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Media Carrying Water for Employers

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Our friend Michael Hiltzik has an excellent column on the ways that the media frames strikes in ways that prove to be employer propaganda.

For another, the framing in the media and among politicians treats this contract negotiation as one in which the union is making outrageous demands and management is trying desperately to hold the line.

This is the oldest of chestnuts in the depiction of labor-management relations. The New Yorker’s great press critic, A.J. Liebling, observed during a New York newspaper strike in 1963 that “the employer, in strike stories, always ‘offers,’ and the union ‘demands.'”

The stories never say that the employer “‘demands’ that the union men agree to work for a two-bit raise; the union never ‘offers’ to accept more.” The reason, Liebling conjectured, is that “‘demand,’ in English, is an arrogant word; ‘offer,’ a large, generous one.”

The same slant has crept into coverage of the current talks, possibly because of a long-ingrained reflex among reporters and editors. “The United Auto Workers union is bending on its pay-increase demands,” the Wall Street Journal wrote Monday, referring to what it might otherwise have referred to as a change in the union’s offer to accept a 30% pay increase over four years, down from 40%.

By the same token, a strike is consistently described as a unilateral action threatened by the union. Here’s the Detroit Free Press, reporting on the possible economic toll of $5.6 billion over 10 days in the case of “a strike against the three Detroit automakers by 143,000 United Auto Workers members.”

Yet of course there are two sides of the table in this negotiation. The strike could just as easily be described as one provoked by the Big Three auto manufacturers by their refusing to meet the UAW’s, er, offer.

Adam Johnson of the Lever pinpoints an especially egregious example of media slant from NBC News, which reported that a strike “could mean car prices will soar even higher.” Never mind that the most direct impact of the contract talks will be on 146,000 workers, who could end up with better wages, benefits and job security, even if they might have to sacrifice pay while off the job. (A UAW strike fund provides $500 a week after the eighth day of a strike.).

It’s proper to note that the negotiation deadline of Thursday at 11:59 p.m. is not arbitrary, but marks the expiration of the current contract. The companies are in effect demanding that their workers stay on the job after expiration, and the union has — as is its right — refused the demand.

This framing is a PR gift to the automakers. That’s especially so because the inconvenience and economic pain from a strike will be localized, concentrated in the Midwest, where most of the 146,000 unionized workers of the Big Three live and work. Most Americans won’t feel it and probably haven’t paid much attention.

A more accurate media story would read something like “Greedy Employers Refuse to Share Wealth with Workers” or “Workers Strike for the Future of American Workers.” But then that wouldn’t serve the media’s true role as water carriers for elites.

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