NPR Morning Edition aired a report this week that reeked of anti-union bias, and inadvertently promoted the Koch brothers’ agenda to reduce collective bargaining rights, which means smaller wages and benefits.
The report was rife with errors, missing facts, bollixed concepts, and a meaningless comparison used to impeach a union source.
Below I’ll detail the serious problems with reports by Lisa Autry of WKU Public Radio in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but first you should know why this matters to you no matter where you live.
A serious, very well-funded, and thoroughly documented movement to pay workers less and reduce their rights, while increasing the rights of employers, is gaining traction as more states pass laws that harm workers. A host of proposals in Congress would compound this if passed and signed into law.
News organizations help this anti-worker movement, even if they do not mean to, when they get facts wrong, lack balance, provide vagaries instead of telling details, and fail to apply time-tested reporting practices to separate fact from advocacy.
The advocates are sophisticated. They pose as “nonprofit research organizations,” but are better described as ideological marketing agencies.
There’s nothing wrong with marketing ideology, only with not being honest about what you are doing.
These tax-exempt outfits operate on the model of Madison Avenue; reinforcing instincts, hopes, and desire to stir demand for what may not be good for you or be of dubious effectiveness.
Carefully read, their reports are mostly assertions with a sprinkling of cherry-picked facts and projections, which I have found, reviewing them years later, turned out to be wrong.
Midwestern and southern states have been enacting anti-worker laws that take away collective bargaining rights, while forcing unions to represent people who do not share in the costs of collective bargaining and protecting workers in grievance proceedings. Other laws directly reduce compensation, especially pensions, although police and firefighters are generally shielded.
A key part of this strategy is creating the impression that unions are bad for workers. This goes to a problem that Presidents John Adams and James Madison feared would destroy the nation – the rise of a “business aristocracy” that would trick people whose only income was from wages into supporting policies that would be good for the business aristocrats, but bad for workers.
The NPR report was about Kentucky counties that are passing so-called “right to work” laws, a worthy topic for sure.
Early on, reporter Lisa Autry makes this untrue statement: “Democrats have rejected efforts to allow employees in unionized companies the freedom to choose whether to join a union.”
No law requires workers to join a union under a binding U.S. Supreme Court decision. Congress outlawed the “closed shop” in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, formally known as the Labor Management Relations Act.
Workers at firms with union contracts are only required to pay dues that cover the costs of representing them in negotiating contracts and grievance procedures.
Russell D. Lewis, the NPR Southern bureau chief who edited Autry’s report, told me he was only vaguely aware of the Taft-Hartley Act and did not recognize her error.
From an economic perspective, what so-called “right to work” laws do is allow workers to enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining and contract enforcement without sharing in the costs. This is a form of moral hazard that weakens unions and makes it likely that they will fail because of what economists call the free rider problem: Those who do not share in the costs of negotiating contracts and enforcing them enjoy the same benefits and protections as those who do.
Autry’s NPR report failed to mention a central fact – Kentucky’s highest court ruled in 1965 that cities and counties cannot adopt local collective bargaining laws. In a case that unions brought against Jesse Puckett, mayor of Shelbyville, Kentucky’s highest court ruled (emphasis added):
it is not reasonable to believe that Congress could have intended to [leave to local governments] the determination of policy in such a controversial area as that of union-security agreements. We believe Congress was willing to permit varying policies at the state level, but could not have intended to allow as many local policies as there are local political subdivisions in the nation. It is our conclusion that Congress has pre-empted from cities the field undertaken to be entered by the Shelbyville ordinance.
In reports for her local NPR station, Autry never cited this. She did, however, a report on a politician who told her that equal numbers of people believe a county-level ordinance would be legal or illegal. In another report, on whether counties have the legal authority to pass such laws, she said, “the answer depends on who you ask.”
It took me less than a minute using an Internet search engine to find the 1965 case. It was also cited in a nuanced and balanced January news report in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Even cub reporter Gina Clear of the News-Enterprise in Elizabethtown, KY provided coverage that was balanced and far better informed than Autry’s.
