A Different Strike Story

Since I’m currently researching trade union narratives, you can imagine my ears pricked up when I heard the news today that Fairfax journalists were again going on strike. This time the strike is for a week, in protest against more staff cuts, and will likely mean it is pens down for reporting the 2017 budget. So, no small fry industrial action.

Apart from being sympathetic to any group of people who are having such a shit time at work that they have to stop work in order to show their bosses how unhappy they are, I was interested to know how journalists framed this strike, in comparison to how they frame strikes in industries other than their own.

In fact, I happen to know quite a bit about how industrial action is reported in the news, since it’s the topic of my research. As I read stories reporting the Fairfax strike, I instantly noticed a character missing from the journalist reports of their professional colleagues picketing the news desks.

Before I get to this mysterious exclusion, let me take a step back in my story. For those who haven’t been following my research, I’m interested in the use of metaphorical characters in narratives, used to frame the victims, villains and heroes into a cohesive plot. I contend that these characters are used in political narratives, in communication by political groups, and by the media, to report political news.

Although my research is in its early stages, it’s already clear that when reporting industrial strike action, the characterisation by journalists is fairly consistent. This Fairfax SMH article reporting strikes by airport workers is a representative case.

The characters in the airport strike story include:

The victims: ‘International travellers are being warned of major delays next week when hundreds of immigration and border protection workers walk off the job’.

The villains: ‘The industrial strife will be the latest escalation of a bitter workplace feud between Australia’s public sector union and the federal government’. A word of note here: the conflict frame is always used to report industrial action: conflict between the employer and the union. In this case, the federal government is the employer, and they are ‘feuding’ over an enterprise agreement. In fact, the best a union seems to be able to hope for in the conflict frame is that they are seen as just as villainous as the employer, as often (and usually in News Ltd newspapers, if you can believe it!), it’s the union that is the villain, getting in the way of the heroic employer who just wants to get on with their coveted role of creating piles of money.

The heroes: [This space is intentionally blank]. In a nutshell, there are no heroes in this frame. No one wins from this action, apparently. Industrial action is just bad, wrong and shouldn’t happen, because the public will be inconvenienced by strikes, whether the strikes be in a hospital, on public transport, at a construction site, or, at a newspa… Oops.

The spokespeople represented in this story include the union boss, CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood. She is quoted as trying to appease the victims, the public, by ensuring that national security would not be risked as there were exemptions in some areas of the strike.

On the government’s side, the spokesperson is Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, who is quoted as saying: ‘it was unfortunate that the CPSU has resorted to disruptive strike action “yet again”. “This will cause harm to the public and involve a needless loss of pay for employees,”.
This type of frame, by the way, from Liberals, is typical. Notice how the ‘disruptive strike’ is the union’s fault, and that not only are the public going to suffer, but also the poor employees who lose pay by going on strike.

Think about that for a moment. By turning the workers into victims as well, Cash is making workers the victim of union industrial action. It’s actually incredibly clever framing, which the Liberal Party, as far as I can tell from my research, has been using since before there was a Liberal Party. And guess what? The journalists, even those who are fairly balanced in the way they report, in that they don’t commentate, or editorialise, or obviously make any judgment, even the good ones fall for the old conflict frame of union versus employer, with the victims being those inconvenienced by the strike.

There is a pretty key player missing from the strike story here. Have you picked it yet? Yes – it’s the worker. The voiceless, powerless worker. The article mentions that the strikes have occurred, facilitated by the union, because the airport workers have been waiting three years for an enterprise agreement to be negotiated. Did the journalist ask any of the workers what ramifications it has had on their lives that they haven’t had an enterprise agreement for three years? Nope. No worker was quoted. I’ve written before about the need for union bosses to step out from in front of the camera, and to let workers speak for themselves. Please don’t think this is any criticism of the union in wanting to do their job in speaking for workers; it’s more of an acknowledgement of how successfully the media has managed to frame unions as villainous for so long that now, they’re framed as part of the problem instead of representing the decisions of workers. So, instead of speaking for workers, the union should help workers speak for themselves. This way, when you hear about an industrial strike on the television, you would get a sound bite from the worker who is, without fail, the victim of the situation. Because guess what – they wouldn’t strike unless something really bad was happening to them at work. Guaranteed. Don’t you want to know their side of the story?

So, back to the Fairfax strike. I promised to explain which character was missing from the reports of the Fairfax strike. Have you guessed it yet? Yep. This time the union is missing. Although not completely invisible (for instance, this article quotes The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance chief executive), the key difference with the union role in this strike story is that it is not responsible for the strike action. The journalists are. (Ironically, the union will be the ones possibly fined by the Fair Work Ombudsman, but that’s another whole story).

So, how are the journalists framed in the story? Are they villains for disrupting newspaper consumers? Nope. Are they framed as villains for disrupting the profit-making venture they work for and for hurting the company’s capacity to keep other staff employed, thereby threatening more job losses? Nope. They are framed as the victims. The victims of the job cuts. The victims of terrible business decisions. The victims of a workplace dispute which has led them, unhappily, to have to strike to have their (incidentally, already very powerful) voices heard. And better than that – they are also framed as the heroes, for standing up for their rights, for not letting the company get away with doing something wrong, for, yes, you guessed it, showing the brave, respected characteristic of solidarity.

For the record, I do feel sorry for the Fairfax workers. No worker should have to go through what they’re faced with. I just hope that this experience might make them look a little differently at industrial disputes they report in the future, and wonder if it might be worth including the perspective of the worker, who, without fail, is the victim in an industrial dispute. Then, we might hear a different strike story. And, we might, as a community, have a different view of unions.

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4 Comments on “A Different Strike Story”

  1. Arthur Baker says:

    Brilliant. Email the text of this blog to as many Fairfax journalists as you can, and let us know what response you get. If any.

  2. wam says:

    Wow Empress Victoria, a tale of enlightenment. I was unionist all my working life The officials were volunteers who were grass rooted and unpaid, In 72 three ‘associations’ melded to form one union and wow paid full time grass grazers, outside listeners, know morers and tellers. The first pres/vice/sec ran off a la menage a trois and volunteers till an election,
    Now I try to tell people the danger in believing generalisations categorising people as homogeneous groups, the folly of not questioning what is said, seen and written and the power we give if unionism is lost.
    Sadly ‘triers’ fail.

  3. Henry says:

    I love this. The removal of agency from workers and the demonisation of unions are traps that journalists too often fall into.

    I’d note that the Liberal Party strategy of focussing on workers who are not union members has deep roots. These workers’ lived experience lies at the heart of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel ‘North and South’, though clearly the Liberals take it to an extreme.

    But I think there might be more innocent explanations than that the journalists writing the articles personally know people who are striking. Journalists are professional communicators, so they are much better at standing in front of cameras than other workers might be. As a result, the MEAA is not required to do as much. In the airport example, most readers will be predominantly interested in how the strikes will affect their air travel. By contrast, the revelation that there will be less coverage of the Budget is, while noteworthy, not likely to lead to clicks.

    I really like your idea that, due to the history of negative portrayals of Australian unions, union officials might better achieve their ends by strategically allowing sympathetic workers to speak for themselves. Yet I can’t help but think there’s a further danger here as workers’ militancy tends not to be sympathetic (remember when John Howard was “rescued by police” after walking into a CFMEU rally?)

    All in all, I suppose I just have a bias in favour of journalists!


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