Auto workers, the Fight for $15 campaign and teachers’ activism are proving organized labor can still make a difference
Fifty thousand teachers dressed in red closed down Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday – the latest in a series of strikes by educators across America.
The media is abuzz with the strikes, finally waking up to the giant forces that seem to be reshaping the labor landscape in America.
Media attention was also unusually high when I covered the 110-mile March for Education by striking teachers across Oklahoma earlier this month. Local news helicopters buzzed overhead and CNN – fresh off covering the West Virginia teachers’ strike – covered the story in depth.
But where were they last year during the historic March on Mississippi against Nissan, led by Senator Bernie Sanders and Danny Glover?
Last March, as more than 5,000 union supporters marched down the highway singing, “We are ready, we are ready, Nissan”, a young civil rights lawyer from Memphis noticed my tattered yellow-and-white mesh “Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild” hat and asked if I was the only the only member of the national press there that day. I didn’t encounter any others.
Indeed, from 2015 to 2017, when I lived in Chattanooga and then Louisville, and journeyed more than 20,000 miles around the south in a rusted-out 2003 Dodge Neon, I was the only full-time labor reporter in the south working for my labor news co-op, Payday Report, which I founded with a settlement I received after being fired from Politico, where I had led a union drive.
Since I moved back to my hometown of Pittsburgh, there hasn’t been a single full-time labor reporter in the south, the country’s fastest-growing economic region and the site of many new auto plants with many workers making poverty wages.
Perhaps that explains why so much of the media has been initially seemed shocked by the strikes in southern states such as Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia.
Just eight months ago, after the union drive at Nissan was defeated, many in the media were saying that it was too difficult to organize the south. But after the recent teachers’ strikes, the vote at Nissan looks more like an indicator of the growing desire for change than a death blow to unions.
Lost in the rush to analyze the election results at Nissan was how Nissan workers had pushed the United Auto Workers union for a vote despite lacking the support needed to win, because they wanted to start a debate about how companies fight dirty against union drives in the south.
Nissan spent hundreds of thousands of dollars running negative TV ads in a successful effort to defeat the union. The media paid attention to those ads. While the union lost by a margin of 2,244 to 1,307, the loss and ensuing media coverage had a lasting effect on many workers who voted no in the plant.
“Some of the people, who regretted their decision afterward, saw how big it was because Saturday morning it hit national news and it was everywhere that Nissan workers rejected their union,” said one worker, Robert Hathorn.
The teachers’ strikes have brought into sharp focus forces that have been reshaping the landscape for workers in America. Nissan, the union-backed Fight for $15 campaign for minimum wage workers and now the teachers have shown that after years of attack from anti-union powers, organized labor can still make a difference.
The fact that the staff of so many digital media outlets have decided to join unions has probably helped, giving journalists, who have often had to fight management to organize, a deeper understanding of the issues.
“I know for me personally, it was really eye-opening,” says Sara Steffens, secretary-treasurer of Communications Workers of America, who was fired while leading a union drive at the Contra Costa Times in 2008. “If they are fighting this hard then this must be extremely powerful.”
Steffens says she has seen a big shift in the way reporters are covering labor as a result of recent organizing in the industry.
The media’s renewed interest in labor could be a powerful motivator for others considering action, said MaryBe McMillan, the first female president of North Carolina’s AFL-CIO. “I think the more the media covers uprisings in red states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, the more people see that despite the legal obstacles and challenges that workers face in these states, there is a real interest in rising up against the horrible repressive walls that are in those states.”
Problems remain. Newsrooms are still overwhelmingly white. While nearly 40% of Americans identify as non-white, only 17% of reporters identify as non-white, according to data published by the American Society of News Editors.
Many feel that the lack of diversity has led the media to paint the teachers’ strikes as “red state rebellions” while ignoring the role communities of color throughout the south have played in helping to propel these strikes.
“We have to do work of lifting up the stories of people of color,” says Attica Scott, the only black woman in the Kentucky’s general assembly. “We gotta make sure that we are bringing those stories to the forefront as well so that people see that this a movement that impacts all of us and all of us need to be lifted up and have our stories shared.”
Strikes are spreading: bus drivers in Georgia, university employees in California, and Tennessee. Something big is happening in America - and it’s finally carrying the media with it.
Saturday, April 28, 2018
The teachers' strikes prove it: the media is finally seeing America's new labor landscape | US news | The Guardian
us-news/2018/apr/28/us- teachers-strikes-workers- labor-unions?utm_source=esp& utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign= GU+Today+USA+-+Collections+ 2017&utm_term=273111&subid= 18260840&CMP=GT_US_collection