Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mangled labor journalism


I'm reading the print edition of the New York Times this week; otherwise I would have missed this interesting example of how the mainstream media misreports labor union activity, if they report it at all. And the author of this example would almost certainly claim to be trying to be supportive of labor!

David Leonhardts's column "Worthy Goal of Flawed Bill: Aiding Unions" purports to be something of a correction to a previous flawed column in which he had been ignorant the reality that it took union militancy in 1949, not the government-imposed wage freeze of World War II, to push big companies into providing their workers with pensions and health insurance. As far as I know, the way he tells the story today gives credit where credit is due.

But then he mangles the contemporary story of the defeat by filibuster yesterday of the Employee Free Choice Act, organized labor's main legislative goal. He retails corporate talking points, claiming that the card check system for certifying that workers want a union would deny them a secret ballot. According to Dean Baker at The American Prospect, workers can be organized without an election right now if the employer agrees to card check (a few do) -- and the proposed law would permit 40 percent of workers to demand a secret ballot, making it darn hard to intimidate them. So much for that point, Leonhardt's premise.

But no, Leonhardt knows who knows best:

"The current system has been working well for a long time," Jason Straczewski, a lobbyist at the National Association of Manufacturers, told me.

I'm sure this guy does think the system works just fine.

What is really surreal is Leonhardt's picture of what goes on when workers try to organize.

Over the last generation, companies have become far more aggressive about keeping out unions. They have required workers to attend antiunion talks, darkly warned that unions lead to lower pay and lost jobs and, as Wal-Mart Stores has done, sometimes closed entire departments or stores in the wake of unionization drives.

Yeah -- and that's not the half. "Aggressive" doesn't begin to describe what companies will do to prevent their workers from organizing. How about "vicious"? Just a few examples from San Francisco area labor fights that I've seen lately. If you are a low wage worker who wants to get together with other workers to win better conditions and a living wage:
  • Corporations hide who really employs you behind a smokescreen of labor contracting, so the boss which issues your check is some anonymous firm, not the giant high tech corporation on whose grounds you work.
  • If you aren't scared yet, they fire you for demanding that wages and hours law be enforced.
Then, if the union can afford it and thinks the fight matters, the whole thing will be litigated for five years and mostly Republican appointees will say "screw you -- who are you to think you have rights against big business?" Even if you do win, the companies just don't pay.

That's real life Mr. Leonhardt (more likely a quivering kitten, I suspect). If unions are "an antagonistic relic of an industrial economy," it is because the antagonistic rich, who you point out have taken home pretty much all the gains in U.S. wealth for the last twenty-five years, want to take it all. You give a sort of muddled endorsement of the idea that unions might be a good thing to level the playing field, but you get the substance of the fight over the Employee Free Choice Act all wrong.

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