Labor and the Information Economy: Which side are you on, Ed?

By David Sirota , written on December 16, 2013

From The News Desk

For a reminder of fear's determinative impact on the 21st century labor market - even at the highest reaches of the information economy -- look no further than last week's on-air meltdown by radio host and MSNBC personality Ed Schultz.

Though branding himself as a pro-union populist, Schultz snapped and devoted segments of his radio show to railing on allies of organized labor who asked him to support a union drive in his own workplace.

Before getting to the details of that implosion, it is worth first thinking about how tomorrow's historians will generally perceive this era of labor relations. They will likely marvel at the correlation between record-level inequality and declining union membership. Economically, this correlation makes sense. Even when workers are more productive than ever, when they have less collective bargaining power they are not surprisingly less able to obtain a fair share of the (record) corporate revenues they are generating. Additionally, with management having a disproportionate share of revenues, companies can -- and increasingly do -- deploy those revenues against any whiff of union organizing.

Then again, at a cultural level, the correlation between Dickensian economics and the decline of unions makes less sense. With the situation so great for shareholders and executives and yet so comparatively terrible for the workers, it stands to reason that the attendant proletarian angst would create an optimal climate for labor organizing -- and not just among workers in low-skill industries like fast food. It stands to reason that high-skill industries would also see a revolt -- especially since polls show a majority of Americans approve of unions.

Now sure, there is a nascent -- and much needed -- uprising happening right now in pockets of the service economy. Likewise, in the information sector, WashTech, IEEE[email protected], the Programmer's Guild, the Freelancer's Union and (most powerfully) the Writer's Guild have scratched and clawed their way to a foothold. Additionally, in the information-economy hub of Seattle, socialist Kshama Sawant just made history by winning a citywide office on a platform demanding a unionization effort at However, these examples have together been the exception not the rule. Why?

Some of it probably has to do with a labor brand that has been soiled by this era's corporate-financed flood of anti-union propaganda. Some of it has to do with unions own mistakes. And in the information economy in particular, some of it has to do with many high-skill workers ignoring strong arguments for unionization and believing that unions would automatically be a detriment -- rather than an economic boost -- to their creative work. Though this latter view is belied by the longtime success of, say, Hollywood unions in simultaneously preserving creative freedom and strengthening the economic position of labor (actors, writers, directors, etc.) vis-a-vis management (the studios), many information workers reflexively believe, in the words of TechDirt's Mike Masnick, that unionization inherently "slow(s) down the pace of innovation.”

That said, a huge part of why unions have had such trouble in much of the information economy has to do with raw fear.

Remember: this is a country whose management class -- even in sometimes left-leaning industries like high tech and at left-branded companies -- is openly hostile to the notion of unions. Because a pay-to-play political system provides that management class with disproportionate political power, this is consequently a country where workers are routinely fired for daring to exercise their basic organizing rights under federal law. Indeed, according to a Cornell University study, in one third of all union drives, a worker is fired. Such firings are officially illegal, but not surprisingly, the management class's bought-and-paid-for government has defanged the agency that's supposed to punish employers for such firings.

The fear all this sows has created a gap between worker aspirations and worker actions that was summed up in survey data cited by Occidental College's Peter Dreier: "58 percent of non-managerial workers would join a union if they could (but) they won't vote for a union, much less participate openly in a union-organizing drive, if they fear losing their jobs for doing so."

In other words, many information economy workers who might want to form a union in their workplace are effectively intimidated into backing off their aspirations. This is particularly true when those workers see alleged icons of worker solidarity fearfully echoing management's ugly anti-union agitprop the moment union solidarity becomes a personal question for them.

Which brings us to Ed Schultz.

An old Limbaugh clone is asked: Which side are you on?

For years, Schultz was a barely noticed cookie-cutter conservative radio host in the mold of Rush Limbaugh. As Salon's Justin Elliott reported a while back, Schultz bashed immigrants, opposed abortion and made fun of homeless people. From those years firmly anchored on the right-wing side of the class war, he has a deep familiarity with anti-union agitprop.

Nevertheless, as George W. Bush's presidency deflated the popularity of conservatism and inflated the popularity of pro-worker populism, the ratings-hungry Schultz abruptly rebranded himself a progressive champion of unions. While it certainly looked like an unscrupulous act of shameless hucksterism, Schultz's move was definitely a smart tactical shift. Branding-wise, it correctly assumed that an audience of rank-and-file Democratic political junkies was so desperate for their own hyper-macho Limbaugh they would cheerily ignore Schultz's right-wing past. Ultimately, Schultz's makeover not only helped him vacuum in union money but also got him a television show on MSNBC just as that network was simultaneously trying to rebrand itself as a left-leaning outlet.

