When I was a newspaper reporter for several different publications many years ago, my editors every year at this time typically would assign one or more of us ink-stained wretches to attend the heavily attended Labor Day parades and picnics in the locale, covering for our readers what was said and how unionized workers were feeling about their jobs and the state of the nation. Leading up to Labor Day, the editors often also for this day would assign feature articles about working men and women, sometimes in the context of their labor unions.
And that was only right, because Labor Day was established in this country to celebrate organized labor. For those of you who can't believe this is a day about labor unions, check your nearest online encyclopedia. Sure, Labor Day has come to be about workers in general, but this day to picnic and relax also exists as a reminder of how, over decades, organized workers -- and workers trying to form unions -- struggled, were injured and in some cases died, basically so that everyone could enjoy a day off every year but more importantly to improve work conditions in general. Therefore it's appropriate today that you should thank unions for their many past sacrifices on your behalf, and their continuing efforts.
Let's in that context consider how modern news media regard Labor Day. I'm afraid most of them these days short-staff their news rooms and report very little on the substance of the occasion. Attractive photos or videos of people enjoying themselves are more the norm. Workplace issues? Wages? Benefits? Off the radar.
Lately, too, we've seen the advent of conservatives appropriating Labor Day (as in the past, when they sought to commandeer the memory of JFK and Martin Luther King), redefining the day to suit their own agenda. Case in point: Here in Wisconsin we have Gov. Scott Walker, the tea party original who within months of his election in 2011 "dropped the bomb" and rammed through legislation that basically gutted collective bargaining for most public employees in the state.
So how does Walker celebrate Labor Day? By turning it into Corporate Day. Some years he has tweeted out "Happy Labor Day" messages, which infuriate those public labor unions that have lost their bargaining rights thanks to him. On other occasions he's used the opportunity of Labor Day to celebrate the value and worth not of workers, but of business owners.
One business that seems to have revised its own regard for Labor Day is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, large city daily. [Full disclosure: I once worked as a reporter for the old Milwaukee Sentinel, which later merged into the Milwaukee Journal to become one newspaper.]
Perhaps as a consequence of fewer journalists and conservative attitudes on Labor Day that now increasingly pertain, the Journal Sentinel has lightened up on its Labor Day coverage, culminating in today's unfortunate edition. Read on below the cloud of orange cigar smoke to see where this trend is at, and where it appears to be going.
Like many mainstream news outlets, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel these days no longer has a labor "beat." It almost never sends reporters out to talk to organized labor or cover labor except in the context of stories documenting the political contests between unions and anti-union politicians. That is: Whatever coverage occurs is mostly in the context of some business or political plan or decision that would negatively affect working men and women.
Labor used to be considered very important news, and was covered regularly in news pages and even the business sections (note: Many large newspapers have such business sections; none have labor sections). In today's news coverage, labor is mostly portrayed within the context of third-party actions and opinions. Google pension funds for a swell example of this. A lot of those funds are hurting, but not because -- as conservatives and too many pundits would have you believe -- because workers are greedy, but rather because business owners and public officials short-sheeted the funds for many years. And it's labor that is paying the price, especially in the case of public retirees who worked for the City of Detroit.
Meanwhile, in newspaper opinion pages, unions rarely get a say. When they do, it's usually in a guest column that's a one-off event. There really aren't many regularly appearing columnists who discuss labor in any regard, unlike the plethora of conservative pundits who push the anti-union meme.
In Milwaukee, Labor Day used to be an occasion when front pages carried features about working men and women who did the heavy lifting to make the city and the State of Wisconsin an economic powerhouse, with great universities and a high standard of living and culture. Now, such examinations mostly just focus on CEOs.
Consider front-page coverage in the Sept. 1, 2014, Labor Day print edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. There's a pair of "Politifact" articles rating the jobs claims of Gov. Walker and his Democratic Party gubernatorial challenger, Mary Burke, but the articles say nothing about laborers per se.
The front page also carries a feature on Quadgraphics, a Wisconsin printing and publishing firm. It's a powerhouse outfit that prints many well-known magazines nationally and overseas. The thrust of the Journal Sentinel article is how -- when electronic media are biting deeply into print publishing, and when printing and publishing firms in other states are in serious decline -- Quadgraphics is growing in Wisconsin as it acquires and consolidates the competitiion.
But here's about all the article says regarding Quad's employees: They're paid an average wage of around $900 a week (surely a good thing, on average, in today's economy) but within its Wisconsin-based operations though not everywhere else, Quad is against labor unions. No word on how workers feel about that.
That is the sum total of the Journal Sentinel's coverage of Wisconsin employees on Labor Day 2014. What do the workers think? What do unions think? That's why we have Labor Day, after all. But, more and more, Labor Day is an excuse to celebrate businesses, not workers. And that's a bastardization of what Labor Day means.
Bear in mind that, right here in Milwaukee back in 1886, our forefathers suffered through the Bay View Massacre, a terrible event similar to Chicago's infamous Haymarket Massacre. Both incidents helped spur the then-nascent US labor movement. Striking for an eight-hour day, Milwaukee mill workers were confronted by the National Guard, who were under orders from Republican Governor Jeremiah M. Rusk to "shoot to kill" any strikers who attempted to enter mill property. When demonstrators approached the mill, they were fired upon. Seven adults and a 13-year-old boy died. A year later in 1887, trying to calm the waters and honor the fallen, President Grover Cleveland established Labor Day.
It would take some Googling and looking through microfiche cards to find the last time most news media in America wrote anything about either massacre, or the others like them. Instead, now, we have rigid conservatives like Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. writing in the Shreveport Times to spread his claim that Labor Day has nothing to do with unions. Bull hockey.
All this is especially ironic with respect to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The paper's alacrity regarding labor issues is perhaps more understandable given that the newspaper itself grudgingly hosts a couple of labor unions representing typographers and reporters. Like other media businesses, the newspaper's publishers have not taken kindly to those unions and arguably have done much to try to undermine them, taking advantage of lax enforcement by the National Labor Relations Board to drag out contract talks, play hard ball and otherwise strong-arm union representatives.
How's a reporter to write about unfair labor practice claims when he or she as a union member may be among the victims of such abuse?
Arguably it must be hard for editors and reporters to cover other labor unions when the publishers are busy trying to rid themselves of the unions within their own shop. But here's something even more egregious: This anti-union fervor that's spread across America and infected newsrooms is very, very new. How else can Republicans and conservatives and, yes, news organizations, explain what Ronald Reagan said in 1980:
“Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost."
2:23 PM PT: Well, here's the best way to get labor-oriented coverage on Labor Day: Get the President of the United States to come to your town and give a speech. Lead from the online version of a Journal Sentinel article: "President Barack Obama came to Milwaukee's Laborfest on Monday to talk up an improving economy and to push Congress to boost the minimum wage... . Thousands of labor supporters gathered by the Miller Lite Oasis Stage on the Summerfest grounds to hear Obama address Laborfest for the third time in six years.. . 'If you work full-time you shouldn't be living in poverty,' Obama said as he called once again for Congress to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour."