There was a time when just about every American news organisation had at least one reporter dedicated to the labour beat. These reporters most likely walked from the local newsroom to the union halls where they sourced their stories.
Yet, over the years, the US media has deserted workers and sought more upscale, affluent audiences. When labour issues are reported, they are often seen through the lens of business, leaving little opportunity for the US working class to see itself and its concerns reflected in the media.
When you consider that more than 150 million Americans are in full or part-time employment, it’s a wonder there aren’t more stories about workers and the challenges they face in testing economic times.
“Labour as an issue has been really absent from the media coverage. Business reporting, whatever we call economics reporting now, is focused on financial markets. And we know from our everyday lives that financial markets is not where 99.9 percent of Americans live their lives,” explains Michelle Chen, contributing writer of The Nation.
When US workers do attract media interest, US journalists seem interested in a certain kind of worker.
One of Donald Trump‘s first promises after being elected was to protect jobs at the Carrier airconditioning factory in Indianapolis, jobs that were threatened when the company announced a plan to move production to Mexico. Trump promised to protect American jobs and the US media served up an image of the American worker that fit his narrative.
“You saw mostly white men who were actually the minority of those Carrier plant workers. About 50 percent of workers at that Indianapolis plant were African American … And about half of those workers were women. And you didn’t see them in the stories,” says Christopher R Martin, professor, University of Northern Iowa.
While membership of labour unions and strikes in the United States are at historical lows, high-profile disputes between employers and organised labour do still make headlines.
Communications workers, teachers, transport workers and nurses are among those who have gone on strike this year and last for better pay and conditions but when the media tell these stories, the question is whose priorities do they put first?
“Often unions are seen as intransigent … trying to squeeze whatever they can out of a contract and there’s an increasing tendency to blame workers for everything,” says Chen.
However, there are signs that traditional workplace organisation may be on the cusp of a comeback. And that class concerns are creeping back into the consciousness of the media and their audiences. The Fight For $15 campaign, for example, has won significant national media coverage as well as a $15 minimum wage in some US states.
“The fight for 15 has really figured out a formula that worked of being in the streets and making noise … which means that they’ve brought in all kinds of minimum wage workers and journalists understood that storyline and could follow that narrative,” says Cora Lewis, labour reporter, Buzzfeed.
Relative newcomers like Buzzfeed have made the labour beat a full-time role, a sign that media outlets may be rediscovering ground that they’ve neglected for too long. Because stories about the working-class, labour workers have never gone away. They never will. They just need journalists to tell them.
Cora Lewis, labour reporter, Buzzfeed
Michelle Chen, contributing writer, The Nation
Mike Elk, cofounder, Payday Report
Christopher R Martin, professor, University of Northern Iowa
Source: Al Jazeera