The Press and the Class Struggle

— Barry Eidlin

Outside the Box:
Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike
By Deepa Kumar
Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007, 237 pages, $35 hardcover.

EARLY ON THE morning of August 19, 1997, the U.S. labor movement experienced something it had rarely known in recent years: a victory on a national scale. After two weeks out on strike, over 185,000 members of the Teamsters Union had reached a contract settlement with shipping giant United Parcel Service. It was hard to paint it as anything other than a win for the union. On almost every major issue, the Teamsters were able to force UPS to agree to their demands.

Labor leaders and activists across the country understandably savored the victory. When Teamsters General President Ron Carey proclaimed that the strike “marked a new era,” and that “this victory strikes a signal that American workers are on the move again after 15 years of taking it on the chin,”(1) it seemed as if he could very well be right.

Notably, not only had the union won almost all its demands, but for the first time in decades polls showed that Americans supported the striking workers over management, by a two-to-one margin. If the Teamsters could do it at UPS, couldn’t other unions build on that success elsewhere?

Segments of the business press certainly expressed such fears. A headline in Business Week called the strike “a wake-up call for business,” warning that the strike “captured what seemed to be a new mood in America.”(2) Others such as the Wall Street Journal retained a more measured assessment, arguing that the strike “fail[ed] to shift the balance of power back toward U.S. workers,” and that “a lot more than one strike will be needed to reverse forces that have shifted the balance of power from employees to employers over the past two decades.”(3)

Ten years on we can see that the Wall Street Journal had a point. The Teamsters’ momentum hit a snag within days after the UPS victory, when a federal election officer overturned the results of Carey’s 1996 re-election as a result of fundraising irregularities and ordered a rerun.

In November of that year, Carey was ruled ineligible to run again, and in July of 1998 the joint government-union appointed Independent Review Board expelled Carey from the union for life. Even though a jury in 2001 acquitted him of any knowledge of or participation in the wrongdoing in the illegal fundraising and laundering schemes, the damage had been done: Carey had been removed, paving the way for the election of James P. Hoffa.

Unlike Carey, Hoffa has been content to preside over the steady decline of the union. For example, he is currently seeking a sub-standard deal with UPS’ recently acquired freight division (the former Overnite Express, where Hoffa first demonstrated his dubious organizing and strike-leading skills), which will very likely undercut the Teamsters’ own National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA), the contract widely considered to be his father James R. Hoffa’s crowning achievement. Similarly, in the current round of UPS contract negotiations, it appears that Hoffa will give the company precisely what Carey wouldn’t ten years ago, and allow UPS to pull out of the big Teamster Central States pension plan.

Yet even though the aftermath of the UPS strike didn’t live up to its promise, it remains important, not so much for the two weeks of the strike itself — although that in and of itself is a major accomplishment — but for the years of careful and patient organizing that preceded it. It showed how the combination of a mobilized rank and file with a militant, well-organized leadership could point the way forward out of labor’s two-decade long downward spiral. Identifying and understanding the conditions and factors that led to the Teamsters’ success in the 1997 UPS strike can thus still yield valuable lessons.

Although the strike grabbed national headlines at the time, and spawned numerous op-eds and quick think pieces in the months following its successful conclusion, there have been relatively few attempts at systematically analyzing the causes and consequences of the strike in greater depth.

This being the case, Deepa Kumar’s new book-length treatment of the UPS strike, Outside the Box, should be a welcome contribution to our understanding of the strike and its larger significance. Unfortunately it attempts too much and delivers less than it promises.

Class Struggle and Mass Media

Before proceeding with an analysis of the book, it is worth alerting readers to the fact that Outside the Box is not, nor is it intended to be, a detailed analysis of the Teamsters’ strategy and how it unfolded in the lead-up to the strike and the strike itself. Those interested in such a piece should read strike strategists Matt Witt and Rand Wilson’s article on the subject,(4) as well as Dan La Botz’s pamphlet produced by Solidarity.(5) Although both necessarily lack much of the narrative richness and detail that a book-length treatment would provide, these remain the best accounts of the strike.

Rather, Kumar seeks to use the case of the UPS strike as a means of examining the relationship between dynamics of class struggle and their portrayal in the mass media. Her key claim, based on her analysis of strike coverage from 269 network television news stories and 191 newspaper stories and editorials from USA Today, The Washington Post and The New York Times, is that coverage shifted from “traditional” (read pro-company) to pro-labor between the first and second weeks of the strike, and then shifted back to traditional immediately following the strike’s conclusion.

She uses this finding to develop what she calls a “dominance/resistance” model of media analysis, which proposes that “under normal circumstances [the media] uphold the status quo, but during times of social upheaval they can be pressured to include dissenting voices.” (120) She then applies this model to the coverage of the UPS strike, arguing that the fact of the strike created precisely such a moment of social upheaval. As a result, Kumar argues:

"The working class, which is barely conscious of its class identity because of an ideological environment dominated by corporations, recognized that the experiences of the striking workers were similar to their own. By mobilizing class consciousness, the Teamsters won public opinion, which then influenced the tone of strike coverage in several national news media outlets, and, in turn, prevented politicians, who under other circumstances would not have been reluctant from using the Taft-Hartley Act to stop the strike. Coupled with the financial losses from the strike, the pressure was on UPS." (151)

Kumar emphasizes the crucial importance of the disruptive power of the strike both to transform individual consciousness and to reshape the balance of ideological forces, if only temporarily. This of course is a theme running through much of the Marxist literature on the relation between social structures and ideas, going back to Marx and Engels, and especially Gramsci, whose concept of hegemony Kumar invokes.

The author uses this point to critique a variety of theories from the worlds of labor and media studies. To the labor bureaucrats and their apologists who claim that “strikes no longer work” in the age of globalization, she offers the UPS strike as decisive proof that they remain an essential weapon in the working-class arsenal.

As for the world of media studies, she aims her attack at three separate schools of thought. First, for postmodernists, who she argues have abandoned actual struggle in the material world for an empty retreat into “discursive resistance,” the case of the UPS strike emphasizes that discourse is not enough, and that real world “strategies of struggle” remain necessary for creating real social change.

Second, for liberal pluralists who view the media as a means of bringing divergent constituencies together “to establish a consensus that serve[s] the interest of the entire community” (166), the UPS strike exposes the social fact of increasing class polarization and that whatever “consensus” exists in the mainstream media — absent intense levels of social struggle — works decisively in favor of business interests.

Third, for exponents of what she calls “political economy” (by which she primarily means critical media scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman), the UPS strike shows that they get Gramsci only half right, and that under certain conditions of social struggle, such as the UPS strike, capitalist media hegemony can be broken.

Overstretching

I imagine that most readers of this magazine would agree with these critiques. The problem with the book is the way in which Kumar makes them. Simply put, she overstretches herself, trying to make too many arguments with too little evidence. The result is a book that, in its effort to make sure that the UPS strike is properly contextualized, veers off into overly broad, abstract discussions of globalization, transformations in U.S. political economy over the past 50 years, corporate restructuring and the development of lean production, the decline of the labor movement, the rise of the mass media and national identity, not to mention “family values,” semiotics, and the class nature of the former Soviet Union.

This is not to deny that these are important issues, or in some way relevant to the overall context in which the UPS strike took place — indeed most of them are. The problem is that each of these issues is a body of scholarship unto itself, and Kumar does little to bring these literatures together, let alone discuss them in the context of the UPS strike. As a result, her discussions don’t advance our understanding of these issues beyond what others have already said more persuasively and concisely.

To be sure, the book consists of more than Kumar’s discussions of other people’s work. At its core is her detailed textual analysis of the corporate media’s coverage of the strike. The findings from this painstaking original research could have offset the shortcomings of the overly elaborate framing of the book.

Yet Kumar unnecessarily places her findings under a cloud of suspicion by not allowing the reader any way to verify her findings independently. She does not actually report the findings anywhere in the book, nor provide a methodological appendix explaining how she compiled, coded and calculated her data. But even taking Kumar at her word, her empirical findings seem somewhat inconclusive. Indeed, only two out of the three national newspapers she studied, and one of the three television networks, actually underwent this shift during the second week of the strike. This hardly constitutes ironclad evidence of a major shift. At best it’s a debatable point.

Similarly, Kumar overreaches in her interpretation of the Gallup poll showing 2-to-1 public support for UPS Teamsters over management. This was indeed a significant factor in keeping the pressure on the company and building momentum for the strike. However, it is somewhat of a stretch to claim, based solely on the findings of this poll, that public support was the result of UPS workers “mobiliz[ing] class consciousness” amongst American workers as a whole.

The author’s research design and theoretical argument actually leads her to dismiss factors which played a critical role in ensuring the strike’s success. For example, by limiting herself to national newspaper and television media, Kumar by definition had to ignore the role of local media. But as Witt and Wilson detail in their article, and as Kumar mentions in passing, one of the key elements of the Teamsters’ media strategy was to get rank-and-file UPSers to tell their own stories. Most often, this would involve local media.

As a result, Kumar notes that in the buildup to the strike “local news media outlets received much of their information from the workers,” and that “coverage in local media enabled the public to get a sense of what was at stake for UPS workers.” (137) Could these local media have played a role in building public support for the strike?

