Which Side Are They On?

In fact, only the Newssaw fit to comment on the march, saving its praise for the mayor, who has "stopped the economic binging to which labor unions had become accustomed." The Newseditorial's main thrust was to oppose cancelation of the commuter tax, a subject that preoccupied the Timesas well. But how will tax breaks for 'burbanites affect city workers, and what do the unions intend to do about it? We may never know, since no reporter pursued the labor angle of this story. "It's really surprising," says Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, "because we've been working with the mayor's office to forestall it." Only one reporter (from the News) has bothered to call her for comment.

Weingarten, an organizer of the march, had watched teachers cross the Brooklyn Bridge for more than an hour after she reached the Manhattan side. She wasn't exactly shocked by the press's failure to capture the size or spirit of the event. But she notes that this disparaging slant has a significant effect on how the public perceives municipal unions. "In some ways, it undermines our message," Weingarten says.

Even more belittling is the press's unwillingness to include unions among the institutions it regards as players in the city's affairs. This reinforces the idea that organized labor is just another pressure group with no agenda that relates to the (rapidly shrinking) commonweal. Instead of seeming to care, unionism remains freighted with an aura of corruption and coercion that is hammered home every time the press reports the bejesus out of a labor scandal while ignoring signs of a labor revival.

It's not so different from the way the media heap attention on figures like Khallid Muhammad, the racial equivalent of a union thug. This image is tailor-made for inhibiting the coalition building that might revive the city's left. When something happens that threatens to dispel the polarizing negativity, press reaction ranges from no-big-whoop to outright contempt.

It might be different if the city's culturati had a greater sense of solidarity with the working class. But the belief that labor activism is passé allows celebrities to flaunt their indifference. Consider the account in last Sunday's Times of the Cipriani catering empire and its woes. This company is perhaps the most notorious symbol of anti-unionism in the city's current boom. The Ciprianis refuse to hire union labor at their catering halls, and as a result, a permanent picket line greets patrons at the family's newly acquired Rainbow Room. The Times was fairly catty about this conflict, as the paper of record can get about entrepreneurs who act egregiously toward unions (except for its own).

But the most fascinating thing in this story was the list of famous folks who have done business with the union-busting clan, among them Peter Jennings and Sean "Puffy" Combs. The greatest surprise was the event that the Times chose as its peg: a gala for the writers' group PEN catered by the Ciprianis. PEN may protest injustice around the world, but the outrage apparently doesn't apply to working people in New York.

Yet, as churlish as Timesreporter Charles V. Bagli got, he didn't ask these literary lions why they were willing to cross a picket line in order to get their dinner. That wouldn't have been cricket— a game that, at least in journalism, requires tempering one's stroke so the ball doesn't hit any Good People in the eye.

Back in the bad old days, the labor movement reacted to a hostile press by starting its own newspapers, including the Sentinel and the New York Sun (whose motto was "It Shines for All"). As recently as the postwar era, there was a union perspective in the local media, thanks to a tabloid called P.M. No more— and the quality of progressive politics has suffered as a result. Maybe it's time to rectify the "objective" reporting that describes a labor rally in terms of its impact on traffic. If the wealthy can build forts, perhaps the workers can make a paper.

Research: Steph Watts

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