Why the Media Started Caring About the American Worker Again

Labor reporters might be among the first to go as news outlets continue downsizing, but coverage now is a lot more thorough than before the recession.

POOL New/Reuters

Not long ago, I was alarmed about the sharp decline in media coverage of labor. For a few years, one news organization after another—The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, NPR—was dropping its position of labor reporter.

And then last month, when I took the buyout from The New York Times after covering labor for 19 years, my move spurred a new wave of anxiety—and tweets—about the future of labor reporting.

Some people scolded me, saying I was selling out by taking the buyout. One friend, a professor, pressed me to change my mind, telling me that my departure would hurt the cause of workers. I responded by saying that I’m 63, and after 31 years of working at a fairly frenetic pace, it was time to slow down. Besides, shouldn’t a newspaper reporter, like any other worker, be able to retire?  (Although in truth, I’m not retiring: I’m writing a book about America’s workers, and I intend to do some freelancing on labor issues.)

When I arrived at The New York Times in 1983, it had three reporters writing regularly about labor, and the great A.H. Raskin—who had been the nation’s leading labor reporter in the 1950s—still contributed occasionally. I remember seeing a copy of The New York Times from the late 1940s that had eight labor-related stories on the front page. In 1950, there were 424 work stoppages in the U.S. involving 1,000 or more workers; in 2013, there were just 15.

On one hand, it’s understandable that there is less labor coverage: The number of strikes and the percentage of workers in unions have declined sharply since organized labor’s heyday a half century ago. But let’s not forget the U.S. does have more than 140 million workers, and there are any number of stories to write about them. That’s why I was so dismayed to see so many news organizations cutting back labor coverage.

I’m still worried about the state and fate of labor coverage—it's mostly absent on television news, and, as media organizations continue downsizing, it may be one of the first things to go. Nonetheless, I am considerably less concerned than I was eight or so years ago. Then, corporate profits and the stock market were soaring to new highs year after year—sounds a lot like today—while America’s workers were being squeezed in countless ways. Wages were stagnating, pension and health coverage were growing worse, factory jobs were evaporating, many immigrant workers faced terrible exploitation, and there was a surge in off-the-clock work.

At that time, the news media were paying far too little attention to these issues, especially to how American corporations were raking in record profits while the typical worker was taking it on the chin. That’s the main reason I wrote my book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker—to shed light on this disconcerting disconnect.

But ever since the Great Recession began in late 2007—thank you, Wall Street—the news media have devoted far more attention to workers. More and more reporters and editors concluded it was important to cover what was happening to workers—how they were being thrown out of their jobs, foreclosed upon, forced into part-time work, strong-armed into accepting wage freezes, relegated to long-term unemployment. The media’s interest in issues like these has remained high long after the recession ended, partly because the downturn opened the eyes of many reporters and editors to the plight of the American worker—and their eyes remain open. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that editors see that these stories often attract a lot of readers.)

Beyond that, three recent movements have helped ensure more coverage of worker issues. Occupy Wall Street pushed the issue of income inequality into the national conversation, and although the Occupy movement has fizzled out, there continues to be a steady stream of stories, far more than five and 10 years ago, about income inequality—just think of the many articles about the astronomic ratio of CEO pay to that of regular workers.

More recently, the Fight for 15 movement has pushed the issue of low-wage work onto center stage, spurring a lot of coverage on what it’s like to live on $8 an hour flipping burgers. The Fight for 15 has given considerable momentum to various battles for a higher minimum wage—whether in conservative states such as Nebraska or Arkansas, or in liberal cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. Those battles have in turn generated a lot of coverage.

The other movement that has spurred more coverage of labor is the Republican Party’s offensive against public-sector unions. That of course began with the “Battle of Madison” in 2011, when Scott Walker moved to cripple collective bargaining for most government employees in Wisconsin. That erupted into a volcanic national story. Weeks later, John Kasich and Ohio’s Republican-dominated legislature enacted similar anti-union legislation (although a state-wide referendum later repealed Ohio’s law).

Inspired by those moves, Michigan’s and Indiana’s legislatures enacted right-to-work laws, which weaken unions and their finances. Moreover, pushed by budget deficits and conservative think tanks, many Republican lawmakers, joined by some Democrats, have declared war on the often generous pensions of government employees. Battles over public-sector pensions have erupted in California, Detroit, New York, and elsewhere.

As a result of these movements, there’s a lot more coverage of labor than just a few years ago. For a while The Washington Post had no labor reporter, but now Lydia DePillis is doing an impressive job covering labor over there. The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, and The Boston Globe have increased their coverage, whether about mine safety, the fast-food movement or the unionization of adjunct professors. The New York Times has Rachel Swarns and Tom Edsall writing regular columns about workers, while Harold Meyerson (The Post), Juan Gonzalez (New York Daily News) and Michael Hiltzik (L.A. Times) continually columnize on labor matters. Politico, Bloomberg, and The Huffington Post, too, have beefed up their coverage, and BuzzFeed is hiring a labor reporter.

It is also gratifying to see economic beat reporters increasingly writing about workers. I think of Jim Tankersley at The Washington Post (who did an impressive series on the decline of America’s middle class) and Claire Cain Miller, Neil Irwin, Patricia Cohen, and others at The Times.

Despite all this, many labor stories remain badly undercovered. To name just a few: how the increasing use of volatile, ever-changing work schedules creates havoc in employees’ lives; the crazy, exhausting, and often dangerous hours that the nation’s truck drivers work; the ongoing 10-week strike by 1,900 FairPoint telephone workers in New England who are resisting an estimated $700 million concessions demanded.

As always, there's a lot of work to do, and lots of worker stories to cover.