It was a television advertisement from the mid-’70s.
The blue-collar worker shuffles home from work, enters his living room, plunks himself down in his favorite easy chair and takes off his shoes. His wife, heading toward the kitchen to prepare the evening meal, crosses past his stocking feet and suddenly collapses. The ad announcer then praises a new foot spray that can stop smelly feet and perhaps also save marriages.
Another blue-collar worker with bulging belly is seen on the screen as having overeaten himself into an upset stomach. But he discovers the fizzling pills in his medicine cabinet and quickly recovers with guttural expressions of .delight.
William Winpisinger does not like the way factory workers are portrayed on television. Since he heads the million-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), he felt the need to raise the roof a bit about television’s portrayal of the nation’s workers. So he started to speak up. But TV executives pretty much ignored Winpisinger’s concerns about the image of American labor on television.
No, this was not the beginning of a vigilante censorship movement. Rather, the union chief was acting out of a belief that TV viewers ought to begin to understand the values transmitted by the omnipresent tube and, if they didn’t like what they were seeing, to start speaking up. Why, he reasoned, leave viewer feedback to the mysterious workings of the Nielsen ratings?
Winpisinger started a media project. He trained IAM families to monitor both entertainment and news programs, using specially prepared forms which they filled out during a month’s viewing last year.
Here are the conclusions from the entertainment study (obtainable from the IAM, 1300 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036):
Unions are almost invisible on television. Where they are depicted, unions are seen as violent, degrading and obstructive. Television scarcely show: factory occupations which produce good: in contrast to service workers.
In the report’s words: “Television continues to portray workers in unionize (occupations as clumsy, uneducated fool: who drink, smoke and have no leadership ability. (They) may as well be robots They are the nameless, personality-les: people who take orders, do their jobs and disappear.”
The IAM workers found TV news no much better. TV news, they found, was “tailored to fit Big Business.” Some o the observations included complaints that “no labor positions on how to solve national problems are sought out” “when covering strikes, network new: programs do not explain why the worker: are on strike”; “network news appears to be selected for visual entertainment impact”; “there are too many commercial interruptions.”
What is one to make of the IAN project? It is true that labor leader: appear with far less frequency than business representatives on news and inter view shows. The imbalance is especially severe on the Sunday shows Meet the Press, Face the Nation and Issues and Answers. Apart from the usual Labor Day invitation to labor chiefs, these pro grams do not view these leaders as very newsworthy unless a major story associated with their activity, as was the case with the Chrysler bailout story.
TV likes to cover new activities—it is kind of a “what have you done new lately” medium. Unfortunately, organized labor has not been initiating much a anything lately. The business community is the initiator and unions, as Winpisingei has pointed out often, have hardly ever been reacting.
It could well be that a reawakening of the labor movement and the infusion of younger or more imaginative people to its ranks will lead to wider television coverage. Certainly the causes are there: worker health and safety, corporate crime and corruption, diversion of pension funds into anti-labor investments and many more. Also, cleaning up their own corruption, waste and sinecurism would free unions to challenge the hegemony of the giant corporations over American society.
What’s more, unions could start producing their own television shows. They should move more aggressively into bidding for cable and low-power TV franchises and become a direct media presence that does not have to be a supplicant before the network broadcasters. Given the stodginess of many labor leaders today, Winpisinger and his few like-minded union chieftans have their work cut out for them.