Media Research Center


Free Market Project

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Updated 12/28/05

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Media Criticize Union �Insurgents�
Networks, major newspapers lament departure of �dissidents� from AFL-CIO while pro-union voices dominate coverage.

By Amy Menefee
July 27, 2005

     Union members are only 12 percent of U.S. workers, but media coverage of the recent AFL-CIO split hailed unions as the voice of working families and bemoaned the tragedy of a divide between them. An analysis of media coverage of the separation from July 23 through July 27 found the media erroneously referring to unions as representative of working families.

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     The analysis covered 20 stories from the three broadcast evening news shows, The Washington Post, New York Times and USA Today. On the �CBS Evening News� July 25 broadcast, Business Correspondent Anthony Mason said, �Bob, the question here is if organized labor is meant to be the voice of working men and women, what happens when that voice cracks?� Anchor Bob Schieffer agreed, paying deference at the end of the broadcast: �Because you know, after all, I mean, the AFL-CIO is sort of like the Alamo or the Empire State Building. It�s just one of these things that�s become part of our culture; it�s been around for a long, long time.�

     Likewise, NBC anchor Brian Williams recalled the glory of the unions on the July 25 �Nightly News�: �There was a time in the U.S. when a union job was a fast track to the American dream, a good job at a good wage with decent benefits. The unions themselves got together under the massive AFL-CIO umbrella, and together they built much of America.�

     Viewing the AFL-CIO in such a light, journalists openly displayed disdain for the separating unions, calling their departure a �defection,� �insurrection,� �insurgency� and �rebel unions.� In the 20 stories analyzed, the unions who left were described as �dissidents� 22 times and every media outlet studied made the reference at least once. Reporters also called them �insurgents� � the same term used for terrorists who have been bombing U.S. troops in Iraq � 11 times.

     For example, New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse�s July 27 story said, �The insurgent unions say that they will undertake ambitious organizing drives involving thousands of service-sector workers at places like Wal-Marts and tribal casinos.� Thomas Edsall of The Washington Post wrote on July 24: �The insurgents would shrink the federation�s Washington headquarters and shift millions of dollars into organizing drives.�

     Stories overwhelmingly relied on union sources and Democratic Party leaders or strategists. Businesses and non-union workers were not represented. On the rare occasion that someone like Randel Johnson, a vice president with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was included, he was given one sentence in Greenhouse�s July 27 New York Times article.

     Reporters completely ignored workers who didn�t want to be unionized. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund aims to help those who work in states without right-to-work laws, meaning their states don�t ban forced unionization. This group, which could have added perspective to the coverage, was mentioned only once by The Washington Post � and that was a negative characterization. The Post�s Thomas Edsall described the organization in a July 27 story as one trying to �further weaken the union movement.� Edsall ignored the rights of workers who might not want to join unions, focusing instead on what he called the �damage inflicted on the AFL-CIO.�

     �There�s a basic irony here,� said Justin Hakes, director of legal information for National Right to Work, in an interview. �That the upper echelon of Big Labor is able to withdraw � but in 28 states in America, workers cannot exercise the same [right].� Hakes referred to the fact that only 22 states have passed right-to-work legislation that enables employees to refuse to join a union and lets them opt out of paying dues.

     Reports frequently referred to the decline in union membership, but they did not take the opportunity to explore the causes of this decline or the reasons workers might not want to join. Some vaguely cited globalization and organizational failures as well as conflicts of politics and personality between union bosses.

     The Washington Post�s Thomas Edsall hit on this key omission in his July 24 article. Mentioning union membership�s decline, he remarked in passing that the falling number was �a pattern similar to that in most industrialized countries.� No other story mentioned that, and Edsall did not elaborate on why that was the case or whether it was the natural progression of an advancing economy. Instead, all of the coverage harped on the unions� concern that membership was dropping and the effects that the split would have on membership.

     Another overlooked fact was corruption within unions. More than 40 union employees were found guilty of crimes � usually embezzling funds � in the first half of 2005 alone, according to the Office of Labor Management Standards.

     �Some of these workers are saying, �Why is my paycheck being used to fund this (union) headquarters?�� commented Tim Kane, a fellow in labor policy at The Heritage Foundation.

     Several stories reported AFL-CIO President John Sweeney�s statements about conservatives and businesses, but reporters didn�t allow the impugned parties to answer the charges. Sweeney referred to �the most powerful anti-worker political machine in the history of our country,� as Jill Lawrence recounted in her July 26 USA Today article. Sweeney attributed this �machine� to �our corporate and conservative adversaries,� as The Washington Post�s Thomas Edsall reported on July 26 � a statement quoted by The New York Times� Steven Greenhouse the same day.

     On July 25, Greenhouse also quoted Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees saying, �I think the only one who wins from this is George Bush and his minions who are trying to weaken labor unions.� On the �NBC Nightly News� July 25, Anne Thompson referred to �what [Sweeney] sees as a conservative anti-worker environment.�

     The �corporate and conservative� stance on labor was absent from the coverage, as reporters awarded Democrats and union leaders a monopoly on concern for the American worker � despite the fact that unionized workers are a small percentage of the work force.

     Researcher Megan Alvarez contributed to this report.

Related Links:

The Heritage Foundation Fact Sheet on Labor

Office of Labor Management Standards� criminal enforcement actions


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