Labor's Image Problem

Friday, March 04, 2011


Pro-union protesters are still turning out in Wisconsin to rally against Governor Scott Walker's proposed legislation that would, among other things, strip unions of their collective bargaining rights. In some ways, this is a classic labor dispute. But media watchers and labor historians have been telling us this week that, media coverage of the pro-labor side has been unique in that it's actually been positive. UC Santa Barbara History Professor Nelson Lichtenstein explains why that's the case.

Comments [10]

Mark Richard from Columbus, Ohio

The story that OTM does not do is a comparison of the press treatment of the Tea Party rallies in 2009-2010 with the public-sector union rallies going on now.

Mar. 10 2011 12:47 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Well, if we community organized groups came with signs and armed, as at the corporately funded, Tea Party Express organized town meetings a couple of summers back, you'd have called us union "thugs" but we come with signs and sleeping bags & blankets, instead. It makes a better image to have bossy leaders than to have gun nut followers!

We stopped killing Gooks and have no new nuclear power plants, so I guess it worked in the '60s & '70s. Maybe we should try it again and ask why it is that the private sector so undervalues all but executives.

Mar. 10 2011 10:49 AM
David Howe

My short response to Mr. Gray's comment on my "dark vision of union 'bosses' [influence]" is to say I didn't view it as particularly "dark," just that to believe that all those demonstrators showed up spontaneously stretches the imagination, considering that some of them were reported by the media to have been bused in. It's just what a well-organized and well-funded pressure group does. It isn't a surprise, but it shouldn't be ignored, either.

I further doubt that thousands of teachers in the Madison area all decided to risk their jobs by staging a sick-out without some encouragement or urging from their union.

The whole affair reeked of the work of community organizers with experience in the '60s and '70s, right down to folk songs, unwashed bodies, chanting, and a sit-down strike in the capitol building as they refused to leave at closing time.

With public behavior like that, of course Labor has an image problem.

Mar. 09 2011 05:03 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Erased the whole thing 3 times with errant keystrokes (from MS), so left out the word "influence" after "vision of union "bosses"..." in the final submission!

Mar. 09 2011 01:37 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Despite Mr. Howe's dark vision of union "bosses", I doubt it is as deep or as onerous as workers' true bosses who, while they may be ruled democratically, Mr. Wakeling, seem to feel no responsibility to share that courtesy with their wage slaves nor even the right to bargain together.

Despite having some issues with Mr. Dalrymple's capitalizations and spelling, I commend him for a life of public service both in and out of his union. Public access television is a wonderful tool and I'm sure your "bosses" didn't teach you to or how.

Mar. 09 2011 01:31 PM
DENNIS DALRYMPLE from Van Nuys, Calif.

Thank you for your remarks concerning Labor and their Image in the Media and in the minds of the General Public. I am retired after 20 years as an Electrician at the General Motors plant here in Van Nuys. During my working years at GM, I earned a Certificate in Labor studies and was Elected Education Comm. Chair at our UAW Local 645, which opened in 1947. In that capacity I Produced and hosted 65 Cable tv programs on Labor issues. I was often stopped while shopping, etc. by local people who saw our program and admitted they had NO idea of which issues the UAW and Labor was interested in. Our image is always the Greasy Assembler with a low IQ. Actually, I also taucht Electronics as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chile and have three Upper Level Certificates. The job of educating the general public often seems to be like whipping a dead horse and overwhelming.

It is encouraging to see there are Educated people like yourselves continuing the Good Fight. Dennis Dalrymple, UAW retired. Cell # (818) 260 4023. Thanks

Mar. 07 2011 03:53 AM
Philip Wakeling from Marietta, GA

I am curious about the comment about "bosses" implying they are non-democratic positions of power in corporations and naming Bill Gates as an example. I seem to recall from business school that corporations, particularly public companies such as Microsoft are very democratic. The shareholders vote their shares every year and can take the board and management to task in person at every annual meeting.

Mar. 06 2011 04:18 PM
David Howe

In conclusion:

As a university professor, Lichtenstein is probably a member of the American Association of University Professors, which has come out against the Wisconsin legislation. Is he actually a participant in this issue, not just an observer? When Brooke asked him, "Would you say you're objective on the issue of unions?" he avoided answering the question, which was obviously OK with Brooke.

My final opinion: Mr. Lichtenstein is not credible, and the segment is pro-union spin.

Mar. 05 2011 07:23 PM
David Howe

To add to my previous comment:

Mr. Lichtenstein claimed there hasn't been a strike in Wisconsin, yet many teachers left their jobs to disrupt state business while they claimed to be sick. That sick-out amounted to a strike.

As for the crowds being "telegenic," neither Brooke nor Lichtenstein has apparently actually looked carefully at the horde of bused-in union surrogates who have been screaming union slogans, calling Governor Walker a cross between Hitler, Stalin, and Mubarik, and trashing the state capitol building for the last week. Incidentally, Lichtenstein's romanticized description of the protesters could equally have been used to describe the Tea Partiers of 2009 and 2010, except he forgot to say "almost exclusively White."

Then, Lichtenstein went on to obliquely compare the Republican critics to Gadhafi because they used the term "union bosses" and therefore must believe that "the uprising[!?] is purely a product of a conspiracy of [their] enemies." Oh, the incivility! Does he really think rank and file union members got together and chartered the buses to bring those demonstrators in from out of town and out of state? My opinion says that "union bosses" paid for them. But will the unions pay for the clean up? $7 million and counting, I believe. Of course, that's at union wage rates. Not encouraged by "union bosses"? Tell me that as I watch AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka insert himself into the fray. Lichtenstein also apparently never heard of Dave Beck or Jimmy Hoffa; perhaps not even the Teamsters Union.

Mar. 05 2011 07:23 PM
David Howe

This was a semi-interesting segment, in that it only went half-way into the subject. You covered the use of the term "union bosses" without noticing the obvious--that it not only connoted what you commented on, but it also served the more important function of specifying that the ad's criticism was aimed at union leadership, not the general membership.

Since you purport to be a program about media coverage rather than about the underlying news itself, wouldn't a more appropriate target for your commentary be the "local and even national coverage [that] has been sympathetic to the public employees"? Should news coverage be sympathetic to anyone? Shouldn't it be reporting facts rather than conveying sympathies?

Quoting Pew studies from 1981 and today for comparison would tell us more if we were sure that the methodology for both studies was equivalently valid. Reports from news agencies that don't depend on government for subsidies tell us that the recent Pew poll was skewed heavily towards union families and Democrats, even though neither group is as prevalent in the general population as are their non-union, non-Democrat counterparts. When the sample is adjusted to remove the pro-union bias, it no longer favors the union bosses; it favors the Governor, who was elected in November to do what he is trying to do.

Mar. 05 2011 07:21 PM

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