Labor's Public Image | Sojourners

Labor's Public Image

"As for me, I'm sticking with the union." So goes an old labor fight song. But those were different times. These days, more and more workers in all sorts of circumstances are finding it hard to remember why anyone would have ever felt so passionately about a union affiliation.

It's not news that the membership and power of organized labor is dwindling. But perhaps worse for the long run is the decline of the labor movement's public image as a vehicle for advancing the interests and aspirations of ordinary Americans.

Labor's power is dwindling because a changing economy, along with Reaganaut appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, have left the cards stacked against workers. But that context doesn't get through to the large majority of Americans who aren't union members. The mass media generally only cover grassroots labor issues when there is a strike. And these days, strikes are rarely a winning proposition. So, in addition to all its other image problems, the labor movement is increasingly tagged with the ultimate American insult -- "loser."

Unless you stay up for David Letterman's Late Night television show, you might not know much about the four-month NABET (National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians) strike against NBC. It's not something Tom Brokaw, who daily crossed the NABET picket line, chose to talk about much. Nor did the CBS and ABC news programs, perhaps under the chivalrous guise of not delighting in a rival's misfortune.

But it was an important story, not just for the thousands of workers affected (they were striking for job security), but for democracy. The slash-and-burn stance against NABET (despite the network's number-one ratings and profit status) represented the first major intrusion into NBC's day-to-day affairs by its new owner, General Electric.

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