Did Autry fail to report the court decision because of laziness, poor judgment, or anti-union bias? I cannot give you a definitive answer because Autry and Kevin Willis, WKU’s news director, ignored my repeated requests for an interview, passing the buck to Lewis.
Strange, journalists who expect people to return their calls but do not hold themselves to that standard.
My review of several dozen Autry pieces suggests a bias against unions and workers.
She frequently does one-sided reports using language that assumes only anti-union policies have merit, and quotes only anti-union sources. She also did a one-sided report against increasing the minimum wage.
Lewis, the NPR editor, noted that Autry quoted a United Auto Workers local official saying that Alabama and Mississippi, both with so-called “right to work” laws, have “some of the worst education, highest poverty. What happens is that as they reduce the union labor, less and less [sic] people are making a decent wage.”
But Autry followed that quote with a bizarre point to impeach the union official’s remarks: “Actually, since World War II, income and job growth have increased faster in right-to-work states.”
That might be relevant to a story about how Jim Crow laws kept, and still keep, blacks from many well-paying jobs. Or in a story about how taxpayer investments, especially in the Interstate Highways, canals, and electricity, opened the South to building factories after the war.
Autry cited no source. Lewis sent me a report by the Mackinac Center, another libertarian marketing agency. It is much more nuanced than Autry’s flat statement.
And actually, to invoke Autry’s word, what would be relevant would be current data on household incomes in states with and without laws requiring workers to pay for the benefits they get from any union that represents them.
In 2013 the median household income (half make more, half less) was $49,087 in so-called “right to work” states, but $56,746 in other states. That means in the states with diminished worker rights people have to work a full year plus eight weeks to get what their peers earn in a year.
Autry’s piece and Lewis’s editing seem to violate NPR’s ethics handbook, which says “good editors are also good prosecutors. They test, probe and challenge reporters, always with the goal of making NPR’s stories as good (and therefore as accurate) as possible.”
The handbook also says “attribute everything… When in doubt, err on the side of attributing — that is, make it very clear where we’ve gotten our information (or where the organization we give credit to has gotten its information). Every NPR reporter and editor should be able to immediately identify the source of any facts in our stories — and why we consider them credible. And every reader or listener should know where we got our information.”
In her NPR piece and a number of WKU reports, Autry quotes the Bluegrass Institute, which she describes as “a Kentucky-based think tank that advocates for smaller government.”
With just two employees, it doesn’t have much capacity to think.
What Autry neglected to report was that the Bluegrass Institute is an ad agency for Kochian ideas. It is also part of a network that is funded by corporate interests closely allied with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which poses as a nonpartisan advocate for smaller government and more federalism, but is funded by corporations opposed to unions, the Koch Brothers, and their confreres. While the network says its members are independent, behind closed doors it operates like an ideological Ikea selling libertarian ideas, The New Yorker magazine reported.
Editor Lewis told me he had no idea about the Bluegrass Institute’s connections.
Lewis also indicated he was not troubled by using the term “right to work,” which is both factually inaccurate and politically loaded. Based on the evidence I call them right-to-work-for-less laws. NPR surely should explain to listeners that an abundance of official data (and economic theory) show that union workers make more than their non-union counterparts.
Autry ended her NPR piece with another falsehood: “Meanwhile, several labor unions — including some from out of state — have filed a federal lawsuit to stop Kentucky’s local right-to-work movement.”
All of the unions represent workers in the county where the lawsuit was filed, a fact anyone who read the lawsuit should know. Irwin “Buddy” Cutler, the lawyer who filed the case, noted that to have standing – the right to sue – the union would have to represent workers in the county where the dispute exists.
Lewis said he did not know that, which explains his failure to ask what strikes me as an obvious question. Beyond that, what purpose did ending on this (false) point serve?
NPR owes listeners a corrective. It also needs to balance its reports and use relevant data. More importantly, all news organizations need to be wary of “think tanks” bearing easy information.
