By Catherine Conlan
Journalists have a love-hate relationship with national holidays. Those days off tend to mean that there isn’t much daily news because large institutions shut down, but on the other hand, they happen every year and are easy to plan around, and the holiday itself can serve as a news peg.
Labor Day provides a knotty challenge for many newspapers, though, because it comes at the end of summer, when already strapped newsrooms might have people off for vacation, and some newspapers aren’t always sure how to address what can seem like an issue-oriented holiday.
This year, however, there was plenty to report on. Despite low membership numbers, public approval for unions is at a five-year high, according to Gallup, which released a poll before Labor Day saying 64 percent of Americans approve of labor unions.
Leave it to the newspaper of Capital, though, to trot out the issue of a “split” in the union movement — and to provide a vague, lazy analysis of what that means for politics.
If you read the Wall Street Journal’s Labor Day article about union voters in 2020, you might be forgiven for making assumptions about how it was reported. With one quote from NEALC head Al Netland, comments from a made-to-order Steelworker who says he was raised a Democrat but voted for Trump in 2016, and a photo of an Iron Range union leader, at first glance it seems reporter Alex Leary really dug into what makes northeastern Minnesota politics tick.
But a closer look reveals a familiar vague high-level story with little value — or reporting.
Leary’s first-ever trip to Minnesota was timed perfectly, it seemed. During his visit, union members here in Duluth were doorknocking for endorsed candidates before the August 13 primary. What better way to learn about the challenges and opportunities at the intersection of politics and Labor than by following union members who were knocking on union members’ doors and talking politics?
Leary didn’t seem interested, though. When he got in touch with the NEALC, field organizer Katie Humphrey gave him feedback about the variety of opportunities he could have talking to politically minded union volunteers working nonpartisan races. When he arrived, though, it was clear he wanted only certain kinds of union members. He asked about the “union bars” where workers hang out after work, which seemed counterintuitive: If you’re writing about political union members, why talk to the ones who are sitting at the bar all evening? It’s almost as if that’s what you expect to find — or want to write about.
The article is framed as if union members in general are all up for grabs, but then narrows it down later on to the “president’s appeal to builders, electricians, plumbers, roofers and miners.” It also talked about “life-long Democrats” who switched to Trump in 2016. This certainly happened, and represents a challenge for Democrats in 2020. But it ignores the gains made in Minnesota in 2018 as well.
As an aside, I tried to get a hold of the Steelworker named in the article to talk further about his political background and interests. A quick look at the memes posted on the Facebook page in his name implies that the evolution from Democrat to Republican voter was not necessarily a recent one, nor a whim in 2016. I was unsuccessful in reaching him to talk further.
Leary also didn’t quote Keith Musolf, a member of Ironworkers Local 512 running for county commissioner who seemed to fit the profile of a tradesman in politics that Leary was looking for, and who was available at the time. Nor did Leary quote any of the Labor-endorsed city council candidates available, even though one of them, AFSCME member Theresa O’Halloran-Johnson, appears in a photo that ran with the story. (She’s not identified in the photo, though.)
Talking with a union members at the bar after work is certainly one way to find sources for an article. But if it’s your only way, who do you miss? You’re not going to get the union members picking up their kids after work and going home to fix supper, the union members who are volunteering in their communities, the ones who are more likely to vote, the ones who serve as a political backbone every election cycle. You’re not going to get the shift workers in health care or transportation, or many teachers. It’s lazy reporting that skews your view — or gives you the result you’re looking for when you’re in a state for the first time in your life and you’ve got 48 hours to put “a Labor Day story” together.
That disinterest in the wider realty undermines other points the article tries to make, as well. Reading further, we learn that “Wisconsin, which Mr. Trump won by about 23,000 votes, lost 176,000 union members from 2008-2016.” The article doesn’t go into why those numbers went down, though, because that would mean talking about the active union-busting of public sector unions, led by Republican Governor Scott Walker, combined with lower state spending that squelched business growth in the private sector. These things don’t happen in a vacuum, but of course the WSJ would like you to think so.
The WSJ is an institution for a reason, and it’s not like anything in the article is false. It is, however, a very specific perspective that doesn’t provide the whole picture, when the reporter had plenty of opportunity in his limited time here to get a wider view.
There is absolutely tension between Organized Labor and political parties — always has been, always will be. There is a definite need for ongoing dialog among party and union members, from rank-and-file to top leaders, at the local, state and national level. Unions are human institutions, subject to human whims in its infrastructure and among its members. So are political parties. No voting bloc is monolithic. Political parties are always worried about the marginal voters that can peel off on a whim or in resentment, and that can surprise us all.
The people who wrestle with these issues regularly deserve better than what the Wall Street Journal gave them. But with “Wall Street” right there in the name, none of us should be surprised at what we got.
Perspective matters when it comes to reporting on Labor
By Catherine Conlan