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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.


4 comments

  1. Trish Corry

    Excellent work bringing this narrative to light. Your research will certainly contribute a lot to the current landscape in theory and practice. We have the technology to disrupt this type of framing now with live Facebook feeds getting the voice of the worker out there. That is exciting in itself. After reading you article it is absolutely striking the difference in the narrative of tweets, that this piece made me think about. There is a deep empathy that is not there when other Industrial / worker issues are tweeted about. My auto defence mechanism is to stand up for the journos/workers and I won’t participate in some of the mocking using Sally McManus and bad laws as examples, as I have seen on Twitter. How much of this framing about unions is from journalists and what is directed by their editors? That is something I’ll be pondering.

  2. paul walter

    Beautiful stuff, had hoped someone would have a crack at the Fairfax story.

    Redolent of desolation and ruinous for our country as the process of dumbing down continues apace. How I wanted to go Hywood with a ump of fourbee the other night.

    Apparently its to do with asset stripping, and I can image the likes of Gordon Gecko or Murdoch, gloating n the background as the funds managers go about their grisly task.

    Not since Edward the 1st sorted William Wallace would sch a grisly sight of dismemberment been witnessed.

    I get the other point, but let’s blame board, management and editorial interference rather than the (few remaining) journos at the coal face, as with the ABC,

  3. totaram

    “And, we might, as a community, have a different view of unions.”

    Good heavens madam! Are you serious? Everyone knows and agrees that unions are nothing but thugs who use bullying and stand over tactics to enrich themselves at the expense of their workers, the community and the employers. If only we could outlaw them, everything would be fine. This govt. has made a start with the ABCC which will reign in the unions on construction sites, who are always worrying about safety. It’s just a few tens of workers who die every year on construction sites. What is the fuss? Quite different from those four poor boys who died installing those wretched pink batts. That’s why we had to have a Royal Commission to sort out what went wrong. Typical Labor govt. stuff up off course. Once the ABCC is working no one will die on a construction site, as we all know, perhaps 30 or 40 every year, but shit does happen.

  4. etnorb

    What a great & very thought-provoking article! Concerning the Fairfax Journo’s, just what is a Newspaper (or a TV or Radio station for that matter), without excellent Journalism, & the Fairfax Journo’s are among the best in the business. Every year (it seems) we witness the Fairfax Management trying to decimate the number of Journalists they employ, funny how no-one–or very few it seems–of the managerial people are ever dismissed or made redundant? This country has always prided itself on fine Journalism, & yes, without that fine Journalism, where would our Press & Media be? We NEED to try & retain as many of our Journalists we can–especially at Fairfax, not so sure about the Mudrake Journo’s though! It is almost past time for this Fairfax “cull” to be stopped!

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