By: David Cay Johnston, The National Memo, March 21, 2015
“ALEC Cookie Cutter Legislation”: Wisconsin Anti-Union Bill Is ‘Word For Word’ From Rightwing Lobbyist Group
Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin who is considering a Republican presidential run, has promised to sign into law an anti-union bill targeted at the state’s private sector workers that is an almost verbatim copy of model legislation devised by an ultra-rightwing network of corporate lobbyists.
On Friday, Walker dropped his earlier opposition to a so-called “right to work” bill, which he had described as a “distraction”, signalling that he would sign it into law should it succeed in passing the Wisconsin legislature. Republican members are rushing through the provision, which would strip private sector unions of much of their fee-collecting and bargaining powers.
On Monday, the bill cleared a committee of the state senate. A vote of the full chamber is slated for later this week, and of the assembly early next month.
The resumption of union battles in Walker’s home state comes at an awkward time for the probable 2016 candidate, as he seeks to shift attention away from Wisconsin and towards a national political platform. On Thursday he will speak at the high-profile Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, where he will seek to press home his recent meteoric rise from a relatively obscure midwest executive to a leading contender among top Republicans.
It has now been disclosed that the Wisconsin 2015 right to work bill is a virtual carbon copy of a model bill framed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec). The council acts as a form of dating agency between major US corporations and state-level Republican lawmakers, bringing them together to frame new legislation favorable to big business interests.
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), which monitors the activities of Alec, has compared the Alec model bill and the new Wisconsin proposal and found them to be nearly identical.
“This bill is word for word from the Alec playbook, and that’s no surprise as the Wisconsin legislature is dominated by Alec members,” said the CMD’s general counsel, Brendan Fischer.
Walker too has close ties to Alec. He actively supported several Alec bills between 1993 and 2002, when he was a member of the Wisconsin assembly. On Sunday Alec posted to its Twitter feed a photograph of Walker with the Alec chief executive, Lisa Nelson, in which she said: “Great to be with Alec alumni @ScottWalker”.
The governor is no stranger to fighting unions. His current ascendancy is in part due to the national name recognition he gained when taking on public sector unions at the start of his first term in office, leading to headline-grabbling mass demonstrations.
To some extent, a renewal of such battles could play to his favour among the hardcore of rightwing Republicans who tend to determine the outcome of the party’s primary elections. On the other hand, any suggestion that Walker gave his backing to cookie-cutter legislation devised by a corporate lobbying group could hand the Democratic party valuable ammunition should Walker win the nomination and go on to face a general election.
He has already provided his opponents with considerable material for potential attack ads. In a recent trip to London to burnish his foreign policy credentials, he dodged a question about whether he believed in evolution. In December he got his “Mazel tovs” confused when he signed a letter to a Jewish constituent: “Thank you again and Molotov.”
The brewing union confrontation comes as Walker is increasing the pace of his exploratory activities around a 2016 campaign. The son of a preacher, he has been wooing evangelical Christian conservatives who are a key constituency in the opening caucuses of the presidential election in Iowa.
He has also stepped up meetings with prominent Republican donors.
The Wisconsin right to work bill is just one part of a nationwide push by Alec to undermine union power and rein in minimum wage levels. Twenty-four states currently have right to work laws and a rash of state legislatures are taking up the issue, partly under Alec’s encouragement.
By: Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, February 23, 2015
On Tuesday evening, a Republican committee chairman in the Wisconsin state senate, Stephen Nass, cut short a hearing on an anti-union bill, citing a “credible threat” that union members were about to disrupt the proceedings.
Credible threat? That’s the phrase used in terrorist warnings. But the only union members in Madison were the estimated 1,800 to 2,000 workers, many of them wearing hard hats and heavy coats, who’d gathered peacefully in and around the Capitol during the day to oppose the bill. They believe it’s an attack on working families designed to weaken organized labor – which it is.
So who was credibly threatening whom?
The Service Employees International Union, which represents low-wage service workers, had planned to protest the committee’s scheduled hard stop of testimony at 7 p.m., because the cut-off was too early to accommodate everyone who wanted to be heard. To avoid that, all the committee chairman had to do was extend the hearing. Instead, by ending it abruptly, dozens of people who had been waiting all day for the chance to speak were deprived of that opportunity – even as the Republican majority on the committee hastily voted to send the bill to the full Senate.
