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 News readers 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 Times headline proclaimed, but the press took pains not to amplify it too much.

In fact, only the News saw 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 News editorial’s main thrust was to oppose cancelation of the commuter tax, a subject that preoccupied the Times as 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 Times reporter 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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