Labor journalists see themselves as a voice for workers

SEATTLE – The New York Times, a publication that does not like to be scooped, rushed a team of its ablest reporters to Madison, Wisconsin a week after tens of thousands of workers there had already risen up against a governor determined to kill their collective bargaining rights.

Once there, they apparently had a bit of trouble getting it right.

They hung around the occupied capitol for a while, waded through crowds of teachers, firefighters, nurses and students who were outside demonstrating, almost around the clock, and then decided their real story wasn’t there at all. They travelled 50 miles out of town to Janesville to find out what blue-collar workers really thought about the governor’s attack on public workers.

Armed with their recently-acquired knowledge of the local “cheesehead” customs, they entered a bar and found a now-jobless guy who said he had once worked at Janesville’s GM plant.

“We reporters for big newspaper. You ordinaryworker- right? You like that public service workers getting paid so much while you got no work? You angry that they make big demonstration in Madison?”

Although those were likely not their exact words when the Times reporters interviewed their laid off “union auto worker,” the Nation’s John Nichols was making a point at a national gathering of labor journalists here yesterday.

Nichols told a gathering of 100 labor journalists who write for union and independent newspapers that the corporate media either does not know how to cover labor stories or it is willfully trying to cover them up. The journalists and publications represented here, including the Peoples World, are part of the International Labor Communications Association, which brings together newspapers, magazines and journals put out by AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions and by independent organizations.

The interview with the Janesville auto worker ended up as a front-page story in the New York Times the following day bearing a headline that said blue collar workers in Wisconsin were “angry” about the demonstrations by public workers and their allies.

A week later still, there was a tiny correction box on the bottom of page 2 of the Times, saying the story was inaccurate and that there was no record of the guy they interviewed ever having worked at Janesville. The tiny correction was printed by the Times after a complaint by the United Auto Workers.

Nichols said the Times could have gotten the story right, had they stayed in Madison where 200 UAW members from Janesville  were in the Capitol, demonstrating in solidarity with the public service workers the day the Times reporters were there.

In any case, the uprising continued for weeks, with Democratic senators bravely setting up shop outside the state to prevent the Republican governor from passing his measure. Then, with no notice, he rammed through his bill without their presence and with no debate. The New York Times headline that day read something to the effect that the Wisconsin union battle was “over.”

A day after the Times declared the battle over, more than 100,000-marched on the capital. They were joined by a huge contingent of farmers who came in driving tractors to support them.

“Workers are ready to fight on the economic issues. They get it. They were out there ahead of their leaders and ahead of the corporate media. None of this is too radical for them,” said Barbara Kucera, editor of Workday Minnesota.

Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington state labor council said that some of the major media “are so cowed that they bend over backwards, in favor of our opponents, to prove they are ‘objective.'” He drew laughter when he said that even if a right wing politician came out with a statement declaring that the earth is flat, the headline we could expect is “Views differ on shape of planet.”

Dave Freiboth, executive secretary-treasurer of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council and a member of the Inland Boatmens’ Union, told the journalists that they need to take advantage of “one big weakness that the right wing has.”

“They have no alternative to the labor movement when it comes to guaranteeing jobs, wages and fairness. The people can understand this, provided we get out that message.”

Photo: Madison, Wisconsin, March 12. John Bachtell/PW 



John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. John Wojcik es editor en jefe de People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.