The labor movement took a beating last week, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the media to say so. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., rejected union representation by a more than two-to-one margin in a secret ballot vote.
NBC News reported that “the drive attracted global attention,” which is putting it mildly. The campaign “seized attention from the White House, members of Congress, entertainers and professional athletes,” according to AL.com.
What all these folks had in common — other than having to google Bessemer to find out where it was — was their support for unionization. And what “drove” and “seized” attention was that the national press had the same inclination. In a nation where 93.7 percent of salaried private sector workers don’t belong to a union, many journalists can’t even grasp the idea that maybe, just maybe, they don’t want one.
Louisiana education policy analyst Peter C. Cook catalogued the media cheerleading from the New York Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio and other outlets during the Amazon campaign.
“The point isn’t unions = bad, Amazon = good,” Cook wrote. “It’s that the journalists covering the organizing effort either told the story they wanted to tell, or the story they thought their audience wanted to hear – NOT the story that was actually happening on the ground.”
Don’t expect that to change. Even after the results were known, Politico saw the union’s defeat as renewed impetus to pass the PRO Act through the Senate. The bill would gut private sector right-to-work laws in 28 states.
We also heard from Steven Greenhouse, who covered unions for 19 years for the New York Times and now spends his days predicting a labor resurgence. “So, many labor experts are saying this is the most important unionization drive in the United States of America in 10, 20, 30 years,” he told the PBS Newshour last month, and predicted “it really could go either way.”
Despite being stunningly wrong on that account, Greenhouse was certain about the reasons for the defeat.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that the (union) lost considering that Amazon had 24/7 access to propagandize its 5,800 workers in Bessemer, while union organizers couldn’t even set foot in the company parking lot,” he wrote, adding, it was “especially hard against an aggressive anti-union company like Amazon.”
That sounds reasonable, if you have amnesia and have forgotten the last major organizing drive of the century, when workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee rejected the United Auto Workers union in 2014. Volkswagen supported the union drive and even allowed UAW organizers to lobby the employees on-site.
So, while the union proceeds with its Trumpian election challenges, and Greenhouse and friends move on to the next labor uprising mirage, the press continues to overlook one character in this saga who deserves a lot more attention, no matter on what side of the union divide you stand.
LaVonette Stokes was a ubiquitous presence whenever news outlets sought an anti-union voice among Amazon workers in Bessemer. She and her husband earned between $15 and $19 an hour at the warehouse. They claimed they spent $2,400 of their own money on flyers to persuade fellow workers to reject the union.
How did Ms. Stokes come to work for Amazon? She reportedly took the job after her hours were cut by her other employer, the Alabama Education Association.
I’m told unofficially that she is/was a part-time organizer for the state branch of the National Education Association, but I can’t find any documentation of her employment there online.
Nevertheless, when a union organizer contributes to an anti-union drive, that’s news.
Reporters are routinely skeptical of claims made by corporations, bankers, advertising agencies, police chiefs, defense attorneys, and hosts of other human beings they cover who have a vested interest in promoting a particular narrative. Why this skepticism is shelved time and again for labor unions is something only sociologists can explain.
Mike Antonucci is the director of the Education Intelligence Agency, an Elk Grove, Calif.-based research firm focused on the inner workings of the teachers’ unions. Education Week called Antonucci “the nation’s leading observer — and critic — of the two national teachers’ unions and their affiliates.”