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We need labor journalism now more than ever

In a moment of historic inequality in the American economy, working people deserve our attention

February 26, 2016 2:00AM ET

There was a time when virtually every major newspaper in the United States had a labor reporter. But as newspaper budgets tightened and papers competed for advertising dollars, news affecting working people took a back seat to more lucrative opportunities.

Today, if you read through the Sunday New York Times, you will first be pummeled with advertisements for luxury goods. You will then encounter substantial sections on finance and real estate, with stories on corporate mergers and Manhattan lifestyle tips. When Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse took a buyout in 2014, The Wall Street Journal, ironically enough, was the only national print daily left with a reporter on the U.S. labor beat. While digital outlets have begun to fill the gap, far too many are oriented towards the business community. 

And yet labor is more newsworthy than ever. In a moment of historic inequality in the American economy, efforts to revive a movement of working people deserve our urgent attention. 

I’ve had the honor of writing a twice-monthly column for Al Jazeera America for a year and a half. In that time, I’ve written about how the so-called “education reform” movement scapegoats public school teachers, and about the fraudulent management that runs rampant in too many charter schools. I’ve written about multinational corporations that avoid paying their fair share in taxes. I’ve written about subsidy programs that hand out millions in public dollars to businesses for jobs that never materialize. I’ve written about the need for a Democratic Party with a positive vision that represents more than just Republicans-lite.

As someone who previously worked in the labor movement — first as an organizer with the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and later as head of the AFL-CIO’s South Bay Labor Council (Silicon Valley) — I saw firsthand the difference it made to have journalists who were willing to write not merely from a business perspective, such as the one you might find in the Economist or Forbes. It gave a chance for working people to voice the issues themselves and explain what was at stake for their families, in a way that never quite seemed to otherwise make the story on the business page.

But most of all, I’ve tried to write about efforts to restore the American middle class — to cover initiatives being undertaken by movements of working people to win just wages, dignified employment and decent benefits for themselves and their families.

There are three reasons in particular why strong labor coverage is important — and why it is important to me.

Without the concerted efforts of working people to organize and bargain in their collective self-interest, the economy won’t provide a dignified living.

First, those working to improve social justice know that framing the narrative is critical in allowing movements to be successful. Whoever sets the terms of the conversation gets to define what the acceptable solutions to a problem might be. It follows that the business community would argue that its preferred policies — low taxes, less regulation, lower wages — lead to economic success. But what we see again and again is that traditional measures of economic growth do not translate into well-being for the majority of people in this country. Without the concerted efforts of working people to organize and bargain in their collective self-interest, the economy won’t provide a dignified living.

The second reason I’ve covered labor issues is that doing so provides an opportunity to highlight the successes of grass-roots movements across the country. While a massive infrastructure of business news and management journals exists to highlight innovation in the corporate world, rarely do we hear about how working people are able to make progress, particularly at the state and local levels. As a result, many Americans are under-informed about how they can take concrete steps to rebuild the middle class. Sharing the stories of local grass-roots success is an important part of reversing this trend.

Third, good labor coverage allows us to see the faces behind dry economic statistics — to see whose communities are being affected by changes in our economy and how. Al Jazeera America gave an outlet to such coverage; it helped to fill a critical gap in American journalism, putting significant resources behind stories that rarely found audiences elsewhere. The site showed the world that readers were engaged in this conversation, and indeed, wanted more.

The economic situation looks bleak to many of us working in 2016. In fact, in 1929, the level of inequality in this country looked a lot like it does today: a huge boom for some, frightening debt for many and an uncertain future for most. But Americans organized. They formed unions to win fair conditions in their workplaces. By taking such measures as public demonstrations, active political participation in city and state government, and mass sit-down strikes to shut down workplaces, they won laws establishing collective bargaining, minimum wage and Social Security. Those institutions law underpinned the broadly egalitarian growth of the next 40 years.

As political organizations, labor unions were the institutional bulkhead providing the lobbying muscle and electoral legwork behind Medicaid, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration.

They were able to do so, in part, because of a journalistic culture that considered the demands of working people reasonable and worth listening to — as a legitimate part of the public conversation. As part of the broader mobilization of civil society, journalism helped ensure that these demands would not be dismissed as naïve or merely self-interested. By setting the terms of the conversation, the media set the terms of the possible.

Today the economy is changed. While manufacturing hasn’t disappeared, it is the service sector today that is creating the most jobs. The bulk of today’s workers are home health aides and food service workers. They are retail salespeople and nursing assistants. They are warehouse movers and data-entry clerks.

While these jobs are providing much-needed services, the truth is that most of them are not good jobs in the old sense. They often pay low wages and have few benefits. Opportunities for promotion are limited, and the positions themselves aren’t secure.

What determines whether these jobs will be able to support middle-class families with the same aspirations as generations past is not an iron law of economics. Rather, it is a question of bargaining power. It is a question of whether people are willing to stand up and negotiate for a different future — and whether our society continues to afford them the legal right to do so.

This is why labor coverage is essential. Whether it’s low wage workers joining in the Fight for $15, or adjunct professors trying to secure a decent contract, or service employees dealing with subcontracting in Silicon Valley, today’s employees are struggling to make sure our new economy is one that sustains more than just the fortunate few at the top. Whether they register with the public, however, is determined largely by the media.

Collectively, these struggles will determine whether or not new jobs will be good jobs. Although they are often not stories we see in the news, they tell us what the future is going to look like for a majority of Americans, and whether or not this is going to be a just future. It is up to us to demand that news outlets cover these stories. And it is up to us, through engagement at work and at the polls, to help create movements that cannot be ignored.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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