Two months ago, I wrote for this newsletter about the media’s egregiously one-sided coverage of a potential rail strike. Since that piece ran, the 12 unions which represent railroad workers held up-or-down votes on the tentative deal that the Biden administration brokered between them and the railroads. Eight unions voted to accept the deal, but four, which together constitute a narrow majority of actual workers represented by the 12 unions, voted to reject it.
With a deadline of next Friday, an anxious Biden called on Congress to dust off the Railroad Labor Act of 1926 and force a deal. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed two bills: the tentative deal and a measure to add seven paid sick days to the contract. Yesterday, the Senate passed the first bill but voted down the second (despite a majority in favor, because the filibuster required 60 votes).
A CNN article said that “A strike, set for December 9, would [have] snarled still-struggling supply chains and caused shortages and a spike in prices [for] gasoline, food, automobiles and other goods, causing a body blow for the economy that many fear is already at risk of tipping into a recession.” Reuters worried about “a year-end strike that could cause significant damage to the U.S. economy and strand vital shipments of food and fuel.” Politico warned of “a strike that capsizes the nation’s supply chain — stripping store shelves, starving livestock and compromising drinking water.” The AP was relieved when Congress averted “an economically ruinous freight rail strike.” A headline from NBC blared “a rail strike could upend the economy.” CNBC had a headline saying “With U.S. economy at risk, here’s how a national rail strike could start.” This is certainly not an exhaustive sample; many, many, many other stories ran with similar language.
The problem with all of those characterizations is that they create an equivalence between a strike and a shutdown. The economic harm is caused by a shutdown, which would be a consequence of a strike. This makes a serious difference in how the public understands where the blame for the situation lies.
By saying that the risk stems from a strike, it sounds like the only conflict is between the workers and the economy writ large, not between the rail bosses and their workers. The threat is that some workers decide to withhold critical supplies from everyone, because…why exactly? In other words, the reason the workers are choosing to strike, and the impediments to meeting that demand, aren’t explored.
More honest framing — dare we say, more neutral framing — wouldn’t arbitrarily stop short of reporting why the workers even were considering striking in the first place, which is a critical and easily-gathered fact. That fact, in turn, would show that there are multiple ways the strike could be averted. As I wrote in September:
“Framing like this makes the workers’ discontent, which is almost never explained in these stories, seem like the threat’s origin. That is wrong. Rail workers have been extremely patient with negotiations that have gone on for three years, even as their workload has increased while watching the companies they work for rake in sky-high profits. These workers are often on call every single day, at all hours, without sick leave, despite continual safety risks.”
Workers have been very patient; many of these issues came to a head during the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly a year ago. Rail workers have more than done their part, being on call 24/7 through a massive supply chain crunch to make sure that people had access to the goods they needed, quarantining without any guaranteed sick days, and being punished for going to a doctor.
Now, just because they have the audacity to ask for a few guaranteed sick days, workers are being blamed preemptively for destroying the American economy. And, with that panicked finger pointing, they have been stripped of the threat of a strike, which is their single greatest piece of leverage. It’s not like they couldn’t provide sick days. As a group of progressive Senators noted, it would only cost them 2 percent of their sky-high profits. Just this year, the industry has made more than $21 billion. Providing seven sick days would cost them $321 million. But those numbers are a lot harder to find than the estimated damage to the economy.
Note also that the media is panicked about harms to “the economy,” an extremely broad concept that’s difficult for anyone to fully predict or conceive of. Meanwhile, the workers are demanding specific, tangible changes (more paid sick days) from specific, tangible individuals (their employers). That’s not to say that the media shouldn’t report on those broad, uncertain consequences to “the economy,” it obviously should. But when reporters disregard specific “who’s” and “what’s”, but take vaguely-defined potential threats extremely seriously, it shows an interesting divergence from their stated fact-finding, neutral-observer mission.
In short, the railroad bosses are involved in whether a “shutdown” happens (they could just be decent employers and provide some sick leave), whereas when the story revolves around a “strike”, the companies’ positions are often treated as fixed and exogenous.
One could even take this a step further, and argue that the bias in the coverage of this would-be strike points to a broader problem with economics coverage in the mainstream commercial media. Reporters and editors tend to assume that framing economic issues through their effect on consumers is a neutral, view-from-nowhere decision. Everyone has to purchase things, right? How can it be biased to frame a story through a universal experience?
But when the media ecosystem only tells stories through consumer-centric and investor-centric framing, the public isn’t trained to think about the economy through the lenses of workers. If a media outlet never shows a given perspective in its coverage, then this implicitly tells the audience that that perspective is irrelevant.
Quite clearly, the reasons why workers are threatening to grind the national economy to a halt, despite forgoing personal wages and making an enemy of the President, aren’t irrelevant. On the contrary, these workers believe their reasons are good enough and sympathetic enough to risk everything. One needn’t have progressive or pro-labor views personally to see how explaining what these workers are thinking is critical for informing the public.