Laboring Under False Assumptions

I generally tend to dismiss accusations of a widespread liberal media. Those claims almost always come from conservatives during an argument, and are generally just used as a tactic to distract from whatever issue is at hand, or to instill confusion if something unfavorable is cited as fact. As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post once observed, it’s the political equivalent of blaming the referee. I genuinely believe that the mainstream media, in general, tries to remain objective (the only possible exception is probably in cases of self-interest; I can’t believe how many times I’ve heard reporters and anchors express sympathy for Judith Miller’s situation, for example).

So I have to say that I was a little surprised to hear the amount of coverage that seemed sympathetic to the split between a few unions and majority of the AFL-CIO. Here’s a portrait from the New York Times, and here’s a story from NPR. Both articles paint a picture of personal anguish, and of a foundering movement. While the latter is certainly factual, the former probably isn’t, unless it’s intended to reflect the reported personal relationship between Andy Stern (of the Service Employee’s Union) and his former mentor, the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney, but I doubt that. Yes, this is a big story, with possibly big implications, but why are so many of the stories personal in nature?

Let’s stop and think about this for a second – the one change in labor’s status is its ability to lobby on national issues. The split doesn’t affect overall trends in union membership, which have been on the decline for decades anyhow. The AFL-CIO is really more of a conglomerate, a union of unions. So every worker who was covered by a union’s protective umbrella still has that service when his next contract negotiation rolls around. What has changed is labor’s ability to campaign nationally – to lobby members of Congress on relevant bills, and to support Democratic candidates at a national level (so, umm, that would be presidential candidates). When you think about it that way, it’s hard to feel too badly, or to understand the personal portraits and emotions that are being drawn during this split. If, for example, the sugar, auto, or corn lobbies suddenly experienced a rift and/or decline in influence, I doubt that these portraits would be framed so compellingly. True, unions represent the interests of their members (workers), but at the national level, the efforts of the AFL-CIO are quite abstract. And make no mistake about it, the AFL-CIO doesn't lobby for workers, it lobbies for its members (in other words, probably not for you). All local concerns, immediate concerns for workers, like wages, health benefits, and the absolute inability to get fired, still reside with individual unions and contract negotiations.

So am I trying to imply in this post that the media really does have a liberal bias? Nah, I just think that the reporters are mistaken here; they're trying to make the story more compelling, but in doing so, are falsely assuming that unionized workers have something personal at stake. I also think that the split won't be the crisis that recent reports may imply. Union membership will remain fairly steady, and Democratic candidates, particularly Congressional candidates in the Rust Belt, will continue to receive heavy support from Union households. What may change is that the Union movement might use this opportunity to reexamine its long term strategies, and maybe even reemerge as a more effective political force. I think that rumors of labor’s impending death are greatly exaggerated.


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