NEW YORK — How can the labor movement get its message to the general public in the face of a mainstream media that either ignores or paints a negative picture of it?
The conference “Labor Voices: Media for New Workers’ Movement’” held here April 27-28 aimed to answer that question.
“You had people from all over the country, from as far away as Oregon coming together in New York to strategize on how to get labor’s untold story told and to try to break through the silence of the commercial media,” said People’s Weekly World editoral board member Tim Wheeler, who spoke on a panel at the conference.
Rick Johnson of the polling firm Lake Research Partners described how the corporate and mainstream press confuses and misrepresents public opinion on the immigration debate.
Johnson described polls showing that most Americans believe that an undocumented worker who has been in the U.S. for awhile and has worked and abided by the law should be allowed to stay. However, many of the same people believe that becoming a legal resident is an easy process of paying a fee and filling out the correct paperwork.
Many speakers said grassroots labor-community alliances — one of the PWW’s main priorities in our reporting — are fundamental to building the labor movement.
“I believe that faith and religion and community are essential and vital in building a powerful labor movement,” said the Rev. Nelson Johnson, a minister at an African American church in North Carolina, who spoke about the struggle for union rights of the 5,000 workers at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C.
When he and others advocated solidarity with the Smithfield workers, the answer from the community was “that is a labor issue, not a community issue,” Johnson said. The challenge, he said, is to convince “the community to put its arms around these workers.”
The labor-community coalition, Johnson said, must work “to engage those forces that devalue people,” adding on the issue of immigration that the corporations “organize workers to fight each other, on the basis of some category that workers didn’t create and don’t have the power in a disorganized state to change — and yet are punished for it.” He decried those who demonize Mexican workers “who cross a desert to earn a few dollars to support their families” rather than focus on those who rake in profits from their low pay.
In a plenary session, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, professor of history at West Virginia University, described a time when the labor movement was able to tell its story in the media easily. The UAW, for example, had a daily radio show through 1964 and dozens of other shows in several languages. These shows gave an impetus to union organizing.
Wheeler delivered a paper on Daily Worker labor reporter Art Shields in a panel discussion titled “Sheroes and Heroes” of the labor media. Historian Sandy Polishuk spoke about her book, “Sticking With the Union: The Life and Times of Julia Ruuttila.” Historian Joe Atkins spoke about his forthcoming book on the magazine Southern Exposure. A spirited discussion followed on the need for labor to have its own independent, pro-worker media.