Dine Talks about Labor and the Press

Article excerpt

As regular readers of SJR know, we have often referred to the woefully inadequate coverage given to the American labor movement by the news media in this country. Even though the media are often blasted for being liberal, the backbone of leftist ideas and programs in America--labor unions--rarely receive in-depth coverage. What little news the thousands of men and women who belong to labor unions do get from the mainstream press is invariably negative.

Philip Dine is the exception who proves the rule. For almost two decades, he has given readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch insights and information about labor unions. For 10 years, he wrote a regular column on unions for the Post. He is known both nationally and internationally as one of the leading labor journalists in the country.

Last week, Dine, who currently works out of the Post's Washington, D.C., bureau, agreed to discuss the news media's coverage of labor and labor unions with SJR via e-mail.

SJR: Do you agree that the labor movement in this country gets very little in-depth coverage? And when it does get coverage, isn't it always negative?

Dine: There's a lot to that. Labor does get relatively little media attention given its size and importance, and the stories that are done often result from sensational events such as strikes or picket-line violence or corruption. What gets overlooked is the essence of what unions do--the day-to-day representation of workers in various aspects of life on the job; the wrestling with management or public officials over safety conditions; the renewed efforts to organize workers or make inroads in unorganized sectors; the fight to keep good manufacturing jobs in America; the difficult task of protecting health care benefits as costs skyrocket and more Americans are uninsured; the drive to improve the lot of workers around the world so they don't pose unfair competition by working for slave wages.

The point isn't that unions necessarily do these things well or are right in the positions they take. Rather, that--good, bad or indifferent--this is the bulk of what unions do and it shouldn't be ignored in writing about them. The marginal way labor is often covered would be tantamount to covering education by focusing on school shootings or teacher arrests, which nobody would think of doing.

Unions are part of the nation's political, economic and social fabric, and what they do bears for better or worse on major issues that affect everyone, such as workplace productivity, economic competitiveness and trade. It's also a field that's full of human interest stories with broad appeal, because nearly everyone works or has worked.

Unfortunately, not only is labor covered infrequently and then often on side issues, but even the language used is pejorative. For example, we hear about management offering a contract, or the union demanding a raise. That could just as easily be rephrased as the union offering to work for certain conditions, but management demanding that they accept something else. Or, we hear about business executives but labor bosses, even though union officials are generally the only elected people in the workplace, and they're not the ones with the power to fire or demote.

By the way, your words about labor "in this country" are also pertinent. …