In Wisconsin yesterday, Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas declared two political appointees of Gov. Scott Walker in contempt of court for ignoring his ruling that 400 public employee unions in the state have a right to bargain collectively, at least until the state's conservatively tilted Supreme Court takes up an appeal of the case.
The judge's action generated an above the fold, page one headline in Madison's conservatively inclined Wisconsin State Journal. It was, however, a Wrong-Way Corrigan of a headline: “State Workers Found In Contempt”
To paraphrase a line from "Absence of Malice," the 1981 Sally Field / Paul Newman movie about journalism ethics, that headline may be accurate, but it's not true. Actually, the only "state workers" ruled in contempt of court were the Walker political appointees who head up the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC), who followed the Walker administration's lead and simply ignored the court's original ruling for more than a year.
Online, the State Journal -- Wisconsin's second-largest daily -- later revised its egregious headline to the somewhat more acceptable, "WERC staffers held in contempt for ignoring ruling in Act 10 challenge" but even this rendition made at least one on-line reader's eyes roll. He felt compelled to note in a comment that the "workers" and "staffers" in question were actually political officials appointed by the governor -- indeed, the very Walker administration officials who pushed on with aspects of the law that the judge had partially overturned.
But, as the saying goes, a lie (or, in this case, a lousy headline) makes its way halfway around the world before the truth puts on its boots. In short course, other Wisconsin news outlets picked up the State Journal's original coverage and ran their own variations on the "state workers in contempt" riff. The estimable Associated Press took a similar tack, originally headlining: "Wisconsin Judge Faults Labor Officials For Enforcing Scott Walker's Unconstitutional Restrictions" -- once again potentially implying to casual readers that rank-and-file workers or perhaps those purportedly thuggish, union labor bosses the GOP likes to talk about were in hot water, again. Even the nominally moderate Huffingtonpost.com bit on that AP headline.
It was as though a few dozen or more reporters, editors and news directors suddenly had a hard time describing conservative, anti-union, political officials as anything other than "state workers" or "labor officials." George Orwell no doubt was soon turning in his grave at these journalistic gymnastics. War is peace, freedom is slavery, Scott Walker is a big labor union thug.
How did we get here, and seemingly so fast? Read past the orange slug below.
Your correspondent believes farcical muck-ups like this latest episode in Wisconsin arise from increasing myopia within the corporately owned news media. That industry seems especially near-sighted about labor issues. [Full disclosure: I'm a former general assignment newspaper reporter who, among other things, covered business news and labor relations for a number of years. I also later worked in corporate and government PR, and I've done some communications consulting for organized public employees. These opinions are, however, my own.]
It wasn't that long ago that most larger daily newspapers in this country still regularly assigned at least one reporter to the highly visible and busy labor beat. Moreover, labor coverage consisted of more than just strikes, job actions or, lately, corporate and government intimations that union-bargained pension funds are just too damned expensive (read: dissolved, raided, or under-funded) to actually pay out to expectant retirees who were assured years before that they had a signed contract and then proceeded in good faith to earn those pension benefits, usually in exchange for lower salaries.
Never mind as well other news media, like TV, which apparently could care less about covering labor issues unless there is good video of, say, someone being teargassed while on an otherwise peaceful picket line. And even then the coverage was not a sure thing, or, when it was, offered without much context.
Without regularly assigned labor reporting, and with decreasing newsroom staffing, newspapers increasingly gravitated towards more digestible, packaged news about relationships between management and labor. More and more such packages were delivered courtesy of corporate PR departments, conservative think tanks and political entities, whose agendas were not at all friendly towards labor.
As this trend continued, American journalism was teetering in an era of media mergers when newspapers fell away from the family-owned or employee-owned model in favor of giant, vertically integrated media megaliths. Reporter staffing began to shrink. The time-honored (at least at bigger newspapers) firewall between the newsroom and the advertising department crumbled.
Newspaper publishers -- faced with decreasing revenues and increasing costs -- joined TV and radio outlets in shallowing out their coverage and leaning towards their advertiser patrons. They increasingly saw printer and journalist unions serving their own ranks as negatives, and worked to undermine same, attending ubiquitous management seminars on the most effective methods. An independent observer could not possibly regard these news organizations as unbiased toward organized labor, not when they sought so hard to marginalize unions within their own domains.
So when anti-union, right-to-work politicians like Scott Walker began coming along and were quite willing to blame everything on those union thugs, too many publishers and almost as many editors were keen to listen, and to endorse.
Even as the anti-unionists achieved supremacy in the court of conventional wisdom, a younger, greener, hungrier but perhaps more cautious breed of journalist arrived in newsrooms, earning less, scrutinized more, and taught little (by their elders in the craft or their educational institutions) about how our public and social institutions actually work -- much less the formal and working language of labor relations (hence, in news coverage, "managers" sometimes are transmogrified into "workers," which nicely fits into the Romney-esque meme that 47 percent of us don't really work at all).
The young reporter's experience with Newspaper Guild or International Typographer Union shops was, meanwhile, increasingly unsatisfying thanks to hard-nosed management and the natural disdain -- born of healthy skepticism but magnified by cynicism -- that journalists tend to have for joining groups. Now the circle was complete.
And so when states like Wisconsin began skirting if not ignoring their own labor laws and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, news media didn't seem to notice. When Wisconsin governors, Democrats and Republicans alike, stalled contract talks for months or years, knowing that they could get away with it thanks to laws against public employee strikes -- it was the unions who got the blame, even when wages remained stagnant or declined.
Then, when public officials screwed the pooch and underfunded pension benefits (in order to spend the money on other stuff, or cut taxes, or even feather their own compensation), the bill and a sizable portion of the blame was assigned to the rank-and-file workers -- especially the union members -- who typically had been promised an end-of-career reward in exchange for earlier concessions. This, of course, happened in the private sector, too.
Regarding these developments, about all that made it into most newspapers of recent vintage were political accusations that "big labor" and "union thugs" (focus-group terms perfected by Republican campaign operatives) were making government and businesses too inefficient with their incessant wage and benefit demands. Also, they were accused of constant stalls at the bargaining table that, especially in the public sector, actually had become management's highly useful prerogative, even though it violated the spirit of collective bargaining laws.
This sort of management stall became so commonplace that, after he was elected, Walker felt comfortable in ignoring Wisconsin's then-still-existent collective bargaining law, refusing without legal cause to re-open or approve tentative bargaining agreements with state government employee unions that were already in play. He conducted this stall even as he secretly plotted to destroy the bargaining law, which didn't happen until nealry half a year later. His totally non-causal point of view seemed to be: Why waste effort bargaining under the law now, when we're going to get rid of the law later?
Even when it was demonstrably, mathematically untrue, politiicians like faux-populist Walker insisted that public employees including school teachers, janitors, professors, scientists and everyone in between earned too much compared to hard-working voters. Never mind that the best paid public employees were often the very politicians making such absurdist, rabble-rousing claims.
Walker went so far as to say he simply had to end collective bargaining for most public employees forever, in order to close a short-term budget gap, but he almost immediately took a big chunk of that savings and transferred it to businesses and wealthier taxpayers in the form of tax cuts (no such cuts for lower-income taxpayers, alas). More recently, when a projected state budget surplus (probably still a long-term deficit) arose thanks to the slightly up-ticking national economy, Walker failed to return a dime of it to the workers whose pay he had slashed by 8, 10 or even 15 percent. That cash conduit mainly runs one way: Away from public-employee wallets.
The governor insisted that a public employee who, thanks to Walker's own skinflintery, suddenly lost five or eight grand in annual compensation could make up for it (but only a little bit) by declining to pay union dues. That pesky math, again. But too often, desperate workers faced with no other good options to replace the lost income, other than taking a second or third job or even going on food stamps, did just that.
Walkerism of course only accelerated an already curving trend. America's labor movement has been on the wane for nearly half a century, arguably accelerated in the 1980s thanks to Ronald Reagan's firing of stubborn, unionized air traffic controllers and the rush to outsource labor to de- or un-regulated foreign lands, as well as our own southern, "right to work" states, where wages are low and worker morale is often lower.
Except for Reagan's startling move, and occasional Sunday think pieces in the opinon pages of a few larger papers, the national and regional press didn't report on this decline, except whenever management and union locals reached impasse on their negotiations, a turning point that increasingly resulted in management threatening to shut down its operations or move them overseas. Or, as in a number of infamous cases, declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy, firing everyone, and then, under reorganization, hiring some of them back minus their seniority, their accrued pension benefits and with lower wages. America: What a country!
Back in Wisconsin's Dane County, Judge Colas' ruling of September 2012 spared unions representing many thousands of Wisconsin public teachers and municipal worker unions from a requirement of the wingnut Republican governor's onerous "Act 10" law that all but gutted collective bargaining for most public employees in the state. The judge rejected the law's requirement that most but not all public employee unions conduct resource-consuming annual re-certification elections in order to remain retain greatly narrowed bargaining rights. The judge also restored the power of unions joined in the lawsuit to bargain with management on behalf of their members.
State government workers remain unaffected by this case, one of several still working their way through the courts. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to take up oral arguments on Act 10 starting Nov. 11. Based on its lack of action until now, WERC can be expected to continue dragging its heels as much as possible until the justices issue a ruling, despite the contempt order. Now, please consider: If you or I or most citizens were held in contempt of court, we'd likely be fined and/or jailed. Political elites? Not so much, unfortunately. Too often they get to treat their malfeasance as some kind of quasi-acceptable stunt or game, and they can go on with that game for months or years. Hey, no judge can tell them what to do. Besides, in Walker's stated view, Judge Colas is nothing more than a liberal, so there. Tsk, tsk. There are times, it is evident, when politicians simply must rise above the law.
But beyond all that: If you or I were governor of Wisconsin or the governor's politically appointed commissioner overseeing a powerful labor relations agency, and we'd evaded a clear court ruling, it is highly unlikely that the Wisconsin State Journal would try to mislead its readers by referring to us as "state workers."
More and more of us know who's doing all the work and who is trying to job us. Sadly, in the process, the Fourth Estate of journalism continues to forget what its job is.