Covering the Great Recession

by Henry on August 4, 2010

One of the major arguments of the Hacker-Pierson “piece”: (and, I presume, forthcoming book) that I’ve been blogging about is that weak unions are a key cause of US inequality. The argument goes that weak unions have little political presence in policy debates, which tend to be dominated by business. The result is that policy debates in the US are systematically skewed in favor of business (which tends to favor policies that advantage, or at least do not hurt) rich people, with little in the way of countervailing voice, let alone power. I’ve just read this report (powered in part by Jure Leskovec et al.’s spiffy “MemeTracker”: technology), which provides some significant supporting evidence. Looking at media coverage of the Great Recession, it finds that:

bq. If story triggers tell us who generated the economic news that the media covered, the sources cited in stories provide insight into the angles and perspectives journalists highlighted. President Obama may have been uniquely positioned to drive the narrative by proposing federal initiatives and implementing policy. But a far more diverse group of people could comment and react to the implications and wisdom of those actions. In analyzing sources in stories, however, the fundamental pattern is the same. Those in government, and especially Obama administration staffers, dominated the conversation. Representatives of business and industry came next, followed by academics and independent observers. … fully 61% of stories included a government representative of some kind, including those from state and local government. … Representatives of business, those identified as clearly speaking on behalf of the company or corporation, were the next most prominent sources, figuring in about 40% of the stories. … ordinary citizens and workers were well down the rung of sources. … One subset of the American workforce was virtually shut out of the coverage entirely. … Representatives of organized labor unions were sources in a mere 2% of all the economy stories studied.

This measure is not the only index of strength in policy debate, obviously, but it is an important one. And on it, business representatives were _twenty times_ as visible in public debate as union representatives. That’s a whopping disparity.



OneEyedMan 08.04.10 at 5:29 pm

Unions are about 12% of the workforce to private sector employment of over 80%. That suggests that while 20x may be too much, 8x might not be.


chris 08.04.10 at 6:05 pm

@OneEyedMan: But corporate managers or spokespeople are an even smaller segment of the workforce. Most employees of a corporation don’t necessarily agree with the views of the CEO or spokesperson; that’s one of the reasons unions are necessary.

Furthermore, if unions were actually a significant interest, it wouldn’t be hard to get both sides, which would produce a ratio close to 1:1. (Getting “both sides” is itself a much-mocked form of, or substitute for, journalism; but these data suggest that journalists aren’t even counting unions as a side they ought to get at all).


Straightwood 08.04.10 at 6:15 pm

I believe that the propaganda machinery of the unions has simply been outspent and outclassed by the propaganda organs of the plutocracy. The wealthy made large, shrewd investments in selling the Friedmanite market-god ideology to the public, starting in the 1970s. They created and funded numerous think tanks, institutes, and publications whose purpose was to denigrate unions and the public sector and to praise “free enterprise.” The plutocrats were patient and focused, and now our society suffers from ingesting the (rotten) fruits of their propaganda.


Dr. Hilarius 08.04.10 at 6:35 pm

Very few Americans, at least those under the age of 65, know anything about labor history. School texts usually have a brief mention of the Triangle Factory fire and a few paragraphs about unions. This may be the reason that it is common to hear working people opine that unions were needed “back then” but not now. That is, until they are fired from an “at will” job and find out they don’t have any of the rights they imagined they had.

Newspapers have Business sections. Labor relations are covered only so far as they impact profits. Unions themselves have to bear much of the responsibility for their poor image. Far from promoting labor solidarity, many unions are little more than guild organizations interested only in the immediate needs of existing members. Their failure to organize lower paid, less skilled workers has resulted in unions being resented by those who would most benefit from unionization. Union membership and influence spirals down.


piglet 08.04.10 at 7:10 pm

“Looking at media coverage of the Great Recession”

What strikes me about that media coverage is how much news space the rich “victims” of the recession got, as opposed to the unemployed at the bottom. I remember once the NYT made its front page up with the story of a guy who couldn’t sell his million dollar condo and wasn’t eligible for federal aid to avoid foreclosure. How unjust! You can’t make this stuff up.


Bill Harshaw 08.04.10 at 8:24 pm

Where are the Reuthers and Meanys of yesteryear? Was their prominence as labor spokesmen simply the result of the size of the labor movement, or was did it reflect their abilities? Have the meritocratic trends of the last half century drained the labor movement of talent?


engels 08.04.10 at 8:41 pm

Very interesting.


mpowell 08.04.10 at 9:06 pm

3: I don’t think people are confused about their job situation in the United States, they just believe that this is the best result. They don’t fully appreciate the impact of their poor negotiating position with respect to their employer on their take home wages. And they don’t realize that unions can address this problem. Unions are mostly vilified, people tend to assume they would never benefit from them personally, and nobody appreciates the fact that if company A is forced to pay people more, companies B, C and D will be benefiting from increased customer demand so the most common response to other union members is resentment. In the United States, if you want to hear what will be good for business, you ask a CEO (and you know what they want). That’s just how it works. It makes just enough sense that I don’t see it changing anytime soon.


