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 them.

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.

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