works and what doesn’t.

Judith Barish, the California Labor Federation’s first communications director, says the labor movement is “getting smarter and savvy and can promote issues better in the media.” She insists that unions need to be more aggressive in seeking to tell their stories. “Growth and rejuvenation can help in forcing editors to provide more coverage,” she says.

Though he criticizes the framing of issues in the 1997 nurses strikes, Idelson says that overall, the CNA received positive coverage. He cites four factors working in the union’s favor: Nurses are perceived to have a high degree of credibility; health care touches people in a public way; the CNA was aggressive in working with the media; and patient and union interests converged.

And in the case of the Teamster strike against UPS, the union was able to link its fight to widespread concerns about the growth of part-time and contract work. The SEIU’s Reagan says that the Teamsters did their homework and were aware of what messages resonated with people. Additionally, UPS workers are highly visible and seen as near staff members by many office workers.

Contrast that with coverage of the BART strike, which began in the afterglow of the UPS victory, but largely left a negative impression of the union. Most union representatives pin the blame on inadequate explanation of the issues by the BART unions and a lack of labor expertise among reporters assigned to cover the strike. Stories of how the strike inconvenienced people dominated coverage, and strike headlines were juxtaposed with photos of traffic jams and tales of increased frustration and lengthy commutes. In this atmosphere, the labor issues were largely lost.

Some see a conscious intent behind newspapers’ elimination of labor beats and failure to balance business coverage with labor coverage. Karen Ridley, a union organizer, believes that newspaper executives do not want “to see or hear about working people’s power,” and the invisibility of labor struggles keeps workers divided. Elinor Levine, president of the Coalition of University Employees, also thinks that newspapers “don’t want to give successful organizing drives coverage.” In November 1997, the university employees switched unions and held the largest union election in the country, with 19,000 union members. With the exception of campus newspapers, the coverage was almost nonexistent, she says.

Pointing out that the Examiner also does not cover transportation or the East Bay as a beat, reporter Brazil sees not a conspiracy, but simply editors’ subjective judgments of newsworthiness. He does believe, however, that “there has been a failure to make working men and women understand that they should be in a union.”

Regardless of the reasons, the result is clear: Labor issues are underreported. Editors need to assign more experienced reporters to cover labor and get beyond the strike and corruption frames. And unions must be more active and organized in educating both the media and their members, as well as in lobbying for better coverage.

Source: Media File, Volume 17 #2, Mar-Apr 1998