Long Live Organized Labor in America

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The Big Picture
by Glynn Wilson

A remarkable thing is happening in Madison, Wisconsin.

Could the protests for the rights of workers spread around the country and herald a new day for American labor?

While much of the media and the world’a attention over the past couple of weeks focused on the protests in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, about 25,000 public employees, including many teachers and prison guards, virtually shut down the state capitol in Madison and the schools around the state to try to stop a Republican governor from taking away their collective bargaining rights.

While the increasingly conservative and always establishment New York Times ran an analysis piece this week heralding Republican Governor Scott Walker’s budget “repair” bill as “a watershed for public-sector unions, perhaps signaling the beginning of a decline in their power — both at the bargaining table and in politics,” we believe the event is potentially a watershed of a different sort.

Could it finally signal a great awakening on the part of American workers after 30 years of taking it on the chin? Let’s hope so.


Historical Facts

Wisconsin was the first state in the U.S. to grant its government employees the right to engage in collective bargaining for higher pay and better working conditions. That was in 1959, only 52 years ago.

The Democratic Party historically has stood with workers over the years, while Republicans tend to side with big business and management. It was President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, who gave most federal employees the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. That was in 1962, only 49 years ago.

If you are interested in the history of American labor, this Wikipedia timeline of labor issues and events is a good starting point for research.

You can learn, for instance, that the National Labor Union was the first national labor federation formed in the U.S. in 1866, and that carpenters in Boston were the first to stage a strike for the 10-hour work-day in 1925.

It was in July 1903 when labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones led child workers in demanding a 55 hour work week, and on January 19, 1915, world famous labor leader Joe Hill was arrested in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was later convicted on trumped up murder charges, and was eventually executed “despite worldwide protests and two attempts to intervene by President Woodrow Wilson.”

The National Labor Relations Act was not passed until 1935, however, during the Great Depression and the presidential tenure of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. Also known as the Wagner Act, it for the first time “clearly established the right of all workers to organize and to elect their representative for collective bargaining purposes.”

The Wages and Hours Act, later called the Fair Labor Standards Act, was passed by Congress in June of 1938. It banned child labor and set a 40-hour work week. It went into effect in October, 1940, and was upheld by the Supreme Court in February, 1941. In June of that year, the great pioneer of the American automobile, Henry Ford, recognized the United Auto Workers Union.

Faced with increasing pressure from American management in the post-World War II period, the two largest labor organizations in the U.S. merged to into the AFL-CIO in December, 1955. At that time, the nation’s largest union had a membership of about 15 million workers.

According to a number of sources, union membership has been in decline ever since, but let me mention a couple of other important historical events before I talk about the local situation in Alabama.

There are numerous books and articles available for anyone who wants to understand the role of women in the American Labor movement, but it’s worth mentioning here that Congress passed a law mandating equal pay to women in June, 1963. Yet the Congress has yet to pass a full Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Earlier that year, in April, 1963, the so-called “New York City newspaper strike of 1962,” allegedly the longest newspaper strike in U.S. history, came to an end. I mention this here because it was a watershed event in how the management of newspapers viewed organized labor, and you will see how this is important a little further down in the story.

The last event worth mentioning in the timeline came in August, 1981, when then-President Ronald Reagan fired 13,000 federal air traffic controllers, who had walked out on strike over the Reagan administration’s refusal to negotiate a new contract. That event is often heralded as the beginning of the end for organized labor in the U.S., although the decline actually started much sooner.

The question now is: Can organized labor make a comeback in this country?

The answer may lie in whether the unions can get a fair shake in the press or not, because for anything to work in a democratic republic, press coverage is critical. That is a problem in the U.S., where the press has a long history of anti-union editorial sentiment.

For a prime example of this, just take a look at the Newhouse family media empire, which owns the three newspapers in Alabama with the largest circulation base, in Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile, as well as the highest traffic news Website in the state, al.com.

From talking to many citizens, workers and union members since I moved back to Alabama five years ago, it is pretty clear that most people here have no idea who owns the newspapers and no clue about their history. There is a good reason for this I explain further down in the story.

But since I firmly believe it takes an informed citizenry to run a democracy, let’s get some facts on the table.

Back in the 1990s when I was working on a Master’s degree in journalism and communications at the University of Alabama, I spent a fair amount of time in the media section of Gorges Library and read a number of books and articles on this subject. But for our purposes today, here’s one Web source to check with some of the basic facts that should be highlighted for this analysis.

Samuel I. Newhouse was the founder of the Newhouse media empire back in the early 20th century in the days of other media magnates such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.

One of the papers Newhouse bought along the way was the Long Island Press, which as it turns out in history, was the first newspaper to be picketed by its editorial workers — by a new union called the American Newspaper Guild, in 1934. Newspaper owners, even those who tended to be liberal on some issues, tended to hate unions because of the threat they posed to profit margins.

In 1955, the same year the AFL-CIO merged into one union, Newhouse persuaded the Hanson family in Birmingham, Alabama, to sell him the Birmingham News and the Huntsville Times for a reported $18.7 million. He also picked up the Mobile Register and the Mobile Press in the 1960s, and eventually merged them into one paper, the Mobile Press-Register.

Perhaps the three most important reasons why not many people in Alabama know much about the Newhouse history is because, number one, Newhouse was much more secretive than Pulitzer or Hearst. According to an article in Barron’s from November, 1989, Newhouse was called “not only one of the most powerful, but one of the most secretive family businesses in America.” According to this article, “Newhouse preferred to work his deals discreetly, and as a private corporation (Advance Publications) could maintain a very low profile.”

In 1966, however, John A. Lent published a book on Newhouse, which let’s just say, concentrated on his less than scrupulous dealings with labor unions.

The other factor that drove Newhouse in building his empire, according to numerous sources, was his drive to minimize the taxes he had to pay. This last policy exploded into a public lawsuit from the IRS after Newhouse’s death in 1979, which “threatened the financial position of Advance throughout the 1980s.”

The Newhouse media empire was then taken over by Si’s two brothers, Norman and Ted, and his two sons, Samuel I. Jr. (Si) and Donald Newhouse.

As we recently mentioned in another column, the Newhouse brothers who now run the media empire recently asked the last of the Hanson’s to run the Birmingham News, Victor Hanson III, to retire. While the official story on that retirement was one thing, if you understand the media business it is not hard to figure out the real reason. While the policy of Newhouse has always been to leave a newspaper’s editorial stance in the hands of the local publisher, in this case several factors came together to change the story.

One, while the Newhouse news company is still in private hands, and its books remain unavailable for public viewing, it is not hard to figure out that the profit projections from 2004-2006 when the News built a brand new building in downtown Birmingham must have been way off after the recession of 2007-2009. News chains like Newhouse typically demand a 20 percent profit margin. If a manager does not meet the profit margin — even if that means mass worker layoffs to accomplish it — he may be subject to dismissal.

That is the most likely internal justification for asking Hanson to retire, although there were a couple of other factors at work. One was the reversal of a long-standing policy at Newhouse, often referred to as the “Newhouse Pledge” of job security, (albeit non-union job security), which got written up by the Poynter Institute in 2009.

Another clue lies in the lawsuit former Press-Register Publisher Howard Bronson filed against Advance Publications and Managing Partner Mark Newhouse. Bronson wanted a jury to award damages for breaking the pledge and forcing him into retirement, but apparently Hanson just decided to walk away without a fight.

The other factor was important to the credibility of the Newhouse news brand itself. A former reporter for the Birmingham News, Brett Blackledge, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for an investigation into corruption at Alabama’s community colleges. But as we pointed out in a video and story obtained exclusively by me, and then reported on by Scott Horton on the Harper’s magazine Website, the information that led to the reporting was secret grand jury documents leaked to the reporter by Alice Martin, the Bush-appointed U.S. attorney in Birmingham.

Faced with the prospect of a potential criminal investigation, Blackledge left the News and went to work for the Associated Press in Washington, D.C., for a good buddy of Karl Rove’s named Ron Fornier. You can read all about him there, but the bottom line is, he is no longer with AP.

Now, what has this got to do with American labor and labor unions in Alabama? More than you may know.

Check out the tone of this story in the Birmingham News about the U.S. Pipe strike in Bessemer recently. The United Steelworkers Local 2140 contract with U.S. Pipe ended Oct. 31, 2010, and Lee Nelson, treasurer of the local union, was quoted by the newspaper in a front page story, no less.

“We want to go back to work,” Nelson said. “It’s a peaceful protest. We’re not violent.”

Why would the paper even cover the strike for one thing, since it is such an anti-union shop? Then, why would the issue of violence even come up? Was there ever a hint of violence? Or did the paper’s editors get the reporter to ask the question so they could toss in the specter of violence to discredit union workers?

You decide, but I’ve got my opinion — based on 30 years in and around the news business.

If the workers of America and states such as Alabama expect to make a comeback in American life, they are going to have to find a way to get a fair shake in news coverage. They are not going to get a fair shake from newspapers or television news, in my informed opinion. So they are going to have to become more Web media savvy and begin to take on many years of image advertising by corporations.

I understand there is a movement afoot to do just that. Stay tuned. As a pro-worker and pro-labor news organization, we are working on a plan to conduct a bevy of economic and labor reporting in the weeks and months ahead.

© 2011, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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