Union Basics the Media Often Gets Wrong—and Ways Right-Wing Messaging Sneaks into Labor Coverage

by Laura Clawson – Labor EditorDaily Kos

Editor’s Note: As readers of Raging Chicken know, I was in Providence, RI this past weekend for Netroots Nation 2012. The last session that I attended before we had to make the jaunt back to PA was the Labor Caucus. As the Caucus came to a close, Laura Clawson, Labor Editor at Daily Kos, told bloggers and progressive media sites like that we were free to re-post her Daily Kos articles on our sites. I am going to take her up on that offer. 

Two regular features of reporting about unions are sometimes hard to tell apart: A lot of reporters don’t know basic facts about labor, and anti-union forces have a powerful PR machine tirelessly working to insert anti-union language into the media as “neutral” language. Some mistakes are just that. They’re wrong but not necessarily harmful. Others may have become naturalized, repeated so often that even people who don’t intend any harm to unions have picked them up. But it’s important to try to get things right, and it’s particularly important to combat the spread of right-wing messaging, maybe especially when it’s been so successfully inserted into the discourse that people don’t recognize it for what it is.

This list isn’t anywhere close to exhaustive, but it features a few of the big problems I see repeated the most often.

Big labor—Ooh, scary, right? Not just labor, not just unions, not just millions of working people joined together, fighting together rather than one by one, having hired some lawyers and organizers to represent their interests, but big labor. It must be a fair fight between corporate money and Koch brothers money and U.S. Chamber of Commerce money and big labor money, right? No, of course it’s not. But those are the assumptions embedded in the term, which is exactly why it’s important to push back on it.

Union boss—Try this: “union leader.” Though union officers are elected through different processes, some at conventions at which delegates from around the country vote, some by a vote of the union’s entire membership, union officers are elected leaders. The term “union boss” is used to create a false equivalence between the boss in the workplace put there from above who holds the power to hire and fire workers, to promote or discipline them, and the elected union leader.

Merit shop—Any time you see this one, you know that the person using it is straight-up anti-union. “Merit shop” refers to non-union companies, usually construction companies, implying that workers are hired and paid according to their individual merit, not union rules. Of course, it turns out that the individual merit of “merit shop” workers leads to lower pay, fewer benefits and a whole lot of misclassification. One of the particularly Orwellian things about this term is that construction unions and union contractors typically invest heavily in apprenticeship and training, while non-union construction firms are less likely to do so.

Closed shop—This term describes something that doesn’t exist under law—a workplace in which only existing union members may be hired. Not only are collective bargaining agreements prohibited from limiting hiring to existing union members, they are prohibited from forcing workers to join the union once hired. Any worker can decline to join a union and pay a fee covering their fair share of the work the union does directly representing them. Yet anti-union organizations like the Associated Builders & Contractors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will still use this term, just to see if they can get reporters to quote them doing so without challenging it.

Right to work—We’ve been over and over the substance of these laws, but the challenge imposed by the name deserves a word. “Right to work” is akin to “death tax” as a right-wing frame. Unfortunately, the right created this law and with it the name, so there’s no formal name to call it by that isn’t by design an anti-union term. “Right to work” laws don’t put anyone to work and they don’t give them any right except that to receive benefits that they do not pay for—which is why you’ll see such laws referred to as free rider laws or right to work for less laws or no rights at work laws—but the official name they are given says otherwise, and until we have the kind of PR engine and access to powerful people using a pro-union message that has gone into creating anti-union messages, we are stuck grappling with it.

Project Labor Agreements are not union-only—But anti-union groups generally claim they are. Project Labor Agreements govern large construction projects, setting uniform terms across different contractors and different types of work being done on a project. Each PLA is specific to a project, and they can greatly increase efficiency and reduce the risk of interruptions or labor conflict. While PLAs set the same standards for union and non-union contractors on a project, they do not require that all workers or contractors be union. Additionally, they can be used for things like requiring that a percentage of the work on a project be done by local workers or by economically disadvantaged workers.

Union/labor leader—There’s nothing wrong with this term if it’s correctly applied. But when it’s incorrectly applied, take a second to think about why. The key thing here is that only the elected leaders of a union should be called union (or labor) leaders. That’s presidents and secretary-treasurers, not political directors and communications staffers. Unions are organizations of workers, and officers are their elected representatives. Staffers are critical to the function of a union, but their role is to execute the interests and the will of the workers who are members of the union, under the direction of the leaders elected by those members. So if you read an article in which someone other than a union president or secretary-treasurer or maybe vice president is described as a union leader, ask yourself: Did the author of this article not know enough about unions to know the difference between an elected leader and a staffer, or is there a political agenda involved in the error? If so, what might it be?

Top union/labor leader—A term to be applied very judiciously. If the full description is “top union leader” and the context is national politics, there’s room for legitimate debate about who should be characterized as a “top” labor leader, but it begins with a core of the president and secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO and the presidents of maybe a dozen of the largest or otherwise most significant unions, and it doesn’t extend a whole lot further—certainly not beyond the presidents and secretary-treasurers of national or international unions, and likely not that far. Of course, if “top union leader” is modified somehow—top Los Angeles union leader, top construction union leader—the pool changes.

The AFL-CIO is not a unionThe AFL-CIO is often referred to as a union, but in fact, it’s a federation of unions. It’s in the name! American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. The AFL-CIO consists of 56 unions, ranging from the very large to the tiny, familiar names like AFSCME and unions you may not have heard of like, say, the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union. Each of those unions has its own organizational structure, and a voice within the AFL-CIO. This is why, when unions are divided between different candidates in an election, the AFL-CIO may not endorse until late, perhaps after a primary.

ORIGINALLY POSTED TO DAILY KOS ON SUN JUN 10, 2012 AT 01:00 PM PDT. CLICK HERE for link to original.

Laura Clawson is the Labor Editor at Daily Kos.  Check out all her work on the Daily Kos Labor Page.


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About Editor, Raging Chicken Press 483 Articles
Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor Zero of Raging Chicken Press. When he's not rabble-rousing on Raging Chicken, he's teaching rhetoric and writing at Kutztown University.

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