Toward a New Front of Labor Struggle: Media Rights and Access for a 21st Century Labor Movement

Originally published at Organizing Upgrade. Written by Bryan Mercer and Betty Yu.

Labor and Independent Media Rise Up

Remember the Winter of 2011? On Valentine's Day, Republican Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker introduced the "Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill", legislation that would put a $3.6 billion budget deficit on the backs of the state's 300,000 workers. What followed was the largest mass showing of public sector employees in recent history. Hundreds of thousands of workers, family members and neighbors encircled and occupied the capitol to show in support of collective bargaining rights in the first state of the union to make them law for public employees.

As news of the sit-in spread, many national TV networks and newspapers picked up the story and told an all-too-familiar tale, exemplified by pundits such as MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who did not hesitate to use the movement to attack workers as "greedy":

"You're going to shut down schools because you have a union that is so greedy that they want their people to be held to different standard than working class Americans who sometimes pay 15 percent of their salaries to benefits? […] hey, we are not going to let you get a free ride on benefits."

This divide-and-conquer story pitting public workers against taxpayers amounts to a race-to-the-bottom for all workers, and it is not limited to Wisconsin. On the news we're told to blame undocumented immigrants for a jobs crisis affecting all people. Workers that organize for their rights are depicted as unreasonable and undeserving, and this media perpetuates a culture of fear, telling people that fighting back is a quick way to get fired in a tight job market.

But in Wisconsin, the corporate media weren't the only ones covering the uprising. Across independent press outlets like Democracy Now!, Labor Notes, Monthly Review, local radio station WORT 89.9FM, and on social media and other news platforms, we heard a different story. Through these outlets people communicated their support for the teachers and state employees of Wisconsin and their struggle to uphold their right to work with dignity. Over Twitter and Facebook the phone number of a pizza shop near the Madison capitol building went viral and people across the country called in orders of pizza for occupiers and demonstrators.

State of the U.S. Labor Movement

Our labor movement needs to galvanize more uprisings like the one in Wisconsin. It inspired people all over the country and made us believe in the power of "organized labor" again. However, the labor movement is in a weak position after decades of union busting, right to work legislation, and breaks from community-based people's movements. Right now, union membership is at an all time low. We have been witnessing a decline in union membership for the past several decades. In fact in 2012, it fell down to an all time low of 11.3 percent among the entire workforce and 6.6 percent among the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To compare, in the early 1950s, a third of workers in the U.S. were unionized, while 4 of every 10 workers were unionized in the private sector. Regions like the South where employers and law-makers have been traditionally hostile to labor organizing, have been the hardest hit by anti-union sentiment.

Over 20 states have passed right-to-work legislation. In December, Michigan became the 24th state with right-to-work legislation after it was fast-tracked into law by the Republican Governor Rick Snyder. These laws basically outlaw contracts between companies and unions that require all workers in a workplace to pay the union dues to gain collective bargaining rights. Capital is fighting hard to roll back the collective bargaining rights of most public-sector workers across the country. This in effect greatly weakens organized labor and pits union and non-union workers against each other, amounting to our movements being weaker on every front.

But there are also new and exciting opportunities in the labor movement. In the last decade dozens of immigrant rights groups have taken on workplace organizing and workers centers have been sprouting up all over the country. In a recent Huffington Post article Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO's Chief said unions need to look at non-traditional models, given the hurdles to winning union elections and contracts in the modern workplace. He pointed to organizations like the Taxi Workers Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance — which represent workers but don't have conventional union contracts with employers — as the kind of groups where organized labor has a bright future.

New Opportunities and Collaborations

Today, the U.S. labor movement is at a critical crossroads, presented with opportunities to elevate local and national workers' fights. In several recent moments of struggle in the United States, collaborations between the labor movement and the media justice movement – independent journalists, policy advocates, and grassroots organizers have begun to emerge. But recent experiences have made clear that these collaborations need to deepen for both movements to grow stronger. On a teleconference panel hosted by Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) and the Media Mobilizing Project this past February labor organizers in union and nonunion workplaces, media producers, and media policy experts shared recent organizing experiences like Wisconsin with each other. A conclusion from the call we could not ignore is that the larger labor movement is facing an unprecedented attack to roll back the gains and victories that have improved the lives of working people in exchange for deeper corporate profits.

To fight back this corporate agenda, which has used the U.S. media system as a central pillar, the labor movement can and must challenge, transform and wield the media system and media policy to advance the struggle for working-class people's dignity and rights. This includes building community-owned media alternatives, such community broadband networks, low power FM radio stations, or public access TV stations. Outlets such as these allow organized labor to bypass the corporate media system, allowing their rank-and-file members to communicate directly with the community and build real solidarity through deepening communications strategy. Beyond this, organized labor has an immediate stake in winning media policies that close the digital divide, keep the Internet open and broaden access to the communication platforms that allow workers to organize and exchange ideas.

