National news

For better or worse? Press coverage of low-wage workers’ movement

Barbara Collins, OUR Walmart activist.  Photo credit UFCW 2013.

Barbara Collins, OUR Walmart activist. Photo credit UFCW 2013.

Thousands of non-union fast food workers across the U.S. have taken to the streets demanding higher pay. They followed union-free Walmart workers standing up and fighting back for better jobs. News media reporting on this fledgling labor movement is instructive.

Just ask Barbara Collins, 37, of Placerville, a mother of two hired at Walmart in 2005. “Reporters were stand-offish at first over our claims such as company intimidation for speaking out on our employer’s work practices.”

“News coverage of the fast food workers’ struggles reminds me of when the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (the United Food and Commercial Workers-backed campaign of Walmart’s non-union employees) began in June 2011, when I joined,” she said.

OUR Walmart has members across 46 states in 700 stores of the company’s 4,156 total now, according to Emmelle Israel of the AFL-CIO union federation. The retail giant fired Collins and other Walmart workers for going out on an Unfair Labor Practice strike last June.

Later, Uncle Sam responded to OUR Walmart’s complaints. On November 18, the General Counsel of the National Labor Relation Board released a statement that Walmart broke the law in threatening and retaliating against workers such as Collins, who “engaged in legally protected strikes and protests.”

An NLRB source expects the next step of issuing a complaint “soon” if the sides can’t reach a settlement. In that event, the NLRB would issue a complaint for an administrative law judge to hear the case.

“Our campaign has gained more credibility with the press,” Collins said. As scores of Walmart’s former and current workers and supporters protested on Black Friday, start of the holiday shopping season, fast food workers geared up for labor actions in the SF Bay Area and around the nation. Their rallying cry has been for higher wages of $15.00 an hour and a union, a campaign begun in New York last year.

Gordon Mar, 50, is the executive director of the San Francisco chapter of Jobs with Justice, a national organization. According to Mar, dissident fast food workers at McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Wendy’s are building off the momentum of the OUR Walmart campaign successfully. That tie in has other effects.

“Mainstream media coverage of the OUR Walmart and fast food worker movements has also helped to spark a broader public conversation about low-wage workers and income inequality,” Mar said.

Hours after fast food workers walked off their jobs in scores of American cities on December 5, President Obama spoke about income inequality. He noted that an adult who works 40 hours per week for the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour earns a yearly income below the federal poverty line for families of two or more people.

“The real minimum wage (adjusted for inflation) is lower today than it was in 1956 during Eisenhower’s first administration,” writes John Bellamy Foster in the January Monthly Review.

The minimum wage, federal and state, sets the pay floor of fast food and retail workers who lack collective bargaining agreements with employers. Further, a declining minimum wage erodes the collective bargaining strength of labor union members. The Pacific Media Workers Guild, Communication Workers of America’s Local 39521 is not immune from this trend.

Tepid new hiring is trending nationwide. That creates conditions for private employers such as the profitable Boeing Company in Washington state to demand and obtain cuts to workers’ pay, health-care insurance and retirement pensions. The math of this so-called “race to the bottom” is straightforward. With a surplus of job seekers relative to employment openings, employers can and do offer wages that drop down to versus away from the minimum wage to current and future workers. By contrast, a rise in the minimum wage is a counterforce to employers taking advantage of employees in and out of labor unions.

We turn to Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor and director of Labor Education Research, New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. “Mainstream reporters came late to one of 2013’s most significant stories—the uprising of low-wage service and retail workers across the U.S.—initiating coverage more than nine months after it began,” she said. “At first, corporate decision makers in mainstream media appeared to have ordered a blackout of the story for fear that coverage would just cause the strikes to spread.”

“By August of 2013 they realized the story had gotten out anyway through independent journalists writing for publications such as In These Times, The Nation, and Salon,” Bronfenbrenner said. “Most of all the mainstream press had to begin to cover the low-wage worker struggle because the fight had become too widespread to ignore.”

One thing is clear. Corporate media outlets are legally bound to earn profits for shareholders, and not to cover the protests of dissident fast food and Walmart workers.

Corporate-free reporters plus scores of low-wage workers in fast food and retail sectors forced the mainstream press to expand its coverage of a major labor story of 2013. Society’s top dogs in the corporate suites, as Frederick Douglass noted 150 years ago, concede zero without demands from underdogs in the streets.

According to the UFCW, there were 1,000 Black Friday protests on November 23, 2012 versus 1,500 protests on Black Friday, November 29, 2013.

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Kat Anderson

Kat Anderson

Pacific Media Workers Guild Administrative Officer/Business Agent, founder of Bay News Rising mentorship program for college journalism students and editor of mediaworkers.org.

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