The Multinational Monitor



Labor's Unseen Story

by David Kusnet

When Jackie Gleason died this summer, few noted a sidelight to his career: His famous situation comedy, "The Honeymooners," was among the few shows in television history with blue-collar workers as main characters.

Gleason's bus driver and Art Carney's sewer worker in "The Honeymooners," the carpenter in "The Life of Reilly," the cabbies in "Taxi," the brewery workers in "Laverne and Shirley" and, of course, Archie Bunker are the best-remembered working-class heroes from almost four decades of television.

If television is America's preeminent communications medium - and prime-time entertainment is the most-watched programming - then the lack of memorable blue-collar characters on TV is evidence that the media have failed to adequately present working people and their concerns.

While Labor Day, 1987, will doubtless bring a new round of media meditations on the decline of the labor movement, it is doubtful that the media will turn the same critical gaze upon themselves and examine how they cover working people, blue-collar and white-collar, union and non-union, not to mention how they cover workplace issues and the union movement itself.

Of course, the nation's newspapers dutifully report on official labor news: strikes and contract settlements, the unions' political endorsements and their won lost record on Capitol Hill. And the TV networks can be relied upon to interview a handful of national union leaders on the Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend. But, at a time when most Americans get their information from television, where entertainment far outweighs the news coverage, people are likely to learn much more about the lifestyles of the rich and famous than issues affecting their own work lives.

One of the few major studies of how the media portray working people and their unions was conducted by unionists themselves at the beginning of the 1980s.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous - and No One Else

From September, 1979, through February, 1980, more than 1,500 rank-and-file activists from the International Association of Machinists monitored the entire season's primetime network programming, as well as network news reports, to learn how they depicted working people and covered economic news.

Their conclusions:

  • Most blue-collar, whitecollar, and service occupations are virtually invisible in entertainment programming. Television shows emphasize the rich and glamorous and those who serve their needs, from butlers to call-girls. Indeed, prime-time television painted a picture of an America where prostitutes far outnumber factory workers, and street criminals outnumber secretaries. TV's cop dramas and medical shows account for the relatively few characters who earn an honest living: police, doctors, and nurses.
  • When blue-collar workers do appear on entertainment programming, they're usually portrayed in an unfavorable light, as "clumsy, uneducated fools who drink, smoke, and have no lead ership ability," according to the Machinists' TV monitors. And on the few occasions where unions appear, they're almost invariably presented as violent and corrupt.
  • Significantly, even the handful of shows that depict blue collar life show little understanding of the industries - or of unionism. For instance, "Skag," a 1979-1980 drama about steelworkers, presented its hero, a foreman, performing tasks not even a supervisor would do in real life. And steelworker unionists were shown conducting their business in stereotyped Teamster-style, brawling and bullying their way through grievances and negotiations. Even the steel union's harshest critics at that time, however, faulted the union more for sluggishness than thuggishness.
  • And, on the network news, there is minimal coverage of labor news. Economic coverage, although usually objective, rarely included comments from unionists or consumers. Seven years later, working people and their unions are still virtually invisible on TV:
  • The emphasis on the idle rich that began during the final years of the Carter Administration has increased during the Reagan era. "Dallas," "Dynasty," and "The Colbys," are among the weekly prime-time television shows that titillate viewers with glimpses of life in the boardrooms and bedrooms of the corporate elite.
  • Now, as then, a handful of shows offer sensitive real-life dramas based in workplaces, usually police stations, hospitals, or newsrooms. Just as "Lou Grant" and "Trapper John, M.D.," got high marks from the Machinists' monitors, "St. Elsewhere" and the recently discontinued "Hill Street Blues" are appreciated by sophisticated viewers for showing the impact of stressful and demanding jobs on peoples' lives.
  • And, in an interesting parallel between the 1979-1980 season and current fare, even the best-intentioned liberal peaks at the workplace offer a bizarre brand of sentimentality, portraying brave middle-managers struggling to change things by defying the bosses' insensitivity and the workers' intransigence. In "Skag," a foreman took on issues like job safety by challenging unseen managers and inept unionists - one man against the system. In "The Bronx Zoo," a current drama about a New York high school, principal Ed Asner fights for quality education by challenging the school bureaucracy and stereotypical "lazy" teachers and the "stick-in-the-mud" union that defends them. Of course, teachers, steel workers, and their unions are imperfect but all forms of behavior - corruption, brutality, laziness and idealism - are dispersed among top management, middle management, union bureaucracies, and the people who do the real work in America's factories, offices, shops and schools. Television would benefit from dispensing with the simplistic notion that every workplace drama involves a visionary leader shaking up a hidebound enterprise.

The Vanishing 'Labor Beat'

While television's entertainment programming generally ignores working people, the news media - broadcast as well as print - are beginning to cover workplace issues, but in different ways from the labor reporting of the past.

