Reframing the Public-Sector Worker Debate

In a March 10 op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker set the record straight on why he is fighting public unions, and in so doing he evoked a frame that could easily have appeared in any of the many “recession” stories that have proliferated in media over the past few years:

For example, my brother works as a banquet manager at a hotel and occasionally works as a bartender. My sister-in-law works at a department store. They have two beautiful kids. They are a typical middle-class Wisconsin family. At the start of this debate, David reminded me that he pays nearly $800 per month for his family’s health-insurance premium and a modest 401(k) contribution. He said most workers in Wisconsin would love a deal like the one we are proposing.

The example is compelling, and like the countless other similar accounts, it invites readers to ask “Why should ‘they’ have what I don’t have?”

Walker’s “frame” parallels much of the coverage of workers’ issues that, in an earlier post, I criticized for failing to address the complexities and the realities behind the eye-catching and heart-tugging “working class” frames like his.  For example, rather than simply accepting as unassailable inevitability the plight of Walker’s brother, why aren’t we asking why his health-care premiums are so high, or why the important work that he and his wife do to support their family is so undervalued at a time when corporate profits and worker productivity are at all-time highs?

Imagine the impact of a story that, after describing the plight of Walker’s sibling, actually examined the profit margin of the hotel and department store that employ the couple to let readers discern whether or not the couple is being asked to “sacrifice” because their employers are exploiting the recession to squeeze more out of employees.

This lack of information is equally troubling in the portrayal of public school teachers, which often consists of a comparison between the “perks” of the teacher, with those of the private sector. Missing from these stories is the harsh reality that based on the cost of earning and maintaining their credentials, public school teachers are one of the lowest paid groups, according to a CBS Money Watch study.

Moreover, many media too often repeat the easy opposition between taxpayers and public workers, as in a recent Christian Science Monitor piece that sports the headline, “Who Will Win the Battle Between Teachers and Taxpayers?” Too few note that public workers are taxpayers as well, and in many cities, such as Youngstown, these workers pay much of tax burden that keeps city services functioning.

In a smart analysis for, “Really Bad Reporting in Wisconsin: Who Contributes to Public Workers Pensions?” Pulitzer Prize Winning reporter David Cay Johnston explains that public pensions are actually deferred compensation, and he faults “pack” journalists for accepting as gospel the Scott Walker version, without seeking to understand how pension systems actually work.

Johnston’s thoughtful piece reveals the dangers of reporting that, in the rush to get the story out, fails to fully tell the entire story, to dig for the facts. Subscribing to an easy objectivity that equates “balance” with the transcription of spin from both sides of an issue, reporting on the assault on unions has failed to truly inform. I’m reminded here of the late great Molly Ivins, who famously observed that

The very notion that on any given story all you have to do is report what both sides say and you’ve done a fine job of objective journalism debilitates the press…The smug complacency of much of the press—I have heard many an editor say, “Well, we’re being attacked by both sides so we must be right”—stems from the curious notion that if you get a quote from someone on both sides, preferably in an official position, you’ve done the job. In the first place, most stories aren’t two-sided, they’re 17-sided at least. In the second place, it’s of no help to either the readers or the truth to quote one side saying, “Cat,” and the other side saying “Dog,” while the truth is there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes. Getting up off your duff and going to find out for yourself is still the most useful thing a reporter can do.

Ivins’s point was that, in an age of instant news gratification, reporters often are lulled into becoming merely stenographers, recording two sides of every argument, even when the facts clearly prove one side wrong. Too often reporters shy away from this duty because they have been conditioned to avoid what might appear as advocacy journalism at all costs, but in shying away from the duty of fully reporting and even disputing shaky facts cloaked in political hyperbole, we abdicate the all important “watchdog” function of the press.

And the perils of neutering the watchdog press, are today more dubious than ever. Last week, Sherry Linkon and John Russo argued that a coalition is needed to combat the multi-pronged assault on unions and public employees:

We need to build a movement that crosses boundaries – between public- and private-sector unions, the traditional working class of industrial, blue-collar workers and the new working class of retail and service workers, between the working class and the middle class, cities and suburbs, and among diverse types of organizations.

The need for this type of collaboration is clear, but the challenges of achieving it in the current media moment are enormous, and will require much more substantive and thoughtful reporting than has been dominating mainstream coverage to date.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies

The War on the Working Class

For the last month, the attacks by Republican governors and state legislators on public sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere have dominated national news.  The target is not just these unions but on the labor movement in general.  But state bills barring or restricting collective bargaining are just one battlefront in a growing war on the working class – a war that will have consequences for the middle class, as well.

