Which Side Are They On?

In 1877, a major railroad strike threatened to spread to New York City. Press reaction was swift and stern. The New York Tribune called for "the shooting of every rioter within range of a musket ball" and the Independent reiterated Napoleon's advice for dealing with an unruly mob: "exterminate it."

The strike never took hold here, but a rally to support it drew 20,000 people to Tompkins Square. A military regiment was mobilized to protect the city, Gatling guns graced Wall Street, and up in Central Park, Frederick Olmsted ringed his headquarters with loaded howitzers. As the rally adjourned, police waded in with flailing clubs, but the crowd never fought back. Yet the Tribune was relentless, urging the city's largest corporations to finance fortified buildings. The armories that still dot Manhattan, with their gun turrets and iron gates, are an unacknowledged testament to the violent class warfare that raged in the days before minimum wage.

All this is chronicled in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, the Pulitzer Prize­winning study by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. Obviously, the labor movement back then faced a far more vituperative press than even Rupert Murdoch dares to contemplate today. The clash between labor and management is now conducted on a higher plane, and just last week came the welcome sight of cops marching with other union members instead of clubbing them. But the media's reaction to the massive May 12 labor rally near City Hall suggests that the old attitude remains, albeit in a more "civilized" form.

You couldn't tell from the coverage that this demonstration, which drew between 25,000 and 50,000 people (depending on whose estimate you believe), was the city's largest in years. NY1— which consistently devotes more time to activist issues than any other news organization does— covered the march live, but other local news shows buried it behind the apparent murder of a media executive in Central Park. On WNBC, for example, the march led the 5 p.m. show (perhaps because the station had a nifty helicopter feed), but by 6 it had dropped to third place. WABC also featured copter coverage at 5, but by 11 p.m. the march had disappeared from the news. (WCBS wouldn't make its lineup available.) All the channels that covered the rally emphasized its negative impact on rush-hour traffic.

Here was a variation on the old trope that labor actions disrupt the city, and a distraction from the march's agenda, which was to demand that city workers get a fair share of the budget surplus. When the subject of wages did come up, the big news was Mayor Giuliani's rejoinder that workers were welcome to a slice of the surplus if they would only agree to greater productivity. (The phrase "speed-up" is never used by the media to describe that demand.) If your impression of this event was gleaned exclusively from TV coverage, you probably came away thinking of it as another attempt by gluttonous workers to gobble up public revenues.

That's clearly what the Post wants its readers to believe. Relegating the march to the nether reaches of page six (just before the eponymous gossip roundup that usually runs on page eight), the tabloid left the task of demonizing labor to columnist and board member Bob McManus. In his Monday column, McManus patted the mayor's butt for telling off "the labor bosses who clogged Broadway," and for good measure, he called the march "an attempted mugging."

That was a perfect complement to the cartoon by Sean Delonas, the Post's monster from the id. On Friday, Delonas sketched the marchers in a manner even Brueghel might have found harsh. Hugely obese men in hard hats sported shirts and signs that read "FEATHER BEDDERS LOCAL 262" and "MORE MONEY, LESS WURK." A tattoo on an impossibly bulbous arm said "U.F.T." A hooker lounged in a T-shirt reading "UNION MADE AND PROUD OF IT." Here was a Zagat guide to vicious stereotypes about unions, harking back to attitudes that prevailed in the press a century ago. With one important difference: today's antilabor image is meant to make workers who don't have unions— which is to say, most workers— feel good about their lack of clout. They may be at the mercy of their bosses, but at least they know how to spell.

The more temperate tabs were not much kinder to the march. The News splashed its story across pages two and three, noting the rise of young labor leaders "eager to flex long-unused union muscle," in reporter Tom Robbins's words. But one photo showed the more familiar face of activism: a rogue demonstrator being cuffed by police. In fact, two people were charged with disorderly conduct, hardly remarkable for a demo of this size— and Robbins didn't deem it important enough to mention in his story. But that didn't stop his editors from signing on to the TV spin about disruptive unionism, reminding Newsreaders about last year's midtown riot by construction workers, an event mentioned high up in the Robbins piece.

Newsday touted its coverage with a page-two photo, but the story (which ran on page six) was a model of misplaced priorities. Reporters Pete Bowles and William Murphy skipped the labor speeches and reserved their top quote for Giuliani's allegation that this rally was merely an attempt to "set the groundwork for the next election for mayor." The Times was more generous, blessing the march with a curtain-raiser on Tuesday and prominent Metro Section play after it occurred. But there was no page-one teaser or editorial to back the coverage up. The unions may have found "their voice," as a Timesheadline proclaimed, but the press took pains not to amplify it too much.

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