During the last year alone, network news programming has featured in-depth reports on important workplace issues, including the decline of well-paying jobs in basic industry, the "deskilling" of jobs as a result of new technologies and the push for pay equity for working women. NBC News, which aired a weeklong series on the declining middle class, has offered especially insightful coverage of workplace issues.

These issues have been covered not as traditional labor stories but as economics stories, social trends stories, or even science stories by reporters specializing in these subjects, not in terms of union-management confrontations. While the coverage of these issues has been balanced and informative, these stories have not been reported as they might have been in previous decades: as ' institutional battles between corporate America and the union movement, with labor and management representing conflicting interests and viewpoints.

In part, this new kind of coverage of workplace issues reflects new realities: the growth of the non-union sectors of the economy, the decline of basic industries and the unions' declining membership strength, economic clout and political influence. It also reflects television's understandable tendency to pitch stories to the largest possible audience: not as a "labor story" but as a story about how we all live and work. Moreover, it reflects the unions' inability to relate to the broadcast media. In fact, television never developed its own "labor reporters" and "labor beats." Of today's network news reporters only ABC's Irving R. Levine has ever specialized in labor issues - and he has not been involved in the best of the recent coverage of workplace issues.

Meanwhile, the newspapers have begun to mimic television's coverage of labor issues with the traditional "labor beat" becoming a thing of the past, while reporters who specialize in economics, science and technology, and lifestyles and social trends have all been delving into workplace issues. Throughout the country, there may be only 25 remaining labor reporters for daily newspapers, compared to more than 100 a decade ago, according to Phil Sparks, public relations director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In fact, for the past year, two of the nation's leading newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, have gone without labor reporters. But, while the labor beat is dwindling, Sparks estimates that almost 300 daily newspaper reporters regularly cover workplace issues.

The shift toward multi-issue news coverage, and the growth of new broadcast technologies such as cable, make it even more difficult for labor to communicate its message.

In the past, many unionists distrusted the media completely, ignoring reporters in times of labor peace and refusing to talk to the press during strikes. Meanwhile, the more publicity-conscious unions related to an outmoded concept of the media as the print press, with familiar reporters covering the labor beat. For some unions mediarelations meantlittle more than mimeographing and mailing news releases and holding news conferences. Only in the past decade have unionists awakened to the fact that ignoring the media is a mistake and equating today's media with yesterday's newspapers is self-defeating.

Unions Become More Media-Savvy

As labor adjusts to the new media realities, unions at last are pitching their stories beyond the dwindling cadre of labor reporters, conducting their own advertising campaigns, and even producing their own television programming.

After years of treating their own news and views as narrow "labor stories" to present to "labor reporters," media-savvy unionists are considering the larger implications of their issues - and selling them to a wider audience within the media. For instance, unions such as AFSCME and the Service Employees which represent workers in clerical and service jobs, are presenting their efforts as part of the larger movement to improve opportunities for women in the workplace. At a time when the media are improving their coverage of how new technologies are transforming society, unions such as the United Auto Workers (UAW), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and the Machinists are emphasizing issues including the de-skilling of jobs, occupational stress and employers snooping electronically on their employees. The media's extensive coverage of educational issues has given the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association (NEA) the opportunity to discuss their priorities, including higher salaries and increased professional autonomy for teachers, in the context of school reform.

Labor's image campaigns: Starting with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union's "Look for the Union Label" campaign a decade ago, unions have made increasing use of a tactic pioneered by their corporate adversaries: image-oriented television advertising campaigns, with AFSCME showing its members at work in state and local governments, NEA profiling especially dedicated teachers, the UAW showing well-running auto and aerospace plants and CWA having its members - from operators to technicians - explain their work.

Each of these campaigns has promoted the individual unions and their members, rather than the merits of unionism as a concept and a movement.

Union-made programming: For those who watch TV on Labor Day, 1987, something unusual will be on the air - television programming produced by unions that stresses worker issues. As part of its new concern with media, the AFL-CIO now has its Labor Institute for Public Affairs (LIPA), with its own TV and radio studios, producing programming offered to stations throughout the country, particularly public television and cable outlets. This Labor Day, more than 100 public television stations will run one of the two LIPA productions: "What's a Good Job," a documentary on what workers think about their jobs; and "Expectations," a documentary about laid-off steelworkers, their families and their community. In addition to producing its own programming, advertisements and educational videos, LIPA is working with television writers and producers to encourage more emphasis on workplace issues.

After years when labor's low profile in the media mirrored its decline throughout our society, a comeback may finally be underway. With news outlets increasingly interested in trends transforming the workplace and our popular culture becoming increasingly populist, the media at long last may be interested in what unionists have to say-provided they understand that, when unionists speak about work and the workplace, they are talking about almost everyone's life and livelihood.

Daivd Kusnet directed publicity in organizing campaigns for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He was a speechwriter for the late AFSCME President Jerry Wurf and for Walter Mondale during the 1984 presidential campaign.

Table of Contents