Whenever there are workers in America standing up for themselves and going on strike against their employer, there is, inevitably, someone in the media hand-wringing about the harmful impact workers standing up for themselves will have on The Economy. But a recent piece by Sarah Lazare, co-published by Workday Magazine and The American Prospect, exposed a glaring conflict of interest for American media’s favorite go-to source when centering the “economic losses” of potential strikes. Here are just some examples of major headlines based on “studies” of how certain impending or potential strikes could harm “the economy”:
All of these stories have one thing in common: each revolves around a “study” providing the ostensibly neutral analysis, and in each case the “study” was done by Anderson Economic Group, a consultancy firm that counts among its clients a veritable murderers’ row of corporate America, including companies central to industries that would be impacted by the very strikes AEG is supposedly quantifying the “economic impact” of.
One recent AEG study, widely cited in the press, found that an auto workers strike could cost “$5 billion in just 10 days.” What none of the media outlets that cited the study disclose, Lazare notes, is that Ford and General Motors—two of the Big Three auto companies involved in negotiations with 150,000 United Auto Workers on a new contract—are listed as business clients of Anderson Economic Group.
Isn’t this conflict of interest relevant? Shouldn’t that information be disclosed about the supposedly authoritative source throwing out these Big Scary Numbers about how much the public will be harmed by strikes? Apparently these outlets don’t think so.
Within the world of pro-labor media, a popular retort to scary headlines about strikes and their devastating impact on “the economy” is, “Well, of course, that’s the point of strikes.” This is true to an extent—the point of a strike, by definition, is to cause economic damage to an employer until they come to the bargaining table. But it’s worth considering that not challenging these vague, blanket, corporate-manufactured scaremongering talking points about how much “the economy” is going to be “crippled” is bad for labor messaging, especially when conveying the stakes of a massive strike. After all, there’s a reason why corporate America is laundering this fearmongering through consultancy firms like Anderson Economic Group and uncritical media outlets, and it’s not because they want to let the public know how Badass and Cool striking workers are. They are doing it to erode public support for labor disruption and, more precisely, to put pressure on Washington to intervene on the side of Capital in the event of a prolonged strike.
Rather than focusing on what is “lost” or how much “the economy” (see: you and your friends) will be “harmed” by a strike, it’s more useful to lobby our media to do two things:
(1) Stop putting the onus solely on the striking workers, or at least focus as much attention on the stubbornness of management, who are equally, if not more, responsible for a strike occuring and the “economic losses” that result. Why is the strike always presented as the first mover in the timeline of “economic disruption”? As if workers alone are the ones responsible for disrupting an otherwise-doing-fine economy, as if companies themselves do not force workers to the picket line with their own rampant “disruptions,” from years of foot dragging and bad-faith bargaining to spying, retaliation, labor violations, and destructive business practices that hurt everyone in the economy but the owning and shareholding class.
(2) Even if one grants that certain harms could potentially result from a labor action, frame them as short-term, and focus on what is gained by labor action. Historically, strikes have ushered in tremendous gains for both the workers on strike and the working class more broadly, but observing contemporary strikes through such a lens is something our media are loath to do. Most wouldn’t even know where to start, if indeed they were committed to asking the same questions of corporations that they ask of workers and unions.
How does one quantify the benefits of a strike, for instance? Well, not surprisingly, there isn’t a legion of well-funded “economic groups” mysteriously at the ready to offer these figures to America’s reporters. (At best, outlets will account for workers’ contract wins, but what those wins mean for their daily lives and for “the economy” is seldom explored with the same fervor as the “economic damage” a strike will do.) Such benefits are more difficult to come by, because propaganda that suits the interests of striking workers is, by definition, far less funded than that which speaks, in Business Press-ese, about class-flattening “economic impacts.”
But one can try anyway. One recent example, based on just the threat of a strike, saw major “economic impact” for workers. UPS teamsters recently extracted an end to a second-tier, full-time position known as “22.4,” and a provision that bans UPS for mandating package drivers to come in on their scheduled days off. Existing full- and part-time UPS workers will get a bump of $2.75 an hour this year, and $7.50 over the duration of the contract (though part-time wages still lag behind full-time wages.) And 15,000 part-time jobs will be converted into 7,500 new full-time ones. According to the union’s general president, Sean M. O’Brien, “UPS has put $30 billion in new money on the table as a direct result of these negotiations.”
Granting that this figure is correct—or at least partly correct—one is compelled to ask: Where were the headlines leading up to the UPS strike that read, “UPS Strike Could Lead to $30 Billion in Gains for UPS Workers”? Where was the headline saying, “Threat of Strike Could Lead to Billions More in the Hands of the Working Class”? No such headlines were published because this type of “economic analysis” is seen as taking sides, whereas generic claims about strikes “harming the economy” are seen as neutral and objective.
And this is a central problem: Well-funded corporations have time on their side. Their strategy—as evidenced by recent comments from Hollywood studios about “starving” creative workers—is to wait workers out and try to win the propaganda war. In the case of auto workers, ostensibly neutral metrics like “costing the economy $5 billion every 10 days” works to bosses’ advantage. They assume the public will grow tired, blame the workers, and politicians in Washington will do the same. It’s a classic example of Howard Zinn’s adage that one cannot be neutral on a moving train. By tossing out Big Scary Numbers about how much striking workers will harm The Everyman, our media is doing the heavy lifting for executives who have the advantage of inertia and incumbency.
What’s the “economic impact” on working families when a strike leads to massive concessions from capital? How do these actions benefit workers as well as the working class more broadly? Are well-resourced reporters at CNN, Vox, and CNBC asking those questions? Are they seeking out those studies, asking their team of researchers to crack those numbers? And if not, why not?
Where are the “economic groups” ready with numbers about the health outcomes of better healthcare or any healthcare at all? Dental care for the workers and their children? What is the “economic impact” of greater dignity, safer working conditions, less sexual harassment? Where is the study quantifying the mental health benefits of better job security, higher wages, and more paid time off so a worker can see their son’s school play, or attend their mother’s funeral? Why is the only metric we ever hear about couched in these abstract, Big Scary Numbers about “economic losses” of strikes, but none of our media giants like CNN or NBC can take the time and money to figure out how strikes can benefit workers?
As auto workers gear up for a major showdown with the Big Three automakers, where contracts are expiring on Sept. 14, media outlets should stop regurgitating the same tired Anderson-Economic-Group-generated Big Scary Number of Economic Losses and try to frame the conflict as something with upside for those at the lower rungs of society. What is the “economic impact” of the strike on the striking workers? How did the $30 billion extracted in the last major labor conflict with UPS possibly translate into gains for auto workers? How does increasing working standards and wages for auto workers help workers in other industries? These are far more interesting, original, and relevant questions than simply tossing out more mystery numbers commissioned by Corporate America about how much workers standing up for themselves will “crippled the economy” for a confused and half-paying-attention media consumer.