A “West Wing” episode a few years back said it best. One of the characters downplayed his lawyer’s concerns as he prepared to testify before Congress by saying: “It ain’t nothin’ but a family thing.” He might as well have been talking about another family and the great AFL-CIO divorce of 2005.
In the five days surrounding the split, media coverage treated the unhappy workers like they had broken up a holy union of labor. In 20 stories, the unions who left were scolded with terms like “insurgents” 11 times and “dissidents” 22 times.
Think about that. Union members who dared buck the establishment were called by the same term reserved for terrorists who have been bombing U.S. troops in Iraq and blowing up little children getting candy. Look at these examples:
New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse’s July 27 story said, “The insurgent unions say that they will undertake ambitious organizing drives involving thousands of service-sector workers at places like Wal-Marts and tribal casinos.” Thomas Edsall of The Washington Post wrote on July 24: “The insurgents would shrink the federation’s Washington headquarters and shift millions of dollars into organizing drives.”
Now check out a Post piece by Ellen Knickmeyer and Robin Wright from July 26. “In ongoing insurgent violence, meanwhile, attackers hurled grenades and fired automatic weapons at a bus carrying workers near Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, killing 18 of the laborers, police said.”
Both the Post and Times labeled opponents “insurgents” and all six media studied by the Media Research Center’s Free Market Project called them “dissidents.” Those disgruntled members of the AFL-CIO certainly weren’t strapping bombs on their backs before going to the union hall. So what is the reason for these examples of journalistic insanity?
For an answer, all you have to do is take a closer look at the coverage. Union members are only 12% of U.S. workers, but the stories hailed unions as the voice of working families and bemoaned the tragedy of a divide between them.
But this story wasn’t really about American working families. It was about one family: the Democratic Party. Party loyalists have long feared the breakup of the AFL-CIO would cost them mountains of cash and eager foot soldiers for elections nationwide. Rather than look beyond that self-centered perspective, the media embraced it, focusing stories only on how the split impacted unions and the Democratic Party.
Where were the voices of people who want the right to opt out of unions? Certainly, a change in the nation’s union climate would affect their lives. The Post’s Thomas Edsall described a right-to-work group in a July 27 story as one trying to “further weaken the union movement.” He ignored the rights of workers who might not want to join unions, focusing instead on what he called the “damage inflicted on the AFL-CIO.” Twenty-two states have passed right-to-work laws, but those states didn’t matter either. After all, every one of them is a red state and those aren’t part of the family.
How about business owners? Again, the union division impacts them, but those groups were ignored. On the rare occasion that someone like Randel Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was included, he was given one sentence in a July 27 New York Times article. After all, businesspeople aren’t part of the family unless they are some loopy Hollywood types, right?
Instead, all the media delivered was an ode to the union movement. On the “CBS Evening News” July 25 broadcast, anchor Bob Schieffer paid tribute to unions by doing everything except wave the flag: “Because you know, after all, I mean, the AFL-CIO is sort of like the Alamo or the Empire State Building.”
NBC anchor Brian Williams went even further on the July 25 “Nightly News”: “There was a time in the U.S. when a union job was a fast track to the American dream, a good job at a good wage with decent benefits. The unions themselves got together under the massive AFL-CIO umbrella, and together they built much of America.” He didn’t start singing, “Look for the union label,” but the message was clear.
The media message was that unions, long a power base of the left, were part of the Democratic family and squabbling was as welcome as fighting at Christmas dinner. Mark my words, should the unions ever smooth over their differences and reunite, the media will cover it like the story of the prodigal son. After all, “It ain’t nothin’ but a family thing.”