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Media Paying Attention to Workers

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A decade ago, legacy publications got rid of their last full-time labor reporters and there was almost no labor coverage to be found except in small publications such as In These Times. Fast forward to 2021 and lo and behold, workers matter to the media again.

His timing is good. Gallup reported this fall that more Americans approve of labor unions than at any time since 1965. President Biden’s National Labor Relations Board looks far more sympathetically on their fights than did President Donald Trump’s. A tight labor market has also shifted leverage toward workers. “Buoyed by shortages in labor and supplies that leave employers more vulnerable, and frustrated by what they see as unfair treatment during the pandemic, workers are standing up for a better deal,” my colleague Noam Scheiber, who covers labor for The Times, wrote recently.

Steven Greenhouse, a former labor reporter for The New York Times, told me that for a time in the 2000s, he was the “the only full-time daily labor reporter.” Now, there are at least a dozen at legacy outlets and digital ones like Vice and HuffPost.

The change is also evident in how some of the biggest economic stories are covered. Reports on companies ranging from Amazon to Uber are not as likely to fall under the boosterish genre of gee-whiz technology stories these days. And the tales of heroic entrepreneurs have given way to coverage focused on their employees — stories documenting the complex and sometimes damaging effects of the digital transformation on warehouse workers, taxi drivers, delivery workers and white-collar employees.

The media choosing to cover labor is not going to rebuild the labor movement. But if no one knows what’s going on, it’s awful hard to publicize the work being done. Moreover, it’s a symptom of a decade of workers increasingly standing up for themselves and acting in any number of creative ways to expand their rights on the job and to make broader economic demands that have had an impact on our politics, one of the only positive developments of American politics of the 21st century.

What’s more, you see a similar shift in the field of history and probably throughout academia. When I became a labor historian around 2003 or so, the general reaction seemed to be “why?” This was the time when everyone wanted to be a historian of capitalism and when labor and labor history seemed an artifact. Now it’s a whole other world, with a revitalized field (there aren’t tenure-track jobs, but then there aren’t jobs in much of anything anymore so that’s not actually that useful of a metric) and a profession taking workers seriously again. So these are good developments.

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