What If We Didn't Need Labor Day?
by Norman Solomon
The Humanist magazine, November / December 1998
Labor Day may be a fitting tribute to America's workers, but
what about the other 364 days of the year? Despite all the talk
about the importance and dignity of working people, they get little
power or glory in the everyday world of news media. What if the
situation were reversed?
Once a year, big investors and corporate owners could be honored
on Business Day. To celebrate the holiday, politicians might march
arm in arm through downtown Manhattan with the likes of
Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Donald Trump. Executives could
have the day off while media outlets said some nice things about
During the rest of the year, in this inverted scenario, journalists
would focus on the real lives of the nation's workforce. Instead
of making heroes out of billionaire investors-and instead of reporting
on Wall Street as the ultimate center of people's economic lives-the
news media would provide extensive coverage of the workplace.
For instance, such coverage would reflect the health hazards
that workers face. On an average day, according to the Bureau
of Labor Statistics, seventeen Americans die from on-the-job injuries.
Meanwhile, the daily rate of occupational injuries and illnesses
in U.S. private industry is upwards of 18,350 people. If media
outlets can keep us so closely informed about stock prices every
day, they could also keep us posted on exactly which industrial
workplaces are killing and injuring America's workers.
Much of the toll is less obvious. Researchers have found that,
for each American killed by a workplace injury, another ten or
so job-related deaths occur due to disease. If these grim events
were reported on a daily basis, with the intensity and attention
to detail now reserved for coverage of the stock market, then
our society would be much more aware of working conditions across
the country-and there would be more public pressure for improvement.
In a more labor-friendly media environment, televised punditry
wouldn't be dominated by pro-corporate forums like The Capital
Gang, Hardball, The McLaughlin Group, and This Week-which, not
coincidentally, are made possible by union-bashing firms like
Archer Daniels Midland and General Electric. In contrast, prominent
television programs would present the outlooks of people who don't
ride in limousines.
Public television-which now features shows like Wall Street
Week and Nightly Business Report-would find ways to air regular
programs that might be called Main Street Week or Nightly Labor
Report. In this media dream world, National Public Radio would
not have added a "business update" to its hourly news
broadcasts. Or at least NPR would also be providing a "labor
update" at the top of each hour.
The biggest circulation daily paper in the country would not
necessarily be the Wall Street Journal, a possession of Dow Jones
and Company. Instead, it might be a newspaper owned by a coalition
of labor unions. And the editorial pages would publish a real
diversity of views.
On the magazine racks, periodicals like Business Week and
Forbes (motto: "Capitalist Tool") would have to compete
with equally bankrolled publications such as Labor Week and Solidarity
Forever (motto: "Worker's Tool").
Congress would not get away with changing the name of Washington
National Airport to Ronald Reagan National Airport, as occurred
last February. A pro-labor media atmosphere would make it politically
untenable to name the airport after a former president who smashed
the air traffic controllers' union early in his first term.
Not content to gush out a steady stream of platitudes about
"democracy" and the "free market," the news
media would probe the concept of workplace democracy. Right now,
the mass media rarely explore the idea of extending democratic
principles to the institutions
where Americans work for a living. It's as though we've been
conditioned to believe that our most exalted political values-free
speech and the right to vote for the leaders of powerful institutions-
should not intrude past the workplace door.
More than thirty years ago, satirist Tom Lehrer recorded a
song about National Brotherhood Week. "It's only for a week,
so have no fear," he chortled. "Be grateful that it
doesn't last all year!" Labor Day lasts twenty-four hours.
Too bad we need it.
Norman Solomon is co-author of Wizards of Media Oz: Behind
the Curtain of Mainstream News and author of The Trouble with
Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh.