Labor Media Could Learn From Black Media

June 3, 2004

Also published at http://www.blackcommentator.com

Few would dispute that the corporate media do a better job of persuading their consumers to support corporate policies than the labor media do of persuading their readers to support political policies and politicians that benefit workers.

Of course, few have any idea what I even mean by “the labor media.” Unlike what was meant by that phrase 75 years ago in the United States or what is meant by it today in Sweden, I mean — sadly — almost exclusively labor union publications: union newsletters, newspapers, magazines, and websites. Few non-union media outlets advocate for labor.

I think a case can be made that the black media do a better job of educating their readers, and allowing their readers to educate each other, on politics than do the labor media.

Exit polls taken during the 2000 election showed a tight race between the worst president we’ve ever seen and Al Gore for just about all groups of Americans, regardless of age, sex, income, or dozens of other factors.

Only a few groups distinguished themselves as exceptionally smart or dumb. Those with a gun owner in their household were unusually bad voters: 61 percent of them supported Bush. Gays and lesbians were far more intelligent than heterosexuals: 70 percent of them voted for Gore. Jews deserve high praise: 79 percent for Gore. But blacks stand out as the smartest Americans — they were 90 percent for Gore.

Bush has worked consistently and successfully against the interests of working people, but white working people voted for him. Overall, 54 percent of whites voted for Bush. For whites, union membership helped, but not enough. Fifty-four percent of white union members voted for Gore. For blacks, union membership helped a little too. Ninety-three percent of black union members voted for Gore (up from 90 percent of all blacks). Hispanics voted 62 percent for Gore, and unionized Hispanics 71 percent.

Union membership did the most good for older voters. Fifty-one percent of voters 60 or older backed Gore. But 71 percent of union members aged 60-64 did so, and the percentage was almost identical for those over 64.

Overall, union members put on an embarrassingly weak display. They voted 60 percent for Gore and 34 percent for Bush. That means that over a third of union members voted for the most aggressively anti-union president in memory. This compares to only 9 percent of all blacks, in or out of unions, who must live with that shame.

What every labor leader should find shocking is that after three-and-a-half years of the Moron Terror – er, I mean the War on Terror – these statistics have not changed. A Zogby poll from April says that 59 percent of union members expressed support for Kerry and 35 percent for Bush. THIRTY-FIVE PERCENT! The anti-union union members have ADDED 1 percentage point to their numbers following a presidential term of service that could hardly have seen a more focused assault on working people.

Granted, Americans in or out of unions don’t vote their own economic interest in large numbers. But some of them are trying to. Eighteen percent of the voters in the VNS exit poll from which all my statistics are taken said that “economy and jobs” was the most important issue, a higher percentage than for any other issue. Of them, 37 percent voted for Bush, the first president since Hoover to end his term with fewer jobs in the country than when he started, and the first administration ever to claim that sending jobs overseas is good for us. Where did that 37 percent of Americans get their information?

Of course, all of these statistics are drawn from the half of Americans who bothered to vote, a group that is disproportionately white and wealthy. Union members have one thing to be proud of: they turn out to vote in higher numbers than others (and that’s without considering all the good work that union members do to move non-union members to register and turn out). So, the edge that union members and their household members (who tend to vote the same way) give to the Democrats carries more weight.

But the question is why that edge is not what it is for black voters. Why isn’t the percentage of union members backing Kerry over 90? I understand Kerry’s shortcomings and failure to inspire, but any serious comparison of him to the criminal now occupying the White House and Iraq must lead to the conclusion that he would be better for our economy, our jobs, our wages, our working conditions, and our rights in the workplace.

But where is that serious comparison? It’s not in the corporate media. And it’s more likely to be found, and found in a more robust and vibrant form, in black media than in labor union publications.

Of course, on the internet the black media are out ahead of labor. Sites like the Black Commentator, but also the various sites found through BlackPressUSA.com, offer more political news and commentary and debate than do most labor websites. There are a few labor sites, such as LaborNet.org, that open up the necessary discussion a little. But most labor sites are single-voiced advertisements for particular unions and their leadership.

And the same is even more true in hardcopy publications. Black newspapers, for all their shortcomings, include multiple viewpoints and often do not hesitate to offend the powerful. Guest columns and letters to editors involve the readership.

Labor communications does not do enough to involve the labor union membership, much less the 42 million Americans who say they would like to join a union but haven’t been able to.

It’s possible to speculate that older union members are such better voters because they learned to think like union members at a time when labor communications was more of a conversation and less of a megaphone from a mountaintop.

Imagine if all the black media in the country came from black activist organizations — for example, the publications of the NAACP. How vibrant would the debate be in those media? How independent of the events covered would the editors be? How much would you trust them as a source of news? Would you feel engaged and encouraged to think and debate? Or would you feel instructed to get with the prescribed program and stay on message?

That’s how readers of labor publications often feel. Many of them, for that reason, are not dedicated readers even of their own union’s newspaper. They see it as a mouthpiece for their union president, not as a democratic forum for developing an understanding of their situation in society and for interfacing with the rest of society.

Labor unions need to shift resources from advertising and PR spinning to developing powerful labor media. They need to make these democratic media. And they would do well to look to the black media for ideas. After all, blacks were not simply born the smartest voters in the United States. They made themselves into good voters by communicating with each other.

Those who understand this have for years now argued for the importance of developing at least one major national labor newspaper. The arrival of the internet creates the possibility of producing that newspaper for less expense in an initial online-only version, later expanding to hardcopy. The internet also facilitates openness in such a publication by providing easy and cost-free means of including additional viewpoints and creating public discussion and debate.

This paper would be independent in its editorial decisions from any union. It would include national and international news, sports, comics, and lots of advertising from union companies not engaged in contract disputes. But the focus would be on that great void in the celebrity-obsessed corporate media: working people and their concerns.

This paper could drive stories into the corporate media in the way that radically right-wing publications push stories into prominence. And it could impact the public debate on all of politics.

Toward the end of building these more powerful labor media, the International Labor Communications Association is working to expand education in labor journalism, to bring more communications students into labor media internships, to channel more advertising (and revenue) into labor media, and to promote the best current examples of labor reporting. We’re dreaming big, but not as big as those who would spin the corporate media in our favor, win the debate by purchasing advertising, or persuade Congress to pass media reform legislation.

We need strong and democratic labor media in order to talk to each other. We need strong and democratic labor media if we are ever to learn to vote.