Celebrity-Driven Media Come to the Labor Beat

The NY Times Misses the Story

The Jan. 30 Sunday New York Times Magazine gave Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the front page treatment. The result was sadly disappointing. There was some good stuff in there, but it was ultimately a pretty shallow exercise in cliches about the labor movement. Given that Stern has laid out far-reaching and controversial proposals for remaking the AFL-CIO to respond to the massive changes in the global economy, the piece was too much about one individual with way too little about the substance of the looming debate within the labor movement.

'Union Boss' Cliche

Let's start with a small touch that's ultimately telling about the perspective of the piece. The author repeatedly referred to "union bosses," the old cliche that tries to compare union leaders to corporate executives. Except a top union leader can't fire members or force them to go on strike or approve a contract. It's ultimately a phrase that is used by corporations and lazy reporters to ignore the crucial difference in the role of workers in unions versus corporations: Workers get a vote in a union.

Yet nowhere in the piece was any internal life of unions acknowledged. In fact, in a massive piece, other top leaders of other national unions were mentioned but only one other union official in all of SEIU is mentioned, namely secretary-treasurer Anna Burger, who is described just as Andy Stern's "political aide," ignoring her position as a separately elected top official of the union with a quite independent biography.

Nowhere mentioned are key local SEIU leaders like Dennis Rivera, head of New York's 200,000-member SEIU 1199, which is notoriously outside of the national office's control; or Sal Roselli, leader of California's statewide nursing local.

When I lived out in California, no one in the local labor movement even knew who Andy Stern was, but everyone knew Sal as a key force in unionism in California. And it's people like Sal and Dennis who ultimately determine whether Andy Stern keeps his job, not vice versa. And it's their members who determine if Sal or Dennis keep their jobs -- a fact Dennis Rivera knows well, since he got his job by leading an insurgency against a previous incumbent union leader.

The Debate Inside Labor

Then there's this silly line at the beginning of the piece:

Over the years, union bosses have grown comfortable blaming everyone else -- timid politicians, corrupt CEOs, greedy shareholders -- for their inexorable decline. But last year, Andy Stern did something heretical: He started pointing the finger back at his fellow union leaders.

What a crock. Navel-gazing and blaming various union leaders for failures of the union movement is a daily parlor game among union activists. John Sweeney, who became the head of AFL-CIO in 1995, centered on exactly such criticisms of business-as-usual in the union leadership.

And serious changes were made. New resources were devoted to organizing, AFL-CIO foreign relations were completely remade and a host of other changes were implemented.

What Andy Stern is arguing for is not the failure of individual labor leaders but the need for far deeper systematic reorganization of the union movement. His ideas of encouraging mergers between more unions, mounting a multi-million dollar campaign against Wal-Mart and channeling far more money into organizing are about what to do, not who should do it.

And he's just continuing an argument that's decades old, which is why other unions have readily contributed their own proposals for change, agreeing with some of SEIU's points while emphasizing alternative approaches. Instead of emphasizing the substance of differences in the debate over where the labor movement needs to go, the magazine piece lazily set up Tom Buffenbarger, leader of the Machinists union, as a stereotypical "old union" resister to change. Buffenbarger's proposal for expanded labor media was mentioned, but that was about it. 

Shallow Public Knowledge About Unions

The personality-driven stories about Andy Stern are to be expected from a media that prefers celebrity politics to policy discussion. While the piece touched on a few important organizing campaigns -- the Beverly health care organizing drive in Arkansas, organizing New Jersey janitors -- it never really went into detail to connect them to the proposed SEIU reform proposals for remolding the labor movement.

The basic lack of knowledge about core union issues by journalists, even liberal ones, reflects a broader public ignorance about these issues. Even most progressive activists, who may instinctually know that unions are important, often don't know the most basic facts they need to engage in these debates -- a lack of knowledge far fewer have in debates over issues like affirmative action or abortion or gay marriage.

That needs to change and it would help if the media could do a better job. I'm glad to see the Times devoting serious coverage to the labor movement for once, but maybe next time they can give it the depth they give to big corporations every day on the business pages.

 Nathan Newman is a longtime union and community activist and author of Net Loss (Penn State Press) on inequality in the Internet economy. Email or see

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