Things mainstream media misses about unions: the cost of picketing

When it comes to covering labour actions, the mainstream media is absolutely terrible, which should come as no surprise — often, the companies that own major newspapers, radio stations, and television companies are actively anti-labour and invested in the prevention of unionisation. Sometimes individual journos who are interested in covering labour fairly have their hands tied — which is why the best labour journalists are found at indie publications, as a general rule. There’s also a drive to pit workers against the public, to create the mentality that workers are making unreasonable demands and should just suck it up and deal like the ‘rest of’ us, as though we aren’t workers too.

One thing the media is especially fond of doing is playing up strikes in a negative light. The goal is to cast a shadow on unions as a whole, but also specifically to target strikes as a symbol of union repression and unreasonableness. The focus is on what strikes do to businesses, managers, and the like as well as members of the general public — not on why people are striking, but, more importantly, what striking is costing them.

Let’s take a theoretical — and possibly familiar — example. Nurses at a hospital want to unionise, or they’re members of, say, the California Nurse’s Association and they want to bargain for better working conditions. Their concerns include quality of life at the workplace, like limits on shifts, better overtime pay, and better benefits. They’re also concerned about patient outcomes. For example, a tired nurse can be a recipe for disaster and a medical crisis for a patient with a complex medical condition. After bargaining with upper management and working with their union, they determine that their negotiations are going nowhere, so they authorise a strike.

Our nurses issue a warning: Prepare to meet our demands by X Date, or we will strike. We’re willing to come to the bargaining table to discuss options, they say. We really want to keep the hospital open, they say. We’ll be providing you with basic personnel for lifesaving medical needs no matter what, they say. The hospital may respond with ‘bring it on, and we’ll hire strikebreakers, too.’ So it is, as they say, on. The nurses go on strike and the picket begins.

Standing on a picket line is a pretty grueling experience. While it can be invigorating at first to be surrounded by workers and supporters, it quickly gets tiring, and sometimes actively boring. Passersby can be extremely hostile thanks to anti-union attitudes. It might be frigid or raining. Even when they’re taking shifts, our nurses are not having a great time on the picket line. They’d really rather be caring for patients, because that is their job, and they are passionate about their work, which is the whole reason they’re striking in the first place.

There’s another cost, though. As long as the nurses are on strike, they’re not making money. Unions may attempt to assist workers through the general fund, but they can’t provide nearly as much as their nurses were making while on the job, which means that the strikers can start to have trouble paying rent and utilities, buying food, and meeting other basic costs. In fact, their employers are counting on this, hoping to break the strike by starving their nurses out, a cold and calculated as well as classic move to suppress labour actions. Sure, nurses, walk the picket and ask for benefits, the hospital says. Maybe you can fold your eviction notice into a plate to eat your beans and rice.

The media doesn’t cover this, though. What the media covers instead is how inconvenient the strike is to people who aren’t workers trying to get better treatment. Instead of talking about the actual suffering people experience because they’re standing up for their rights, the media decides to focus on things like patients booking elective surgery who have to wait. The person who wants a purely cosmetic procedure can’t get it because the hospital has shut down nonessential surgery. The patient with a nonurgent condition that definitely needs care but isn’t experiencing an emergency has to wait or take a referral to another facility.

Meanwhile, our nurses — or strikebreakers — may still be staffing the emergency room (some hospital emergency rooms shut down during strikes and redirect patients). They’re up in the ICU taking care of patients who are too fragile to be moved and who need critical nursing care. They’re ensuring that people don’t die on their watch as their comrades walk the picket line, because patient care is important to them. But the media doesn’t talk about these concessions in strike negotiations, doesn’t point out that nurses are committed to their patients even as they’re also committed to their workplace welfare (and how it will benefit patients).

Instead, our nurses are vilified in the media and treated like garbage because they have the audacity to strike for something better for themselves. Public opinion, which might have initially been vaguely supportive — because who hates nurses, right? — suddenly turns hostile. People get frustrated and angry and the media vents their stories — the child complaining about how an elderly parent has to wait for treatment, the infuriated patient angry about the rescheduling of a routine medical exam. The unspoken goal is to turn the union, and workers, into the enemy, sending a clear signal to other workers in the US, to other nurses at other hospitals: Don’t try this. You will lose.

Image: Picket Line, James Good, Flickr