Ship 08.04.10 at 9:59 pm

I don’t think that bad perceptions are entirely or even significantly to blame for low union membership. As the study lays out, unions had big political defeats in the 70s that resulted in less negotiating and political power. Union membership is down not just because unions are misrepresented, but because they are actually politically and economically less powerful due to structural changes in the economy accompanied with legislation (or lack thereof) that reduced their position. Poor public perception can only explain a little bit of the puzzle. I don’t believe it’s a significant reason for union decline.

This study is well worth reading, I’m glad you posted it. I think this highlights the disturbing trend of how important and rigid social class has become in the U.S. When you read this along with studies on economic mobility across generations and reports on how admission into elite universities is greatly rigged towards the affluent, you get the clear sense that traditional pathways into the middle and upper middle class are increasingly harder to attain and hold on to.


OneEyedMan 08.04.10 at 11:25 pm

Management represents part of the demand for labor. Labor unions representpart of the supply of labor. Management represents a much larger fraction of demand for labor than unions do of supply.


Honest John 08.05.10 at 3:23 am

I guess stronger unions would throw more weight in their efforts to make themselves heard, but cause and effect roll over each other in media that are hostile to unions. I live in Washington, DC, and the Washington Post has a very rocky relationship with its unionized employees. Maybe a voice will be heard from inside the reporting ranks to explain why unionized reporters fail to consult union experts, but from the outside, readers face a paper that consistently fails to make use of the union braintrusts that reside in Washington. Coincidentally, the Post‘s management & editors sleep more soundly every year while union voices become fainter and fainter.


Anarcho 08.05.10 at 8:22 am

“weak unions are a key cause of US inequality.”

If you take an anarchist or Marxist view, the weak unions cause inequality because the bosses appropriate more of the value workers produce. With strong unions, workers retain more of the value they create. With weak unions, that value flows upwards into a few hands. In short, inequality is an expression of the exploitation inherit in capitalism.

“The argument goes that weak unions have little political presence in policy debates, which tend to be dominated by business. The result is that policy debates in the US are systematically skewed in favor of business…”

Well, what do you expect? The state is an instrument of (minority) class rule. While outside pressure can tame it somewhat, its purpose is to ignore the many in favour of the few. The problem with trade unions is that they forgot that it is power at the point of production (and in the community) that counts, rather than lobbying politicians.

We had over a decade of a so-called Labour Party in office in the UK, funded by trade unions, which systematically ignored the unions and passed policies which favoured business. In terms of “political presence”, I would say that this should warn us about seeing that as a solution to our problems.


AnotherTom 08.05.10 at 1:02 pm

This is anecdotal but it seems appropriate.

Last year I worked as a financial journalist on big newswire and I frequently covered stories about companies going bust. Over the course of the year I reached out to all the major organisations – companies, trade organisations, business groups, government etc. All were to some extent helpful and were regularly quoted in my articles. There was one group that simply refused to take my phone calls, and never returned emails or voicemails. These were the trade unions.

One can speculate why the unions decided to cut themselves out of the debate – it could be incompetence, who knows – however, as a journalist once you hit a brick wall a number of times you often end up dialling those numbers less and less.


Russell Hoglund 08.05.10 at 4:54 pm

As a former Local Union President/Business representative for Grain workers in Chicago, I assert that the dramatic change in Union power directly comes from Reagan’s firing of the Air Traffic Controllers in the 70’s. It set a precident that strikers could be replaced at will by the company with no repurcussions available to the Unions to seek injunctions or legal means to keep those workers out. It also set up the impasse rule that effectivly allowed the companies to declare an impasse in the negotiating process and impose their version of a contract en masse upon the Union, again with no legal recourse. This happened to my members and it took thirteen years of negotiating to get a new contract from the company. Thirteen years with out a raise in salary or any benefits. Our only recourse would have been to strike and then lose our jobs to replacement workers.


Robert 08.05.10 at 8:00 pm

I don’t expect much from the “corporate media”. Why do you think that term isn’t used more than “mainstream media”? Americans are propogandized like nobody else, as far as I can tell.


chris 08.05.10 at 8:19 pm

I don’t expect much from the “corporate media”. Why do you think that term isn’t used more than “mainstream media”?

Used by who, the media themselves? I can think of an obvious reason they would prefer the latter term for themselves.


engels 08.05.10 at 8:27 pm

I believe the term ‘mainstream media’ was popularised by US right-wing blogs.


koshem Bos 08.05.10 at 9:49 pm

My perspective on unions would differ somewhat. Unions membership is limited to a few occupations that tend to be “older” occupations. Auto workers, janitors and service employees, government workers, restaurant and hotel workers, nurses. You have very few engineering, physician, etc unionized. That’s a major problem.

