Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times
It appears that once again, like in the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act, the labor movement is losing the media debate as the corporate right wing attacks public-sector unions. Unions once again finding themselves on the defensive and hobbled in the press in their attempts to go after the jugular of the corporate chieftains attacking them.
My perhaps immodest proposal: Organized labor should stop relying on the highly paid media consultants who lost the message war during the Employee Free Choice Act and instead rely on teams of guerilla investigative journalists.
During the EFCA debate in 2009, unions relied on the advice of consultants to focus their messaging on how unions were good for the economy, as opposed to making the debate about the awful intimidation tactics of employers. It was almost as if, by saying unions were necessary for a good economy, unions were in effect defending their right to exist. The debate became about unions and not about the awful intimidation tactics of the boss.
Unions ended up losing the Employee Free Choice Act debate, and now polls show public opinion of unions is at an all-time low.
We are beginning to see the same pattern emerge again as Republicans seek to eliminate organized labor, particularly in the public sector. Labor’s response to this attack is defensive. It says, essentially, union workers do a good job—as opposed to saying the people attacking us are liars and paid to lie by people with profit motives at stake.
The response to Waiting for Superman was a good example. Teachers unions allowed themselves to get into a debate about whether or not teachers unions were a good thing. This is not the debate organized labor wants to be having, since every person has a personal anecdote of a bad teacher or nightmare experience at the DMV.
Instead, unions should have pointed out that the people advocating for market based principles of education reform did not represent real people, but were instead funded by hedge funds and billionaires like Bill Gates (see this must-read piece by Joanne Barkan in Dissent magazine on the billionaries funding "education reform" messages). Focusing on the so called “grassroots credibility” of the messengers delivering these attacks instead of on teachers unions would have put anti-union forces on the defensive instead of organized labor.
We will never be able to win a debate over whether or not organized public employees are a good thing or a bad thing because corporate forces in a corporately owned media will simply lie. Instead of trying to counter the message, the labor movement should instead use guerilla journalism tactics to take out the messenger. We should point out very clearly that the people attacking unions are liars and they are bought off by industries that stand to gain from attacking unions.
Organized labor has started to point this out more and more, but the attacks are not resonating in a corporate-owned media. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pointed to shadowy groups attacking these groups in a speech he made to the National Press Club in January.
Also, last weekend organized labor participated in “Uncloak the Kochs” protesting outside of a conference of major corporate right-wing funders including the Koch Brothers in Palm Springs, Calif. They helped draw some attention to the event and secret right wing funders, but as an article in Politico pointed out the conference itself attracted relatively little national media.”
This is because the corporate media largely does not care about uncovering the right-wing corporate forces feeding it lies about workers. It’s foolish for the labor movement to waste money on overpaid media consultants pitching material to journalists at corporately owned outlets because few of these journalists will ever take on the corporate forces behind these attacks.
Instead, the labor movement must create its own press. The labor movement should hire SWAT teams of underpaid investigative journalists (of which there are many, including myself) and allow them to focus on exposing the lies of those attacking unions in the media. With each story or talking head that appears in a major media outlet bashing unions, these journalists could trace that person's involvement with union-busting forces and expose who is funding these lies.
Investigative journalists could not just attack the talking heads that appear in those stories, but also the journalists that give them spaces to talk. For instance, if 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft comes out with an anti-union piece like he did in January, investigative journalists could figure out what PR guys pushed him to do the piece. Who were the people he quoted in his piece? What specific financial conflicts of interests did the people he quoted have?
Media consultants cannot go after journalists in this way since they rely on these journalists to pitch story ideas and place labor quotes. However, investigative labor journalists who already have a platform can attack journalists that give anti-union forces credence. If the labor movement wants to win the message war in the ongoing class war, it must engage in guerilla journalism.
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