Not surprisingly, when the meeting ended early those who had been waiting erupted in anger and indignation, shouting profanities and “shame,” according to the A.P., and creating so much noise that the roll call vote could not be heard. The result — 3 Republicans in favor, 1 Democrat against and 1 Democrat who didn’t vote because he wanted more debate — was announced later. For someone so concerned about avoiding a disruption, Mr. Nass didn’t seem too concerned about causing one.
Mr. Nass later said he didn’t want protestors to disrupt the meeting the way they did hearings on Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s measure in 2011 to strip public unions of collective bargaining rights. Leaving aside the fact that those rallies lasted for weeks and drew up to 100,000, Mr. Nass said the protestors were trying to “take over the process of representing all of the people of this great state.”
Where does one start to unpack that? The protestors are the people of the great state. The bill in question threatens their pay, their jobs and their values. They were trying to participate in the process. Democracy, anyone?
By: Teresa Tritch, Taking Note, Editorial Page Editor’s Blog, The New York Times, February 25, 2015
It takes a lot to get Theodore J. St. Antoine mad. But what really got my Uncle Ted’s Irish up (our family hails from County Roscommon) was Michigan Governor Rick Snyder conspiring with the Republican-controlled legislature to turn the ancestral home of American labor into a “right-to-work” state – and to do it through fast-track legislation snuck through without public hearings or even notice while angry citizens mobilizing to protest this desecration of Michigan’s heritage were barred by police from their own State Capitol until the wretched deed was done.
The new law, says the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, was passed “in a travesty of normal democratic deliberation” as Snyder and Republicans rushed the right-to-work bill through a lame-duck session in a way that was “insidious.”
The anti-union crowd waited until after the election to pass it, said Dionne. Then Snyder, who had previously avoided taking a stand on right-to-work “miraculously discovered that it would be a first-rate economic development measure.”
Further, the law was attached to an appropriations bill as a rider to make it much harder for voters to later challenge the law through a popular referendum. It was the first time, Ted told the Wall Street Journal, he had ever seen a right-to-work law passed using a spending bill as a human shield to prevent the people from later shooting it down.
And so in a curtly-worded letter to Governor Snyder, Ted, who is a long-time labor law professor and one-time dean of the University of Michigan Law School, wrote this: “You have been elected to represent all the people of this State. You should do so.”
Ted now devotes most of his time to speaking and writing about subjects like the Model Employment Termination Act, a law he wrote as official draftsperson and which protects workers against arbitrary and capricious bosses.
As I said, Ted has a long fuse and his equanimity has been honed by years spent mediating union and management disputes, including the dozens of Major League Baseball arbitrations he’s settled involving super stars (and super-sized egos) like Curt Schilling, Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Darryl Strawberry.
And so Ted was surprised and disappointed that Governor Snyder, who posed as a sensible centrist, would act in such a ruthless and underhanded way against labor in a state that honors and even reveres labor unions.
“Although I am a life-long Democrat, I voted for you because I felt you had the business acumen and the balanced judgment to lead Michigan through some serious financial difficulties,” Ted said to Governor Snyder.
Though he understood the pressures Snyder was under, Ted said the Governor’s actions were disappointing nonetheless since “almost no one who seriously studies labor relations believes so-called ‘right-to-work’ legislation is a matter of ‘worker freedom.'”
Existing federal and state law already forbids workers from joining a union against their will or being subject to its discipline, said Ted. What the law does require is that if a majority of the employees want union representation, the union and the employer may agree that all the employees in the unit must pay their fair share of the representation costs that the union is legally obligated to provide for all the employees in the unit, without discrimination among union members and nonmembers, said Ted.
“Right-to-work” laws, said Ted, allow some workers to become “free riders” who benefit from the fruits of the union’s negotiating without having to pay for those benefits.
“It’s wholly contrary to democratic principles to argue that the minority need not pay what can fairly be described as the tax that the majority has levied to fund the collective representative,” said Ted.
