Why Britain’s labour movement needs a red-hot media strategy
After a summer of strikes, unions need to up their media game to make real and lasting gains for workers
As a sociologist researching the relationship between trade unions and the media, I watched with fascination – and admiration – as an estimated 200,000 workers took strike action in the UK this summer in response to the cost of living crisis. Over the next few days, unions are expected to call for coordinated strike action at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) annual conference.
Historically, the media has always been the key battleground for trade unions competing with employers and the government to influence public debate. The media can play a decisive role in determining the outcome of industrial disputes – for instance, by generating negative coverage that weakens workers’ solidarity and resolve on the picket lines.
If the labour movement wants to make real and lasting gains for workers in today’s broken Britain, it’s crucial that it comes up with its own red-hot media strategy.
Hostile media landscape
In the UK, trade unions face an extremely hostile media landscape: a predominantly right-wing press owned by a handful of billionaires; the almost total disappearance of industrial correspondents; the loss in the mid-twentieth century of a national, TUC-funded media platform; and a meek Labour Party desperately trying to distance itself from the labour movement.
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Furthermore, the specific phenomenon of anti-union bias in national newspapers, which often sets news agendas for broadcasters, is well documented and goes back several decades.
During the 1984-85 miners’ strike, a war metaphor was a persistent feature of media coverage. Strikers and the National Union of Mineworkers were cast in the role of the enemy and demonised, while the position of the government and police repression was legitimised.
Fast forward to the 2002-03 firefighter dispute, and research found coverage – in the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Sun – to be heavily loaded against the Fire Brigades Union. Interestingly, these newspapers were entirely unaffected by the union’s well-planned media strategy and public relations efforts.
More recently, researchers studying the 2010 British Airways cabin crew strike and the 2015-16 junior doctors strike identified a habitual stigmatisation of strikes by misleadingly associating them with violence and terrorism.
In light of all this, it comes as no surprise that mainstream media coverage of this year’s so-called ‘hot strike summer’ has featured many of the same discursive techniques.
The railway strikes led by the RMT union have been particularly illustrative. The most common anti-union attacks portray rail workers as overpaid, greedy and undeserving of their wealth, drawing a contrast between the salaries of union and non-union workers, focusing on the plight of consumers such as stranded rail passengers, and red-baiting trade union leaders.
The challenge this autumn is that negative coverage is likely to become even more vicious as the TUC seeks to ratchet up pressure by coordinating strikes across a range of sectors – potentially emboldening employers and the government to take harsh counteractions such as union-busting and further restrictions on the right to strike.
A recent article in the American Journal of Sociology suggests that the power of the press to support capital becomes more potent as labour struggles intensify. If they are to be successful, trade unions will need to double down on countering the biased and unflattering framing of strikes by the mainstream media, as well as Tory MPs.
The Mick Lynch effect
In the short term, brilliant TV appearances by union leaders such as RMT’s formidable Mick Lynch will continue to be a vital tactic. By subverting the expectations of popular culture and articulating a socialist perspective with clarity, conviction and wit, Lynch has managed to neutralise anti-union messaging in front of millions of people. There’s even a compilation of his greatest hits on YouTube.
Additional high-profile endorsements from Labour Party MPs such as sacked shadow transport minister Sam Tarry, journalists and celebrities like Rob Delaney will also be indispensable for defending the legitimacy of industrial action.
In the political arena, the UK’s two biggest trade unions, Unison and Unite, will need to put their full weight behind grassroots campaigns such as the People’s Assembly and the new Enough is Enough campaign.
My fear is that without this kind of coalition building with social movements, the labour movement will miss a historic opportunity to shift the Labour Party leftwards again. (As my own research has shown, the tactic of building union-led coalitions with social movements and organising mass mobilisations using social media was pivotal for the extraordinary rise of Corbynism.)
The labour movement could spearhead a resurgence of industrial correspondents by funding journalism degrees
Last but not least, trade unions need to ramp up the production of videos for social media. This is a cost-effective way of mobilising workers to vote in strike ballots, share grievances and participate in pickets, while simultaneously damaging the reputations of managers. A brilliant example is the University and College Union’s superb spoof video of two vice-chancellors – enriched by fat-cat pay packets – sneering at their workers while drinking martinis in a limo.
However, social media is not without risks. Companies hit by strike action, as well as the Conservative Party embroiled in public-sector disputes with rail workers, waste collectors, NHS staff and postal workers are likely to be using social media just as intensely to try to discredit trade unions. This can happen either overtly through counter-communication or covertly through trolling, ‘dark post’ ads and surveillance that could result in blacklisting and worker activists being fired.
This type of activity is in the shadows for now, due to the echo-chamber effect on social media, but its impact on public opinion could be substantial and must not be underestimated.
A new version of the Daily Herald
In the medium to long term, the British labour movement could spearhead a resurgence of industrial correspondents by funding journalism degrees at the country’s most prestigious universities.
As ex-BBC correspondent Nicholas Jones argues, “we are lacking the in-depth reporting of old, the background coverage and analysis in press, television and radio, that used to put industrial strife into context and give workers a voice.”
Creating a cohort of sympathetic journalists is a fairly easy way to begin rectifying this state of affairs. A crowdfunding campaign targeting the UK’s more than six million union members is a possible source of financing.
But by itself, such an initiative doesn’t go far enough. To end on an even more idealistic note, the labour movement should seriously consider launching a 21st-century version of the UK’s Daily Herald, which was owned by the TUC from 1922-29, when the union sold a 51% stake to Oldhams Press. (The TUC sold its remaining shares in the paper in 1964.)
At the height of its powers in the early 1930s, the Daily Herald was the world’s best-selling newspaper, reaching millions of almost exclusively working-class readers.
The history of this storied institution, which helped to sustain the powerful labour movement in the early postwar period, has been all but forgotten. I’m aware of it only because my great-grandfather once worked there as a journalist.
A latter-day Herald should aim to produce high-quality news for and about workers that is circulated through the journalistic food chain – influencing other newspapers as well as TV and radio. It could include a union-funded YouTube channel, as proposed by the cultural and political theorist Jeremy Gilbert.
Naturally, such a sophisticated large-scale endeavour would be expensive and difficult to achieve in today’s highly competitive, digitised newspaper market. Perhaps the best place to start would be a feasibility study, led by the TUC, that takes the Guardian’s supporters model as inspiration and tries to determine under what conditions unions and charitable trusts would be willing to fund it.
One might ask, why bother? Because without it, capital will always have an ace up its sleeve in its fightback against a resurgent British labour movement.
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