Examples from the Field: Organizing around the country at the intersection of Worker's Rights and Media Justice

MAG-Net and the larger media justice movement are engaged in struggles that if united with the labor movement can advance the struggle for workers' rights in the United States. One important front already in motion is the creation of a telecommunications infrastructure that will serve as the platform for the 21st century economy, much the way transportation infrastructure did in the 20th century. President Barack Obama set infrastructure as a major priority in his 2013 inaugural address. Yet, as Jamal Watkins of the Center for Social Inclusion, pointed out on the same MAG-Net call, the question is which model will be used to develop this infrastructure. Too often, plans for developing broadband infrastructure around the country don't ensure that this infrastructure is built with union living-wage jobs and cosupport local economies.

This year in Philadelphia the media giant Comcast spent upwards of $100,000 to lobby City Council to vote against a bill that would have guaranteed five earned sick days for private sector workers in the city. This bill had been proposed and fought for over two years by the Coalition for Healthy Families and Workplaces – a group spanning traditional unions, workers' centers, healthcare advocates, community based organizations, media and immigrant rights groups. When it became clear that Comcast was a major player in a full-court press lobbying effort in its own backyard, one of those groups in the coalition, the Media Mobilizing Project (MMP), reached out to national media justice allies for assistance. With the help of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) a local to local advocacy network of 150 organizations across the country advancing media justice for assistance, MMP and the Coalition for Healthy Families launched an effective campaign that garnered press coverage outing Comcast's role behind the scenes.

"With the help of MAG-Net and the Center for Media Justice, Free Press, and local Philly groups, we've collected over 60,000 petition signatures from Philadelphians, Comcast customers, and national allies, asking Comcast to stop lobbying Council against earned sick days." explains Hannah Sassaman of MMP. This pressure, and the organizing efforts from groups like the Restaurant Opportunities Center and others in the Coalition pushed the majority of Philadelphia's City Council to pass the bill.

Despite a majority vote to pass the bill, Philadelphia Michael Nutter's close ties with Comcast and other large local corporations led him to veto the bill for the second year running. Major telecommunications companies like Comcast are willing to fight policies like earned sick days, policies that would benefit workers in all kinds of industries.

Major telecommunications companies like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T are using their money and lobbyists to push policies that increase their bottom line at the expense of the working conditions of thousands of Americans. Just like in Philadelphia, they use their influence as one of the country's major growth industries on politicians; of course they do the same when it comes to their own shops. Justin Harris, a Verizon worker and an active member of the Communication Workers of American (CWA) the world's largest union of telecommunication workers, spoke to us on the call about how the industry is exploiting changes in technology as a chance to both accelerate media consolidation and weaken the rights of workers in their sector. Call center and telecommunications workers, for example, make up a large number of unionized communication workers and their jobs are increasingly getting outsourced overseas.

Another of Verizon's tactics involves exploiting technology advancement to cut back on its workers. All of Verizon's wireless communications passes through the company's landlines, but Verizon plays a shell game, shifting its balance sheets to only show profits in its wireless division. This is no harmless accounting practice, because the workers that maintain Verizon's landlines are unionized, and the workers that operate the company's wireless service are not. In 2011, 45,000 Verizon workers went on strike to protect their union benefits in the wake of proposed cutbacks to a supposedly declining sector of their operations. Verizon workers held out on the picket line fighting the company's decision to bring down standards for long standing landline workers to the at-will and non-union standards of the company's wireless division. This pitting of organized labor against unorganized labor is a practice that only stands to worsen as the Federal Communications Commission is set to hear proposals about the change of the traditional switch line telephone system to an all internet based system.

The major telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon would love to see consumer protections and government programs like Lifeline that subsidize rural access and ensure universal phone service go out the window along with collective bargaining. However, AT&T and Verizon won't get their way so easily. Rural residents, many who still rely on landline service as their primary form of communication, are putting up a fight.

Shifting the Narrative: Ways for the Media Justice Movement and Labor Movement to change the story

In a 1997 article in "The Nation", Scott Sherman writes, "Labor can't organize in an ideological vacuum. It must find a way to alter the consciousness of the general public". One of the critical ways to help galvanize working people, is through creating the media and culture conditions that can win hearts and minds. Our corporate-controlled media system is standing in the way of taking our labor struggles to the next level. Our movements will need to strengthen our collaborations to win media policy change and create our own media infrastructure that allow us to tell our own stories. The lack of pro-labor media coverage is intimately tied to the lack of diversity in media ownership. Newspapers are eliminating labor journalists and are increasingly assigning labor stories to business reporters, who lack the knowledge of labor issues and are eager to please the corporations they regularly cover. A recent report of national TV network news coverage found that over the past three years issues of labor accounted for .03% of the coverage.

