Knowing how to report on labor action is as much about what not to do as it is about what to do. A good place to start when establishing how not to report on strikes or potential strikes is a recent segment on NBC Nightly News, aired to an average six million viewers, that checked off pretty much every anti-labor trope in the book — including failing to disclose the news network’s relationship with one of the major employers covered in the report.
Let’s begin with the segment title and framing: “United Auto Workers union strike expected next week, potentially increasing car prices.” Nightly News anchor Lester Holt leads the report by telling the audience, “It’s likely that more than 100,000 United Auto Workers could go on strike by the end of next week as contract negotiations have slowed, and that could mean car prices will soar even higher.”
From the outset, the viewer is oriented to see only how a strike can hurt them and their personal bottom line — and how fault for that lies with the potential strike, not the corporations refusing to negotiate with United Auto Workers (UAW) in good faith. It’s established right away that the strike is coming after the September 14 contract deadline, it’s bad, and it’s bad because it’s going to cost you, the viewer, money.
Humans and human welfare is not centered in the report, consumption is. The headline isn’t “United Auto Workers union strike expected next week, potentially raising wages for workers.” Holt doesn’t introduce the segment by saying, “More than 100,000 united auto workers could go on strike by the end of next week as contract negotiations have slowed, and that could mean increased labor leverage for workers to secure higher pay.”
The potential work stoppage is presented as an inconvenience that will eat at the viewer’s pocketbook, and it’s designed, like the rest of the report, to diminish public support for unions. There is no upside, no class conflict, no interviews with regular workers — just mindless destruction of “the economy” and “higher prices” for the viewer.
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After a three-second clip of UAW President Shawn Fain explaining how the “Big Three” — General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Stellantis North America, which owns Chrysler — had ignored the union’s demands (they have since responded), we get a section on those demands that’s stripped of context and implies that the union’s wage demands are greedy.
Viewers get a throw-away line about Big Three’s “record profits” but no sense of what those profits have been: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis made a combined $21 billion in profits in just the first six months of this year. According to the UAW, they’ve earned a quarter trillion dollars in profit since 2013.
The host then offers a non sequitur about how UAW workers are already paid $10 to $20 more an hour than non-union workers at Tesla and Toyota. Even if we believe this is true (no source is cited), the obvious implication is that these demands are out of whack with the industry norm.
This finding should inspire our reporter to ask why Tesla and Toyota workers are so underpaid relative to their unionized counterparts. Instead, it’s used to undercut unionized workers’ demands that they share in the handsome profits of their employers. These profits, it’s worth noting, have been heavily subsidized by the federal government’s recent Inflation Reduction Act, which could provide, in just one example, up to $5.5 billion in tax breaks to General Motors.
We then hear from small business owners whose companies will be impacted by the strike. With an understanding that multimillionaire CEOs of the Big Three wouldn’t make for sympathetic victims, NBC’s Tom Costello interviews a car dealership owner.
“In Ogden, Utah, Jake Talbot at Young Ford [car dealership] warns [the strike] could send car prices higher,” Costello tells us. Talbot then adds the classic ticking-time-bomb sales pitch, telling us, “If you’re going to buy a car in the next few months. It’s probably not a bad idea to do it now.”
Costello then plays a brief clip from Todd Olson, the CEO of Twin City Die Castings, which supplies parts for the automakers, who threatens to lay off some of his workers if UAW workers exercise their right to withhold labor.
It’s all doom and gloom. No sense of any upside if the strike successfully pressures management to increase pay, improve healthcare, and give workers more time with their family.
It should be noted that NBCUniversal has a modest conflict of interest, in that it has a business partnership with General Motors — which, like other car companies, is a giant advertiser. The entertainment conglomerate announced last September that GM became “the first brand to utilize NBCUnified to access NBCUniversal’s expansive network of consumer touchpoints across movies, entertainment, news, sports, ecommerce, subscriptions, theme parks, and more with [its] media agency partner.”
It’s impossible to know whether or how much this relationship would impact the editorial line in this specific Nightly News broadcast, but it’s useful context when we see one-sided coverage.
It’s also worth highlighting NBCUniversal’s own recent anti-labor activities: In July, the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA actors’ union filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against NBCUniversal, accusing the company of illegally blocking a picket area by obstructing a public sidewalk.
A similarly shoddy NBC Nightly News report from two weeks ago engaged in many of the same or related tropes.
Holt also kicks off this report by telling viewers how the strike will cost them money — but this time, there’s a twist: It’s going to hurt the environment.
“The United Auto Workers [is] voting to authorize a strike in the weeks ahead,” he says. “Jesse Kirsch now with what it all means if you’re in the market for a new car and how it could put a bump in the road for electric vehicles, too.”
After a token four-second clip from UAW president Shawn Fain, we pivot to industry talking points. CNBC reporter Phil Le Beau comes out and asserts, without evidence or skepticism, that “for the Big Three, they need those profits in order to fund the development of electric vehicles.”
Ah, see, the Big Three are making obscene profits — not for their own benefit, but to reinvest in saving Mother Nature. Le Beau doesn’t mention that Ford, according to the UAW, has paid out $5 billion to shareholders in dividends this year alone, up $2 billion since last year. Le Beau doesn’t offer any evidence that a significant percentage of profits are funding infrastructure investments in electric cars — it’s just a vibe.
Le Beau tells the viewer it takes fewer people to build an electric car than it does a combustion engine (though some research suggests it may actually take more net labor hours), implying that the UAW’s demands are out of touch.
NBC’s Jesse Kirsch then raises the stakes again, telling us how much a strike would harm any viewer looking to buy a new car.
“When UAW’s contracts expire mid-September,” Kirsch laments, “roughly 150,000 workers could strike nationwide, slamming the brakes on production. Not ideal if you’re looking for a new car.”
Kirsch then turns to John Crane, the owner of several luxury car dealerships in Illinois, to further menace the viewer. In the event of a strike, Crane tells us, “nearly every [car] will get tougher to find as time goes on.”
What would the strike mean for the worker? And worker power? What would it mean for both Big Three workers and the upward pressure on wages for all American workers in the event that a strike leads to meaningful concessions for workers? It’s not clear, because NBC Nightly News has zero interest in interviewing any actual workers, only wealthy car dealers, and part suppliers, and echoes the talking points of Detroit C-suiters.
This kind of coverage is not only reflexively unfair to workers, it also misses a huge opportunity to cover one of the most fascinating labor stories of our time.
Fain, a reform-oriented president won the leadership of the union in March, at a time when rank-and-file reform movements are gaining steam — and real power — across the labor movement. The UAW’s rise or fall has huge implications for the labor movement: UAW consolidated its power with the famed 1936-37 sit-down strikes at General Motors, but has been recently beset with corruption — one of the catalysts for Fain’s rise.
The joint expiration of Big Three workers’ contracts is a tremendous opportunity for this union to display collective power, and win real gains, at a time when union enthusiasm is soaring, but density is low. With the spotlight on him, Fain is talking about big ideas, like a 32-hour work week with no pay reduction, and a just transition for electric vehicle workers (contrary to claims that he rejects environmentalism).
The UAW is making big demands: an end to wage and benefit tiers based on hiring date, the right to strike when the company tries to close a plant, cost-of-living adjustments, and much more. Workers have been practicing picketing, using chants like, “Record profits equal record contracts!”
As with the UPS contract fight, their success has major implications for whether unions are able to build successful campaigns in other shops, such as Amazon and electric vehicle plants getting massive subsidies from the Biden administration.
Bosses know that public support is overwhelmingly on the side of the workers. A recent Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Americans side with the United Auto Workers in their negotiations.
But where unions have the numbers, management has a well-funded PR team, with ready-made talking points about greedy union workers shutting down the economy, wanting to cut hours, and preventing Ma and Pa America from getting a cheap car quickly.
Reporters should push back against these pat cliches, and seek to find deeper context about the potential upside to workers that a strike like this could bring, rather than constantly beating the drum about how it will jack up prices and wreck “the economy.”