Kausfiles Special

Resurgence of “Labor Resurgence” Stories Puzzles Experts

In the four and a half years since he became president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney has revitalized the labor movement on at least three different occasions, according to reports from New York Times labor correspondent Steven Greenhouse.

In 1996, only six months after Sweeney took over and “helped throw out the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s tired old leadership,” the labor movement had “sprung back to life,” Greenhouse reported. Labor’s organizing efforts were “beginning to pay off.” At the start of this initial phase of “labor’s resurgence,” unions represented 14.9 percent of the overall work force, and 10.4 percent of private sector workers.

In January 1999, statistics showed that union membership had grown by 100,000 during 1998. But Greenhouse was skeptical, noting that “the percentage of union workers continued to fall, slipping to 13.9 percent from 14.1 percent,” while “membership in the private sector declined to 9.5 percent from 9.7 percent.”

Miraculously, however, only 10 months later, “Labor, Revitalized With New Recruiting, Has Regained Power and Prestige,” Times readers learned from the headline on Greenhouse’s Oct. 9 story. Four years after Sweeney’s accession, “things have turned around,” Greenhouse reported. “Inspired by Mr. Sweeney’s preaching about the need to reverse labor’s slide,” AFL-CIO officials were “optimistic that for the first time in decades, unions might be able to reverse the decline in the percentage of workers belonging to a union.”

Sure enough, when the 1999 statistics were announced earlier this year, it was “a development that labor experts called the strongest sign yet that John J. Sweeney, the AFL-CIO’s president, was succeeding in his efforts to reverse the labor movement’s lengthy slide.”

So, after this success–after labor had been “revitalized with new recruiting”–what was the percentage of workers who belonged to a union? It rose … er, rather, it “remained unchanged from 1998,” at 13.9 percent. And the private sector? The unionized share of private sector workers … well, it declined, to 9.4 percent.

In April of this year, meanwhile, Greenhouse reported that Sweeney’s revitalized labor movement was “mounting its biggest lobbying campaign ever on trade matters in seeking to defeat the Clinton administration’s drive to normalize commerce with China.” A month later, the Times front page featured another Greenhouse story, headlined “Despite Defeat on China Trade Bill, Labor Is on the Rise.” That was because of the “rebound [that] has been engineered by John J. Sweeney,” who had “focused on attracting new members.”

Labor-expert experts advanced several theories to explain the persistent resurgence of “resurgence” stories in Greenhouse’s reporting, despite the apparent fact that labor’s share of the work force had failed to surge, or even rise, and had actually fallen a bit in the crucial private sector.

One school of experts–the so-called “mindless cheerleader” faction–noted that Greenhouse’s dispatches often read like press releases from Sweeney’s office. “Unions Deny Stand Over Trade Policy Is Protectionism,” read the headline over one Greenhouse piece that was actually the lead Times front-page story on a Sunday. Another Greenhouse story reported that workers at DaimlerChrysler and Boeing “have hit grand slams in their latest contracts.” In New York City, after a wave of corruption scandals, Greenhouse discovered that “a new cast of union leaders is starting to make the city’s labor movement more vigorous–and more combative–than it has been in decades …” (Oh yes: “Labor experts and union officials say”).

But other labor-expert experts say the “cheerleader” theory is too simple. They note that Greenhouse was skeptical of labor’s claims of revival in 1998 because, as his hed said, “Unions’ Percentage of Work Force Fell.” Yet in 1999 and 2000 he proclaimed the movement “revitalized,” even though the “unions’ percentage of work force” hadn’t budged and remained a full percentage point below where it had been when Sweeney took over. “If you’re a ‘cheerleader,’ why piss on Sweeney in ‘98?” notes Myron Kalbkurtzian, who has studied Greenhouse emissions at the University of Manitoba. He suspects that some more subtle dynamic is at work: Either “Sweeney’s flacks leaned on Greenhouse real hard” after the ‘98 piece, or else “Greenhouse realized early on that ‘Sweeney Revitalizes Labor’ was the preferred story line on his beat,” and he was determined to pursue the arc to its dramatic conclusion, even if it meant burying a few awkward facts.

“Otherwise, Greenhouse’s coverage makes absolutely no sense,” these experts say.