Trade Unions and the Media – a look forward to our upcoming Festival of Debate events

MediaNorth’ editor Granville Williams sets the scene for our two online events for the Festival of Debate, on Trade Union topics.

The June 2020 issue of ‘MediaNorth’ had a specific theme of trade unions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We return to trade union themes with two events during the Sheffield Festival of Debate 2021: Trade Unions, Workers’ Rights and the Media on 5 May, and Wapping: The Workers’ Story on 12 May.

Both of them are timely. We saw, during March, huge publicity about the attempt to organise a union at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

“Amazon Fresh” by Atomic Taco is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I’ve written about this twice now in Yorkshire Bylines. The first was a background piece, the second an analysis of what went wrong. The US magazine The Nation carried a scathing piece by Jane McAlevey, Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign’ which came out minutes after the result was announced. 

The article was widely shared and criticised, particularly for its attack on one section of media reporting.

She wrote:

‘The media, especially the genre of media called the labor media, should have never overhyped this campaign… When media folks prioritize clicks and followers over reality, it doesn’t help workers, and probably hurts them.’

I’ve always rated Steven Greenhouse’s reporting – he was the Industrial Correspondent (they’re called Labor Reporters in the States) for the New York Times until he retired. His book ‘The Big Squeeze: Tough Times For the American Worker’ (2008) is there prominently on my bookshelves. He was one of the targets of Jane McAlelvey’s criticism and he took issue with this cheap shot against ground-breaking journalism .   

This is what he has to say in a Facebook post about the ballot:

‘Even though some critics have slammed the union for losing the unionization drive at Amazon, that union drive was in many ways a gift to the larger labor movement:

The union’s campaign put Amazon on trial worldwide for its harsh treatment of workers. 

It exposed blatant Amazon’s union-busting. 

It got a sitting president to make an extraordinary pro-union video.  

It got the nation to focus more on the need for expanding labor rights. 

It showed that many Amazon workers across the U.S. want a union.

It stimulated more worker activism at Amazon. 

It even got Jeff Bezos to admit that Amazon needs to treat its workers better.’

There’s another piece by John Logan which covers these points well and also takes up the specific criticism of reporters overhyping the campaign. He is clear: 

‘The criticism is utterly preposterous: these journalists, and many others,have published meticulously researched and balanced stories that consistently stressed the enormous obstacles the union faced. 

Moreover, their outstanding reporting on the Amazon campaign – which has probably done more to revitalize the “labor beat” than any other single union story – is another great legacy of the campaign, especially the detailed reporting on the actions Amazon took to “crush” the union campaign.’

The Media, Trades Unions and Workers’ Rights

Wednesday 5 May 6.00-7.30pm

Media coverage in the UK of trades unions and workers’ rights is the focus of the first Festival of Debate event. Sarah Woolley, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union (BFAWU) is speaking. She is highly respected for her energy and work around campaigns like ‘Sheffield Needs A Pay Rise’.

Nick Jones, a former BBC Industrial Correspondent with wide experience of covering trade unions, is also speaking. The third speaker is Jim Boumelha representing the International Federation of Journalists.

Those with long memories will recall the Pergamon strike over union recognition by the National Union of Journalists which lasted from 1989 to 1992. Jim was actively involved in that dispute against the media mogul Robert Maxwell.

Film Wapping: The Workers’ Story

Wednesday 12 May 5.45-7.15pm

Another media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, is at the centre of our second event, featuring the outstanding documentary ‘Wapping: The Workers’ Story’.

I have reviewed the film and urge people to see it at this event.

From Wapping: The Workers’ Story (2020), dir. Christopher Reeves (all images courtesy News International Dispute Archive)

There will be a post-film discussion with Paul Routledge, a Wapping ‘refusenik’, and Ann Field who was at the centre of the Wapping dispute in 1985-86 and played a key role in creating the exhibition and News International Dispute Archive for the 25th anniversary of the strike.

Paul Routledge now writes for the Daily Mirror, but worked for The Timeswhen the Wapping dispute started. 

Rupert Murdoch is now 90. His baleful legacy as a media mogul has been to disseminate globally in his print and broadcast media ideas which have fostered hatred, war, division over six decades. And through all that time he has been fiercely hostile towards trade unions.

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