Bryce Greene Media Criticism Union Wave

As Unions Gain 273,000 Members, Media Opt for Gloomy Headlines

When numbers are a mixed bag, deciding whether to frame them positively, negatively or neutrally is a deliberate editorial decision.
Headline that reads "Union membership fell to record low in 2022, Bureau of Labor Statistics says"

By Bryce Greene / Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

The Washington Post (1/19/23), owned by anti-labor billionaire Jeff Bezos, put a downbeat spin on unionization numbers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics last week issued numbers that included how many US workers were union members. The numbers showed that while the number of union members increased by 273,000, to a total of 14.3 million, their share of the overall workforce decreased, from 10.3% to 10.1%.

These numbers are obviously a mixed bag, so deciding whether to frame them positively, negatively or neutrally is a deliberate editorial decision. In this case, several media organizations opted for the harshest interpretation of the data, framing this only as a loss for unions:

  • Union Membership Fell to Record Low in 2022, Bureau of Labor Statistics Says (NBC News1/19/23)
  • Union Membership Dropped to Record Low in 2022 (Politico1/19/23)
  • Union Membership Hit Record Low in 2022 (Washington Post, 1/19/23)

Others nodded to the increased labor enthusiasm, but still centered the negative numbers:

  • US Union Membership Rate Falls to All-Time Low Despite Organizing Efforts, Data Shows (Reuters1/19/23)
  • Union Membership Drops to New Low Despite Organizing Wave (The Hill, 1/19/23)
  • US Union Membership Rate Hits All-Time Low Despite Campaigns (Associated Press, 1/19/23)
  • Union Membership Rate Hits Record Low Despite Votes at AppleAmazon, Starbucks (Wall Street Journal1/19/23)

Though not false, the headlines do paint an incomplete picture. Organized labor didn’t decrease in size; rather, it was non-unionized labor that grew at a quicker rate.

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The Economic Policy Institute put out a brief on the numbers that painted a far less sour picture about the state of labor. For example, it cited a Gallup poll from last year that showed that at 71%, public approval of unions is at its highest levels since 1965. Recent data show that between October 2021 and September 2022, petitions to form a union increased by 53%.

Outlets like AP (1/19/23) chose a frame that stressed the futility of organizing.

EPI noted that there are also a large number of workers who would join a union if they could. According to Gallup’s polling of non-unionized workers, 20%–35% of them have moderate to extreme interest in joining a union—some 25–45 million people, or roughly two to three times the number currently unionized.

Though it wasn’t reflected in their headlines, many of the above stories included the raw-number increase and at least some of the data showing record-breaking pro-union sentiment. Headlines, however, set the tone for both the reader and the national conversation.

Grappling with the apparent contradiction between public enthusiasm for unions and the declining proportion of unionized labor, EPI found that much of the disconnect comes from a labor law regime that favors employers—and a government that poorly enforces the laws that do exist. According to one 2019 study, “employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns.” Worse still, these numbers don’t include the violations that are tolerated or ignored altogether.

None of the pieces cited above connected their dark picture of unionization to this rampant criminality, shielding employers from scrutiny.

The society-wide benefits and popularity of unions are well understood—especially by the news industry workforce, which has undergone its own wave of labor militancy. Painting unnecessarily dour pictures does little to push public discourse in a positive way.

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Bryce Greene
Bryce Greene

Bryce Greene is a writer based in Indiana.

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