This absence of pro-labor coverage is a symptom of a larger problem of media consolidation. Currently six media corporations control 90% of what we see, hear and watch in the mainstream media. Corporate media and the major telecommunications companies (which are increasingly becoming the same thing with mergers like that of Comcast and NBC Universal) control political power on all levels of national policy, create workplace policies that roll-back collective bargaining and consumer protections, and of course shape a public discourse that either leaves labor issues unreported or misrepresented.

In the last decade, there has been an increase in organizing among workers who have been excluded by traditional trade unions. Service, garment, day laborers, domestic workers and nannies have organized together and launched their own workers centers. These immigrant and low-income native-born workers built powerful networks like the National Guestworker Alliance, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, National Day Laborers Organizing Network to leverage their collective power. These workers centers and networks are part of a new labor movement future. These groups are building alliances with other sectors, like the media justice movement, to develop communications and narrative strategies that can connect workers' rights issues with broader community issues to galvanize support. In a recent report co-written by Center for Media Justice, "Echoing Justice: Communications Strategies for Community Organizing in the 21st Century." Workers' centers, like the New Orleans Workers' Center learned participatory communications to advance their fight for labor protections.

On April 19th Media Mobilizing Project hosted a 3-day media and communications strategy training with participation from the rank-and-file of a number of local labor unions, including SEIU Healthcare PA & 1201 School and Cafeteria Workers, Teachers from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and American Federation of Teachers in public schools and community colleges, along with Firefighters of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Throughout the weekend workers across sectors recognized the need to connect their struggles with other unions and between labor and community. With workers under attack on so many fronts – from budget cuts in the public sector to corporate stalling on private sector contracts – it is increasingly a necessity to work together. As one teacher said, "if we don't define our struggle they will do it for us, look they already have." At this gathering and in places around the country people across issues are beginning to take up this project to redefine the story that is told about working.

More than ever, this moment calls for the labor movement to connect the struggle for labor rights to the communities where their members live and work. In order to do that labor must make a real stake in the media and communications systems that determines so much of their ability to do that. The labor movement and the media justice movement can do that together. And, to do this we need to create spaces locally where we are building capacity for media and communications work in the labor movement, we need to create lines of alliance at the national level, and we need to stake out a vision for both the media justice movement and the labor movement that holds working-class power in the forefront.

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_crop”,”fid”:”1359″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”id”:”media_crop_6429215800017″,”media_crop_h”:”0″,”media_crop_image_style”:”-1″,”media_crop_instance”:”99″,”media_crop_rotate”:”0″,”media_crop_scale_h”:”0″,”media_crop_scale_w”:”0″,”media_crop_w”:”0″,”media_crop_x”:”0″,”media_crop_y”:”0″,”style”:”height: 401px; width: 600px; “,”typeof”:”foaf:Image”}}]]

Here are some immediate ways for us to do this:

– Expand and take up independent media that helps to shape the narrative in our fights such as supporting the creation of Lower Power FM radio stations.

– Fight the consolidation of mainstream press and television that cuts labor out of the national dialogue. Organize against the FCC's Media Ownership Proposal.

– Organize for community media ownership and infrastructure with union living-wage jobs as a priority.

– Protect privacy and security online, to ensure the free speech rights and rights of association of working people are upheld.

– Rural residents who rely on landline service should come together with union workers to fight to demand AT&T and Verizon preserve landline service.

– Organize the unorganized in the telecommunications industry and ensure that these massive employers shaping how every American communicates do not go unchecked.

With cross-sector collaboration as a part of the strategy maybe we can build on the lessons of Wisconsin and turn the tide on this attack of the American working-class.


Bryan Mercer is a Philadelphia native who began volunteering with MMP after returning home from college. As Media Rights & Access Organizer, Bryan supports MMP's network of computer centers and digital literacy trainings with community partners. Bryan also works on state and national media policy advocacy with the Media Action Grassroots Network to create a ground-up approach to securing media rights and access. Bryan received his bachelors degree from Columbia University in Anthropology and Comparative Ethnic Studies.

Betty Yu  coordinates the Media Action Grassroots Network(MAG-Net) where she manages our national media justice network of over 100 grassroots community organizations, coordinates nine regional chapters and curates the media justice learning community. She has over 15 years of community organizing, media activist, and filmmaking experience. Betty has additionally worked as a labor organizer for the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, an immigrant rights workers center in New York City’s Chinatown. She is also co-founder of National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS), a 15 year-old multi-racial workers center. Betty is a board member for Deep Dish TV and Third World Newsreel, two media organizations that nationally distributes radical videos and films.