Even more then unions, the lack of American left skews the public discussion scales towards the right. What claims to a left is by and large a middle class bunch of dissatisfied individuals who are interested in foreign affairs way more than they are interested in unemployment and work conditions.


David 08.06.10 at 1:47 am

I prefer Krugman’s designation of second long depression. Somewhat more serious. Speaking of Krugman, earlier this week he predicted that a few months down the line the administration and other serious people would start defining recovery down. Jumping the gun, Timothy Geithner started the next day in the same NYTimes. I love these guys. No sense of irony or shame.


Zamfir 08.06.10 at 11:59 am

@OneEyedMan, but who else is talking for the labor side? The whole point of a union is that a company has concentrated interests and can act as a single block, while individual workers are not in that position.

If unions are too small too listen to, and no one else is big enough, isn’t that a problem in itself?


Shelley 08.06.10 at 2:28 pm

As someone who writes about the last Great Crash, I was so happy to see this post. It seems that the Elephant In The Room during this current depression is that the corporate giants, maybe because they’re hard to visualize (?), are left out of the discussion even though they’re driving what has happened.

Thank you.


AnotherTom 08.06.10 at 3:13 pm

In a broadly post-industrial economy, was it not inevitable that trade unions would find it harder to maintain their power and voice?

As someone said above, trade unions today seem more like guilds. And in the UK, their political pronouncements appear limited to defending the size of the state, or picking fights with their (public sector) bosses. It’s not particularly attractive.


esmense 08.06.10 at 4:20 pm

I recently came across some old weekly newsmagazines (Time and Newsweek) from the early ’70s. It was shocking — not only because the articles, on all subjects, were longer, denser, filled with more information and written with a more sophisticated vocabulary, but also because both magazines has a section that covered “Labor” as well as one that covered “Business.”

Americans today don’t know much about labor OR business. It is genuinely odd that despite todays higher number of college grads, our national political and economic discussion, and media in general, has gotten dumber and dumber and dumber.


chris 08.06.10 at 5:39 pm

In a broadly post-industrial economy, was it not inevitable that trade unions would find it harder to maintain their power and voice?

Why? It’s not so post-industrial that no one works for anyone else. If the labor force is shifting into different industries (that aren’t manufacturing), why not unionize those industries?

ISTM that the answer to that question is political, not some kind of inevitable destiny. And the first point of evidence in favor of that is that the ruinous collapse of unions in the US has not been matched by other countries making the same technological changes.


urgs 08.07.10 at 4:30 pm

Are those American Unions that do have any power interested in helping the poor in the first place? I Doubt it. They are kind of exclusive with an upper middle class bias.


Barry 08.07.10 at 4:43 pm

This is rather a foolish thing to say, since (a) ‘upper middle class’ would imply households with an annual income of far above what a two-(high end, with massive seniority + massive overtime) income union household would make, and (b) SEIU, just for starters.


Ray Davis 08.08.10 at 4:11 pm

Henry, did you intend to provide a link to “this report”? As is, the excerpt seems a bit naked.


Jim Johnson 08.08.10 at 5:49 pm


AnotherTom 08.09.10 at 9:39 am


“Why? It’s not so post-industrial that no one works for anyone else. If the labor force is shifting into different industries (that aren’t manufacturing), why not unionize those industries?”

Because the union proposition always had (at least) two dimensions: economic rights and safety. When workers move into offices, the latter went away, and then the only argument the unions had was economic, and it is much harder to generate public sympathy for purely economic arguments.

The British Airways situation in the UK is a case in point. The union’s argument with management is largely economic, though there are wider issues of workers’ rights, but it is now regularly dismissed as an argument about “travel perks”. Good luck in getting people energised politically about air stewards’ rights to free flights.

The unions have done work on RSI but this is far far less tangible than miners getting killed, or mortally injured at work, as happened regularly in previous times. Again, sore fingers and shoulders are not good for those that have them, but they are difficult to build a political movement upon.

In the UK, the trade unions have a voice but appear to have lost the argument.


AnotherTom 08.09.10 at 10:34 am

I guess a point to add is that unions could have found a new political message to their standpoint, but largely (speaking from a UK perspective) have not. Meanwhile, their political representatives – the Labour Party – climbed into bed with big finance in a curious quid pro quo for its backing of the big state. And we know where that one ended. A new political synthesis is desperately needed on the left. I fear it will be built upon an atavistic hostility to management from workers, whereas what is required (and what will succeed) is something different.


Norwegian Guy 09.03.10 at 4:29 pm

The unions have done work on RSI but this is far far less tangible than miners getting killed, or mortally injured at work, as happened regularly in previous times.

I think I can remember some mining accidents in the USA not that long ago. In West Virginia less than half a year ago for instance.

And the point is not so much to generate public sympathy, but to unionize the public. Than unionized workers will be a significant part of the public.

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