David Rolf, president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, has a piece in The American Prospect on "Alternative Futures for Labor," in which he argues that for the labor movement to thrive, it needs to adapt to a changing economic, political, and legal landscape:
We need new strategies that are responsive to a changed work environment and our information and service economy. But too many unions continue to pursue the same strategies, under the same laws that we’ve followed for the past 80 years. It’s time to seed an era of innovation and organizing that comports with our changing economy and can advocate powerfully on behalf of a 21st-century workforce.
America’s unions and our allies must have the courage to acknowledge that the crisis we face cannot be met with old models and old tools. We must imagine an alternative future, even if we do not yet know what form it will take. We must embrace risk and failure as necessary elements of a long-term strategy for success.
Rolf is short on specifics, so allow me to suggest one: Labor—either alone or as part of a broader progressive coalition—needs to build its own media. And I don't mean union-focused online newsletters or blogs. I mean broad, general purpose news outlets that also cover sports, entertainment, business, culture, and everything else consumers demand. I mean competing directly with daily newspapers, TV and radio newscasts, and yes, even alt-weeklies like The Stranger. (Sorry, Tim.)
And I don't mean a propagandistic rag. They need to hire professional journalists, and assure the same sort of editorial freedom one gets at, say, the Seattle Times. No more, and no less. Of course, a labor backed outlet is more likely to hire a Rachel Maddow than a Michelle Malkin, but that's the privilege of ownership. And when it comes to the op/ed page, well, Katie bar the door. But that's the way this industry works.
And yes, such a union owned/subsidized news outlet would still be advertising supported. But without the need to break even let alone turn a profit, the whole newspaper business model crisis becomes a non-issue. There would be no expectation that revenues ever cover operations. Washington state unions already spend millions of dollars a year to get their message out through earned and paid media—they'd simply be shifting a portion of this expenditure to creating the media themselves.
What would the labor movement get out of such an investment? An audience.
In the same way many readers subscribe to their daily paper for news and sports, and then get the editorial board endorsements by osmosis, so too would a labor-owned news outlet influence its audience. Furthermore, dedicated grants could assure that certain issues get a modicum of coverage. For example, the Machinists union might endow an aerospace reporter, the WEA an education reporter, the trial lawyers association a legal reporter, and so on. These grants would not give their sponsors the right to dictate coverage, but at least they would be assured that expert coverage on their issues would be there. And that's more than they're currently getting from our media now.
As for the public, we've been well conditioned by the likes of Fox News and partisan blogs (and yes, the Seattle Times) to accept news coverage from outlets with biased ownership, and then consume it in that context. How else to explain the growing influence of the overtly opinionated Stranger? And its not like consumers haven't accepted union ownership in the past. About a century ago the Union Record was one of the largest dailies in the state. A successor could be once again.
Much of the American middle class owes its existence to the labor movement, and much of the middle class's current struggles are at least partially attributable to organized labor's decline. That most Americans don't understand this is partially due to a failure of messaging on the part of the labor movement itself. But a lot of it is due to the corporate media's knee-jerk hostility toward organized labor. That is certainly true here in Washington state, where the Seattle Times would editorialize against the second coming of Christ if He came back wearing an SEIU 775NW t-shirt.
I won't pretend that such a venture done right would come cheap or that it wouldn't come with a bit of disruption. Some of the communications staffers I deal with on a regular basis might lose their jobs as their employers shift resources from media outreach to building a media outlet. I feel bad about that.
But Rolf is right that the old model isn't working. And this is one innovative idea whose time has come.