Capitol Ideas

Labor Unions and the News Media

Press criticism of labor unions -- is such a thing possible?

By From the December 2009 - January 2010 issue

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Over the years, commentators have given much thought to the news media's "liberal bias." But one issue has been overlooked -- press criticism of labor unions. That is because it is hard to spot something that doesn't appear in print. The media just don't publish criticism of unions (or they didn't until very recently -- and I shall come to that later). The main reason, I believe, is that newspaper reporters are themselves largely unionized. Their operating principle is solidarity: unionized workers don't criticize other unionized workers. Which means they don't criticize labor unions.

As unions are on the left in almost every respect, this issue alone could account for much of the liberal tilt of the news media. Yet it is rarely brought up.

The Washington Post,  New York Times, and many other newspapers are union shops, with many of their reporters represented by the Newspaper Guild. The guild in turn is a subset of the Communications Workers of America, which is a division of the AFL-CIO. When he died, the Washington Post's left-wing cartoonist Herblock left $100,000 in his will to the Newspaper Guild.

Union members in general tend to be so self-righteous about their cause -- monopolizing the supply of labor to a given company, and the restraint of its trade -- that they are disposed to keep on doing their thing out of habit even if it threatens to put their own company out of business. To be sure, major newspapers are not closed shops, and a reporter hired by the Post has the option of joining the Guild or not. The Guild is moderate, as unions go.

Union ownership of a company is no guarantee that the unions won't bankrupt it. The United Airlines employee stock ownership plan meant that UAL was eventually owned by its unions, but that didn't stop them from driving it into Chapter 11. A federal bailout for United was on the verge of approval, but one union held out against guaranteeing that loan, when all the other unions had approved it. With bankruptcy, in December 2002, the employee stock was worthless.

Having run General Motors and Chrysler into the ground, the United Auto Workers now owns a sizable chunk of both companies -- after President Obama bailed them out and made sure the UAW was taken care of first. Does this mean that the union will now look out for the profitability of those companies? Don't count on it.

Ford, meanwhile, needed no bailout, and Mickey Kaus of Slate recently argued that the UAW now has a conflict of interest; it will be inclined to drive a harder bargain in its contract negotiations with Ford than it did with GM and Chrysler. It already seems to be doing so. As I write, the proposed contract is being voted down by union locals all over Detroit. The union represents 41,000 Ford workers.

Kaus makes an interesting point, but my suspicion is that the UAW will continue to press GM (Government Motors) for every possible advantage, and to hell with any fears of bankruptcy. With Obama in the White House, the UAW may well be confident that the initial government bail-out will legitimize a second. And if Ford goes bankrupt, too, Obama will be expected to come to its rescue, just as he did with its competitors.

Why are unions inclined to behave irrationally? Because they are fanatical organizations with no fear that the media will blow the whistle. Dissenters within a union who believe that a job at a reasonable wage is better than no job at a high wage can easily be intimidated. A punctured tire when leaving the plant in the evening is likely to be just the beginning.

THE DEFINING EVENT for industrial unions was the "battle of the overpass," in 1937. Labor organizers led by Walter Reuther fought Ford security guards at Detroit's River Rouge complex. In effect, one set of thugs took on another. Reuther and fellow strikers were kicked to the ground and a Detroit News photographer was on hand to immortalize the event. That's how the Pulitzer Prize for photography got started. The UAW was still in its infancy

The essential feature of this melee is usually overlooked, however. Unemployed workers were willing to go to work for the pay that Henry Ford was offering. In response to this threat of labor competition, fledgling UAW strikers had a few months earlier organized sit-down strikes inside GM plants elsewhere in Detroit. This shut down all their assembly lines, and made it impossible to hire replacement workers.

A labor union should be thought of as an organization whose activities appear to be directed against the company but are really directed against other workers -- non-organized ones. The UAW insisted on an hourly rate that was about 60 percent higher than what Ford was then paying and that unemployed men were willing to accept. In effect, unionization gave the green light to activists to coerce companies into paying wages well above the going rate. Walter Reuther has been viewed as a national hero ever since.

Labor unions should have been found illegal long ago. But once the Wagner Act was passed (1935), exempting them from antitrust laws, they were home free. Supreme Court rulings in the 1940s strengthened their hand, as did the hatred of capitalism by intellectuals (although based on consent, it deprives them of power). Corruption of state officials by union funds has rendered state laws against union coercion more or less powerless.

The recent management at General Motors has been spineless in its dealings with the UAW, allowing the union to build unsustainable wage increases and benefits into their contracts. There we come to what has been a big part of the problem. Management for some time had been paying itself too much money and probably knew it. So they didn't feel they could drive even a reasonable bargain with their workers. Sauce for the goose, etc.

If there is one aspect of Obama's policies that I agree with it's the crackdown on executive pay. Remuneration has already been reined in at GM. But why do Wall Street's wizards of finance feel entitled to $10 million a year when their approval or ignorance of irresponsible loans had become a way of life and they couldn't see the crisis coming? Boards are to blame, but I'm with Obama on this one.