Dominance/Resistance Model

Kumar’s empirical findings might not be as conclusive as we would hope them to be, but perhaps her proposed “dominance/resistance model” of media analysis offers redeeming insights into our conception of how the mass media work.

To her credit, Kumar does a great job of summarizing and synthesizing existing research that has sought to identify the mass media’s main “mechanisms of dominance.”

However, she is much vaguer when it comes to identifying the critical mechanisms of resistance.

Essentially, she argues that under certain chance circumstances, “critical viewpoints do find a space in the media.” However, she warns, “these expressions of dissent are not truly significant, because they typically do not set the terms of discussion or impact how the news is gathered, packaged, and sold to the public.” (50)

For that to happen, she argues, “it takes a collective struggle.” As she elaborates, “during times of social upheaval, when large movements challenge the status quo, the media are pressured to make note of this dissent.” In an effort to develop this idea, she calls for “an emphasis on studying these concrete circumstances [of social upheaval] as a way to understand the struggle for hegemony.” (52)

This is without question a worthwhile undertaking. Moreover, the UPS strike is an excellent example of a mass mobilization that won public support and pressured the media to take notice. As such it serves as an excellent case study of success.

In Chapter 5 on “The Battle for Hegemony,” Kumar provides a detailed account of the carefully built, months-long contract campaign that helped the strike to succeed.

This, along with an appendix featuring an in-depth interview with former Teamster General President Ron Carey, is probably the book’s best and most useful chapter. Even though much of the same material is covered in the Witt and Wilson and La Botz pieces, her focus on relating the contract campaign and strike to the struggle in the mass media provides an interesting and worthwhile perspective.

As impressive as Kumar’s analysis of the media campaign surrounding the buildup to the UPS strike might be, it is not enough to make a convincing case for her proposed model of media analysis. Again, there is no question that the UPS strike qualifies as a case study of successfully challenging media hegemony. But those closely involved in the campaign, such as Witt and Wilson, recognize that a variety of chance factors, such as the public’s affection for UPS drivers and the slow August news cycle, played a role in enabling the strikers to counter the media’s status quo pro-business stance.

Additionally, U.S. labor history over the past few decades records other examples of strikes that mobilized their membership, garnered public support, and nevertheless failed to sway the media. (Think of the P-9 strike at Hormel, the 1989 Eastern Airlines strike, or the 1990s “War Zone” strikes in Illinois.)

How then are we to specify the critical factors that made the difference in the Teamsters’ case? In order to be useful to those of us interested in understanding how media hegemony works in order to challenge it, Kumar’s model must be able to answer this question. What is missing is some kind of comparative case, perhaps an example of a militant strike that failed to break through the mass media’s pro-corporate bias.

Such a comparative study could enable Kumar to put forth a more useful model that could separate out the chance factors and zero in on the critical conditions under which corporate media hegemony can be broken. Such a study would very likely make up an entire new book in and of itself.

Out of the Box could have been a number of things: a case study in worker resistance to post-Fordist production, a survey of transformations in the global political economy over the past half century, a critique of liberal pluralism and postmodernism, or an analysis of corporate media hegemony and how to fight it, among others. In its attempt to do all of them at once, the book largely ends up disappointing.

Notes

  1. Jube Shriver, Jr. “UPS, Teamsters Reach Accord; Full Service Seen in a Few Days; Strike: Union chief calls the tentative pact a victory that signals an end to labor ‘taking it on the chin.’ White House pressured parties to settle 15-day walkout :[Home Edition].” Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1997, http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed August 29, 2007).
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  2. Paul Magnusson et al. “A Wake-Up Call for Business.” Business Week, September 1, 1997, http://www.lexisnexis.com/ (accessed August 29, 2007).
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  3. Jacob M. Schlesinger and Bernard Wysocki Jr. “Score Card: UPS Pact Fails to Shift Balance of Power Back Toward U.S. Workers — Still, It’s Important to Labor After Two Long Decades Of Waning Influence — Gauging Impact on Inflation.” Wall Street Journal,  August 20, 1997, Eastern Edition, http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed August 29, 2007).
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  4. Matt Witt and Rand Wilson. “The Teamsters’ UPS Strike of 1997: Building a New Labor Movement.” Labor Studies Journal, Spring 99, Vol. 24 Issue 1, 58-73. A PDF version of the article is available from the author upon request.
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  5. Dan La Botz. “The Fight at UPS: The Teamsters Victory and the Future of the ‘New Labor Movement.’” A Solidarity Pamphlet. November 1997. Available at http://www.solidarity-us.org/ups</.
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from ATC 131 (November/December 2007)