Of course, this isn’t a new war.  Unions and the working class have been under assault since the 1970s, when companies closing plants in places like Youngstown explained their abandonment of American industrial communities as “economic necessity” because American workers were too expensive.  In the 80s, Ronald Reagan led one of the first governmental battles when he fired air traffic controllers in the PATCO strike.  During the 90s, labor regulations made organizing unions increasingly difficult, and employers began to rely more on contingent and part-time workers and to outsource even supposedly secure middle-class jobs. At the same time, deregulation and tax policies helped income inequality grow ever larger as programs to aid the poor were dismantled – by a Democratic president, no less.  Business practices encouraged lowering wages and reducing benefits – moves that many workers, including those in unions, accepted out of fear of losing their jobs altogether.  During the economic crisis of the last two years, hundreds of thousands of workers have lost jobs while corporations stockpile some of the largest cash reserves in history.  Think we’re exaggerating?  Billionaire Warren Buffet doesn’t think so.  He’s said that there is a class war going on in America and that his side is winning.

Despite Federal investigations that clearly lay the blame for the economic crisis at the foot of banks and the finance industry, the working class has become a scapegoat for the country’s economic and social problems.  Like commentators once said of Reagan, business and finance interests seem to be coated with Teflon.  Overwhelming evidence of their responsibility for the financial crisis slides right off.  Former Lehman Brothers exec John Kasich blames public workers, not the financial industry, for Ohio’s crisis, while in Wisconsin, the Koch Brothers are funding Scott Walker’s effort to blame workers for a budget shortfall that he just increased with yet another big tax cut.

Until recently, the attack was largely cultural as journalists, politicians, and commentators focused on exaggerated versions of working-class culture as the source of a variety of social ills.  During the 2008 election, we were told repeatedly that the working class was too racist to vote for Obama, and that claim of rampant racism was all too easy to reprise as the Tea Party started disrupting town hall meetings about health care.  Those ideas held even as Obama won the election and research showed that most Tea Party members were not working-class.  We hear it in the debate over education: if only poor and working-class parents spent more time reading to their kids, we would be more competitive against those well-educated Chinese.  And now it’s about the economy: if only those greedy public workers would stop insisting on getting affordable health insurance and reliable pensions, the rest of us could pay lower taxes and businesses would like us better – maybe they’d even bring jobs back to Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Indiana, or Michigan.

As states and the U.S. Congress are formulating budget bills, the attack is ramping up, and the ground is shifting.  It’s no longer enough to misrepresent or denigrate the working class.  In order to balance budgets that have been seriously skewed (or screwed) by huge tax cuts, mostly to the wealthy, our leaders say we need to cut services.  States are cutting back on health care programs for the poor, slashing funding for education (Walker’s budget for Wisconsin cuts $834 million from K-12 schools), and raising user fees on things like car registration and college tuition – regressive funding strategies that take a much larger bite out of the household budget of poorer families than of wealthier ones.  The budget bill passed by House Republicans cut funding for health care for poor women and reduced funding of Pell Grants, and Obama joined the fight by cutting heating assistance to the poor.

With these moves, the war has shifted from rhetoric to daily reality.  The result will be ugly.  Cuts in education at all levels will reduce both the quality and accessibility of education.   Cuts in health care will increase incidents of medical problems and could increase the birthrate among lower-income women who would no longer have easy access to the most reliable forms of birth control.  The attacks on public unions will lead to an immediate decline in household income for thousands of families and, in the longer term, less secure retirements.  Increasingly, older people will struggle to get by on reduced pensions.  The result will be increasing demand for state services such as Medicaid, food stamps, and other programs, as well as increases in homelessness.

Meanwhile, the working class and the middle class are losing their voice in the democratic process.  That’s true in the workplace, where both unionized and non-union workers have fewer opportunities to help shape working conditions and both feel increasingly vulnerable to being fired on a boss’s whim.  And it’s true in electoral politics, where the primary national organized voice for the poor, working-class, and middle-class, the labor movement, will lose political influence as unions lose the ability to protect workers’ rights.

No one knows yet exactly how the majority of Americans, who support collective bargaining for public sector workers and who view governors like Walker and Kasich negatively, will respond when these bills finally pass and take effect, or when state and federal budgets undermine opportunity for those who already have fewer resources and options.  Will Americans stand together to protest, as so many have done in Madison and Columbus, and if so, will those protests be any more effective in changing policy than what we’ve been seeing?  What will it take to get us to stand up for social and economic justice, not only for teachers and firefighters but for everyone in the working class and the middle class?  To move us to demand the reinstatement of the American dream? How much will we take before we engage fully in the class war?  The time is now.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies