The strike is over and the media reaction to it can be summed in a phrase: Minority workers are evil doers. When Transit Workers Union 100—a majority Caribbean-Latino-Asian-African American local—walked off the job, the media immediately fused images of criminals and terrorists with the pictures of picketing workers.
It began with Mayor Bloomberg’s Tuesday speech, in which he said the TWU had “thuggishly turned their backs on New York City.” TWU President Roger Toussaint and Rev. Al Sharpton quickly criticized him for it. More blatant racism appeared on the TWU website as reported in the New York Times and here on Power Plays, the mostly black union members were called “monkeys” and Toussaint was dubbed Osama Bin Laden’s sweetheart. Wednesday’s cover of the New York Post featured a photo of strikers playing chess under the word “Rats!” The next day “Jail ‘Em” was stamped over a photo of Toussaint behind bars. Andrea Peyser wrote of the TWU, “The terrorists made it their mission to kill the economy. This brand of homegrown enemy pretends to have the city’s interest at heart while it takes aim at the most vulnerable workers.”
In a city where people walked bridges to get home after 9/11, use of the terms “hostage” and “terrorists” re-directs lingering fear and rage from that day toward workers. But that’s nothing new: Equating organized workers with terrorists is a tradition of the Right. In 2004, Education Secretary Rod Paige called the largest teachers union the National Education Association, “a terrorist organization.” In 2002, in a standoff between the West Coast Longshoreman’s Union and their employers, then director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge called union head Jim Spinosa to warn him a strike threatened national security—security implicitly defined by the profit margin of the corporate class.
During the TWU strike this class division was exposed and interlaid with racial differences. In the case of the TWU, a majority non-white union, the difference between legal citizenship and cultural citizenship was implicitly invoked by the media when it equated the strikers with foreign Al Queda terrorists.
In a moment of crisis, people reach out for certainty. And in the crisis of the strike, the media provided images of workers as spoiled children and criminals and terrorists. This could have consequences now that the union is back at work. TWU members—who were already afraid of abuse from customers—now fear retaliation not so much for walking out, but for the way that act was cast by the mayor and the media.