But let’s be honest with ourselves, Ted told Snyder. “‘Right-to-work’ legislation is not proposed for the benefit of workers. Its proponents are the same persons who in the past have opposed minimum wages, workers’ compensation, Social Security, and a wide range of other social legislation.”
Right-to-work laws are supposed to attract new business into a state, but studies say their track record is mixed as best. “What we do know is that as union strength has waned, income and wealth inequality in this country has greatly increased,” said Ted. “Both the working class and the middle class have been the losers. And the true objective of ‘right-to-work’ legislation is to stifle even further the strength of unions.”
Indeed, as Dionne says, “the moral case for unions is that they give bargaining strength to workers who would have far less capacity to improve their wages and benefits negotiating as individuals. Further gutting unions is the last thing we need to do at a time when the income gap is growing.”
And not just the income gap. At a time when Big Money is stronger than ever, our democracy pays a huge price not having the countervailing power which labor unions provide.
It’s hard not to see this vote against unions, so quickly after Republicans were soundly defeated all throughout the union strongholds of the Midwest, as being a petulant reprisal against those who beat them and an effort to pave the road to Republican victories in 2014 by using the law to erode the foundations of the opposition.
After Republicans lost the popular vote for the fifth time in the last sixth presidential elections, Dionne said he was initially hopeful Republicans understood “new thinking might be in order.”
But after the sneak attack Republicans launched against labor in Lansing, Dionne is not so sure anything has really changed. It now looks as if Republicans are once again in the hands of those who reject adjusting to a new electorate and new circumstances and instead believe the strategy for future victories lies in using naked government power to “alter the political playing field in a way that diminishes the political influence of groups likely to be hostile to the conservative agenda.”
And that is why my disappointed uncle sent his “Dear Rick” letter to Michigan’s Governor Snyder.
By: Ted Frier, Open Salon, December 19, 2012
Without one hearing or any public comment in the midst of a lame-duck session after an election where Republicans lost five seats in the State House and their presidential candidate lost the state by 9.5 percent, Republicans in both Michigan’s House and Senate have passed so-called ‘right to work’ legislation.
Republican governor Rick Snyder, who campaigned as a moderate and continually said that ‘right to work’ was not on his agenda now, says he will sign the legislation.
Thus Michigan will become the 24th state in the union to pass legislation that bars unions from automatically collecting dues from all employees covered under a collective bargaining agreement. This highly symbolic move to strike at the heart of unions in the state where unionized auto workers helped create the middle class would not be possible without the support of multi-billionaires, specifically the Koch brothers and Rich DeVos, founder of Amway.
The bill that Snyder will sign is nearly identical to model legislation written by Koch-funded group American Legislative Exchange Council. Another Koch-funded group, Americans for Prosperity, has been advocating for the legislation, reportedly pressuring lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, who had previously refused to support the anti-union measure. For the Kochs, the intent of the bill is to clearly to diminish the power of the group that fuels the progressive movement–organized labor.
A group calling itself “Freedom To Work” has deluged Michigan’s TV airwaves in support of the legislation, arguing that the bill would both create jobs and “protect collective bargaining.”
According to state rep. Brandon Dillon, Freedom To Work is funded by Amway’s DeVos, a Michigan resident who ran for governor against Jennifer Granholm in 2006 and lost.
Longtime Michigan political advisor Dana Houle insists that this bill isn’t about making Michigan more competitive, as Governor Snyder suggests. It’s a about enacting a vast scope of right-wing legislation.
“Don’t anyone think that passing ‘right to work’ in Michigan is about economics, about jobs, about business,” Houle said. “It’s about wiping out the political and electoral power of unions so they can’t stand in the way of Dick DeVos electing apparatchiks who will enact his radical religious-right and anti-public schools agenda.”
Unions are considering their options to undo the bills, which were designed so they cannot be overturned by a popular vote.
For those still wondering how ‘right to work’ or ‘right to work for less’ or ‘freedom to freeload’ could happen in a union stronghold like Michigan, take a look at this helpful breakdown of where the AFL-CIO thought the votes would come from. It turns out they were right.
Photo: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio; Chart: AFL-CIO
By: Jason Sattler, The National Memo, December 11, 2012