Did you know about the Bush administration’s rotten treatment of the air traffic controllers whose work is essential to air safety? That controllers were forced to work long, fatiguing shifts with little time to rest? That many quit because of that? Were you aware of the great potential for serious accidents that posed?
Did you know that President Obama’s appointees to the Federal Aviation Agency stepped in to rescind the onerous conditions imposed by Bush’s FAA appointees and end the controllers’ long struggle for decent treatment?
Well, you wouldn’t know about those vital developments if you relied solely on mainstream media. The Bay Guardian ran my column on the subject, but to most mainstream outlets, certainly including all Bay Area outlets, it was just another labor story to be ignored — another labor story to be in effect censored.
Despite the importance of labor to our economy, despite the fact that most people work for a living and would be interested in — and need —information on a regular basis about that most important aspect of their lives, mainstream media generally fail to provide it. Their focus is not on those who do society’s work, but on the corporate interests and other employers like themselves, who finance, direct and profit from the work.
The list of important labor stories that mainstream media have ignored or distorted is seemingly endless. Let me cite just a few that are on this year’s list with the air traffic controllers’ story.
The media are forever telling us how unpopular unions are, but in January, a largely unreported Gallup Poll showed that almost 60 percent of those surveyed approved of unions and less than 30 percent disapproved. Almost two-thirds said unions should have more or at least the same influence as now. What’s more, a generally unreported survey by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showed union membership growing significantly after years of steady decline.
President Bush’s mistreatment of air traffic controllers was hardly the only instance of his virulently anti-labor actions, against non-government as well as government employees. But that wasn’t of much interest to the media.
The media absolutely ignored a study by two leading academic economists showing that thousands of workers have been fired for simply trying to organize unions at their workplaces, a right supposedly guaranteed them by federal labor law.
The study concluded that there’s been “a systematic attack on unions, especially on union efforts to organize workers” that employers have been waging for more than two decades “with substantial legal support and cover.”
Another neglected study, by one of the nation’s most highly regarded labor experts, Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University, similarly showed that because of widespread illegal employer interference, “the overwhelming majority of workers who want unions don’t have them.”
The media also ignored a major agreement by organized labor and the Catholic health care system to abandon their longtime hostility and set up procedures to allow workers to vote freely on whether to unionize. The agreement was especially important because the procedures are the same as those in the proposed Employee Free Choice Act that’s become a major goal of labor because it would prohibit employers from using the underhanded tactics that many have used to block unionization of their workers.
Two other key health care stories involving labor also got virtually no mainstream media attention. One, a report from the Federal Institute of Medicine, found that exhaustion and possible error is common among the 100,000 residents in the country’s hospitals. The report noted that the young doctors-in-training are forced to work as many as 80 hours a week, often as long as 30 hours in a single shift.
The other neglected story concerned nurses, who formed an alliance of three major nurses’ organizations to join in the drive for reform of the health care system and a related drive to unionize the country’s largely non-union nurses. Although nurses perform some of society’s most important work, often under stressful, exhausting and dangerous conditions, they’re generally paid less and receive fewer benefits than many others whose work is not nearly as vital and demanding.
The media, however, hardly noted the nurses’ efforts. Nor did they note a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that women workers will soon outnumber male workers for the first time in U.S. history. That means women now have the numbers to more effectively combat workplace discrimination by male bosses who frequently treat them as second-class workers.
Male and female workers alike face serious on-the-job hazards that result in nearly 6,000 deaths annually, more than two million serious injuries and 50,000 deaths from cancer, heart and lung ailments and other occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances.
The Bush administration did very little to lower the deadly numbers, but Obama’s secretary of labor, Hilda Solis, moved quickly to hire dozens of investigators to “vigorously enforce” the safety laws and regulations and develop badly needed new rules, among other long overdue steps to make work safer. But you wouldn’t likely know that, or even know of the hazards that caused Solis to act, if you relied strictly on the mainstream media for your labor information.
Thanks to the efforts of Cesar Chavez, the workers he led and their millions of supporters, mainstream media once did pay a great deal of attention to the long-standing plight of farm workers. But the charismatic Chavez is gone,, and the media have shown little interest in the continuing struggle of farm workers for decent treatment.
Despite the successes of the United Farm Workers before and after Chavez’ death, farm workers still lack the basic union rights guaranteed non-agricultural workers by the 74-year old National Labor Relations Act. Two former UFW staffers have launched a drive to get Congress to amend the act to include, not only farm workers, but also housekeepers, nannies and other domestic workers. They’ve also been excluded from the law despite their great need for legal protection, but mainstream media have shown no signs that they know or care.
The media have likewise paid little attention to a recent major victory by the workers in Florida who pick most of the country’s tomatoes. The poverty-stricken workers, most of them migrants, have long been among the most poorly treated and highly exploited of all workers, even though the $400 million tomato industry obviously couldn’t exist without them.
The pickers have struggled for many years to win decent pay and working conditions, and finally they’ve done so, in what the AFL-CO called “a huge win for farm workers.” Their victory came after a nationwide campaign to win broad public support that was waged without benefit of much media coverage.
The tomato pickers were fortunate. They managed to win important support in spite of the mainstream media’s general indifference. Theirs was a dramatic struggle that undoubtedly would have interested, if not inspired, many people. So would many other stories from the world of work. Telling them adequately is the media’s job, a crucial job neglected for far too long.
Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the San Francisco Chronicle has covered labor and politics for a half-century. You can contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.