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September 24, 2006

Biased Anti-Union Reporting

Every year, big corporations spend insane amounts of money on parties and unless someone gets indicted, as with Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski, the press makes no big deal of it. But a union throws a holiday party to reward major volunteers and the NY Daily News runs a story with the title, Union for poor lives high.

So what kind of spendthrift union bash are we talking about?

Well, health care union local SEIU 1199 spent a little under $500,000 for a party for 4000 union members activits from across the northeast-based local-- which works out to about $120 per member, an amount that included travel and accomodations for those coming in from out-of-town. Which Which is hardly an extravagant amount in the scheme of large events, yet nowhere in the story does the reporter bother to even mention that typical parties and events in New York usually spend far, far more per person for this kind of party.

But I guess the kind of folks attending this parties -- home care workers, hospital orderlies and such -- don't deserve any party at all. How dare the union spend money on a band? Kazoos would have been far more appropirate apparently.

And as a union official mentions in the story, every person attending had to earn attendance at the party by attending at least 20 union activities during the year. So that $500,000 party helped motivate more than 80,000 separate volunteer activities by the 4000 members attending the party-- a pretty damn smart investment aside from just being a good way to build camraderies among union activist leaders scattered across the local's territory.

Part of the hook for the story was a rightwing corporate-funded group, the Center for Union Facts, used new data collected by the Bush Department of Labor that highlights all expenses by unions.

So why didn't the reporter just compare that data to similar party expenses by big corporations? Oh right, corporations don't have to publish similar information. Corporations only have to publish general information about their spending, usually massaged by major auditing firms, and that only applies to publicly-traded companies. Many businesses are essentially black boxes with the public getting no information on how they spend their money.

Which is the point. The government audits unions down to practically what they spend on paperclips. Literally, if you know someone who works for a union, their exact salary is listed by the government on a website. That's the level of disclosure imposed on unions.

Which allows these kinds of stories maligning unions as "big spenders" while businesses waste money in ways orders of magnitude more extravagent, but they can't be analyzed systematically because the data on business spending isn't available easily.

But even the lack of data doesn't excuse this kind of shoddy reporting. The reporter has union officials explaining near the end of the story that such spending on the occasional party and retreat helps build teamwork and motivation, but you know if this was a story about a successful business, talking about creating an environment to promote team building would be the headline and first few paragraphs.

I pick on this story not because it's worse than the typical story covering labor unions-- it's actually probably better since the Daily News actually does decent labor coverage on occasion -- but because it so exemplifies the constant bias in press coverage of unions. Stories invariabley lead with strikes, conflict or corruption. Stories about what unions DO day-to-day-- organizing workers, helping solve their problems on the job, building volunteer networks -- those stories almost never get published.

So we're stuck with biased stories condemning a union for daring to have a band at a holiday party.

Posted by Nathan at September 24, 2006 01:16 PM