THE ISSUE THAT HAS SPARKED a lot of interest lately, however, has involved schoolteachers, not industrial unions. Their two main unions are the National Education Association (with 3.2 million members, dedicated to themselves first, the Democratic Party second, and the children third) and the American Federation of Teachers (1.4 million members; same priorities). These unions have played a major role in the decline of public education with go-slow work rules and by making it almost impossible to fire teachers, no matter how incompetent.

Today, however, in both Washington and New York, the collapse of inner-city schools has reached a point where the newspapers can no longer avoid addressing the role of unions. This is particularly true of The Washington Post Co., which is involved both in the education business (a money-maker for them) and in putting out a newspaper (money-losing in 2009).

In Washington there is no end in sight to the schools' poor performance. More money made no difference. The Washington Post has given all this ample coverage. In 2007, it published a lengthy series with outstanding, sometimes riveting reporting. An idealistic (black) novice teacher tried to assert his authority at one point, didn't realize what league he was playing in, and was knocked to the floor by a "student" and had to be carried off to the hospital. This was considered so reprehensible that the assailant was actually dismissed from the school (almost as difficult to do as firing a teacher), and maybe was even removed without an "appeals process."

I checked this 12-part Post series online using the search terms "union" and confirmed that they had not been mentioned once. Admittedly, family life in the (mostly black) inner city is deplorable.

The problems that exist for a school-bound adolescent who comes from a home with no father and where the child has never seen an adult reading a book are huge. A bad teacher may be trivial by comparison.

On "Inside Washington," an excellent talk show hosted by Gordon Peterson, the Washington Post columnist Colby King made the point forcefully. There's a problem that teachers and cities "don't want to talk about," he said. "We don't want to talk about it. It's our dirty little secret." He added that we have to work at a more basic level:

and that is with the people who bring these children into the world and the children who are growing up in this world. We have to fix the family. There's no getting around it. And it doesn't mean you look to the school system to fix it. The school system can't solve the problem. The police department can't solve the problem. A social services agency can't solve the problem.

Colby King rather weakens my own case, I'm afraid, but it's always exhilarating to hear someone speak the unfashionable truth, and I wanted to repeat what he said. King concluded (rather lamely) that the "whole community" has to solve the inner-city problem, but that won't work either. Anyway, hats off to Mr. King.

Meanwhile, there is the saga of D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, a feisty lady with South Korean roots. She has the support of the mayor and is trying to do something about the schools in the nation's capital. That means overcoming tenure for teachers, insisting that children be properly tested, and so on. She was portrayed on the cover of Time wielding a broom sweeping incompetence out of the school system. Ms. Rhee has also encouraged new charter schools in D.C. There are now 60 of them -- free of union requirements. Their enrollment is up to 38 percent of all local public-school students.

Then Ms. Rhee fired 380 school employees, including 220 teachers, and the whole evil education empire sprang into action. The story is far from over. Rhee was hauled before the D.C. City Council to explain herself. The president of an AFL-CIO council accused her of "negotiating in bad faith." They may yet achieve their goal, which is to get rid of her.

Nonetheless, the Washington Post editorial board has largely supported Ms. Rhee, especially in arguing that the students at charter schools have performed better than those at the unreformed schools. One Post headline actually read: "Poor Children Learn. Teachers Unions Are Not Pleased." The paper was immediately accused of "union busting."

That accusation was made by someone called Gerald Bracey, with the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University. Within hours he had sniffed out the particular author of the Post editorial, which the paper never normally divulges, complained to the paper's ombudsman, and showed himself to be a formidably aggressive supporter of unionized schoolmarms. I wanted to find out if he or his organization was supported financially by teacher unions, and learned that Bracey himself had died in his sleep only a few days earlier. So I still don't know.

BUT THE SWIFT RESPONSE to the Post editorial showed just how prompt and well organized the pro-teacher-union network is. I heard of another instance last summer. Terry Moe and John Chubb of the Hoover Institution's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education have written a book called Liberating Learning, making the case that the digital revolution will do to traditional schools what it is already doing to the news media. The book details how teacher unions are retarding this transformation. It was immediately denounced as "an intemperate anti-union diatribe," even though, as Terry Moe told me, it contains no opinions about union actions, merely descriptions of them.

I have kept for last the best evidence of a new attitude toward teachers unions: a New Yorker article by Steven Brill called "The Rubber Room." It is a "temporary reassignment center" where New York City teachers can while away the day doing nothing at full salary (sometimes more than $100,000 a year), while their claims against dismissal are adjudicated. There are about 600 teachers in various "rubber rooms" and they wait there on average for three years. A frustrated school principal was quoted as saying that AFT leader Randi Weingarten "would protect a dead body in the classroom."

What was amazing was the depth of Steven Brill's reporting. It filled six pages of the magazine, and if you are at all interested in what's happening to government schools, do look it up (August 31, 2009, issue). Lately, even the New York Times has begun to editorialize against the unions' shocking disregard for the education of the children under their care. Counter-revolution does seem to be in the air.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).