With high-profile labor conflagrations in Wisconsin providing plenty of grist for the mill, Schultz's formula was humming along just fine. Sure, every now and again he would lose control and let his inner right-wing firebreather out. For instance, there was the time he called one of his critics a "slut" and then defended Limbaugh from critics after he did the same thing. There was the time when he angrily attacked liberals for echoing United Nations human rights investigators and raising questions about the killing of Osama bin Laden.  There was also the time when in touting his newly formulated working-class brand, Schultz bragged about making so much money that he now only flies on private jets.

Yet, despite this rightwing aristocrat version of Ed Schultz peeking out from time to time, his cynical-but-shrewd calculation basically worked. From the safe confines of his television and studios and with nothing personal for him on the line, he was able to present himself as a champion of worker rights and a supporter of organized labor -- one who effectively encouraged workers to take risks in their own workplaces to join a union. As expected, his Democratic audience cheered him on -- and obediently ignored his ugly past.

But then a few months ago, in the midst of all his private jetsetting, there was a big hitch as an organizing drive started in his own workplace -- and not just any old organizing drive either.

This particular campaign aims to unionize an NBC-affiliated production company called Peacock Productions -- a goal NBC management appears to oppose. The campaign is being led by the Writers Guild of America East, which (together with its Western affiliate) has succeeded in organizing collective economic power for many rank-and-file workers in the creative class. So this thing is real and could be a precedent-setter for the burgeoning non-fiction sector within the larger media and entertainment sectors. If the organizing drive overcomes management's opposition and is successful, it would be no small accomplishment considering those sectors have seen their share of workplace abuses and labor strife.

Of course, "if" is the key word -- and the difference between "if" and "when" will likely be predicated in part on the industry's most famous media icons.

As journalist Glenn Greenwald has most recently shown, today's technology-powered multi-platform media has given many of these icons huge independent followings, and that has provided them with potentially more leverage over the media oligarchs than ever. If, say, TV hosts decide to use that fame-enhanced leverage to publicly support low-paid behind-the-scenes workers who make non-fiction television shows possible, those workers have a real shot to gain collective bargaining rights and reap a bigger share of media industry profits. On the other hand, if those hosts stay silent -- or use their platform to publicly denigrate the campaign -- they probably have the singular power to crush union drives in their infancy.

Taken together, then, this is a moment asking these icons labor's age old question: Which side are you on?

This should be a very simple question for Schultz. Sure, it is certainly possible that the higher worker-bee wages gleaned from a successful organizing drive might be used by Schultz's bosses to plead poverty and deny Schultz a raise when the host's own $4 million-a-year contract is up for renewal. But, then, Schultz is the self-billed champion of unions who uses workers as his program's visual props, and who built his multimillion-dollar brand almost exclusively on his public alignment with labor. Hence, standing with workers in his own workplace should be a no brainer for him, right?

It doesn't seem that way.

That's the logical conclusion from Schultz's series of on-air explosions late last week after published a report contrasting MSNBC host Chris Hayes' openness to the union drive with Schultz's insults aimed at groups like that are pressuring him to support the union drive.

In one on-air explosion about the story, Schultz berated me and others for urging him to support the labor organizing drive. Specifically, he slammed supporters of workers at Peacock Productions for "class envy" and "income envy" -- plutocratic platitudes that are straight from the very anti-union politicians that the rebranded Schultz now regularly lampoons.

In another segment, Schultz took a call from In These Times labor correspondent Mike Elk, who has been bravely reporting from the frontlines of a vicious assault on an autoworkers' organizing drive in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Under interrogation by Elk, Schultz refused to answer the reporter's pointed questions about whether or not Schultz supports the union drive at the production house in question. Though Schultz made a general non-committal comment about supporting collective bargaining, he categorically refused to answer questions about whether he supports the specific union drive in his workplace.

Taken together, Schultz's answer to the big "which side are you on question" seems to be "not the union's side."

How fear shapes the information economy's labor market

One way to understand all this is to see it as an unstable prima donna losing control again and returning to where his old right-wing, union-loathing, immigrant-bashing, homeless-hating heart is. In that interpretation, all the jealousy and envy rhetoric from Schultz and all the bragging about his wealth, celebrity and private jets are just cliched expressions of this era's more pervasive "I got mine, so screw everyone else" zeitgeist. In this view, in short, it is just the archetypal story of the charlatan in the costume of a fight-for-the-little-guy populist reflexively exposing himself as a proud member of the country club's tophat-and-monocle crowd.

Another way to understand this, though, is to see the whole episode as an example of something far more systemic and significant. In this view, this is not just another red-faced talking-points-parroting gasbag making millions by screaming into a microphone and promoting the old Gordon Gekko catechism. Instead, Schultz may have genuinely had a change of heart from his days as a conservative blowhard, and he may superficially believe in workers' right to organize. Yet, for all his efforts to portray himself as a heroic and fearless Colonel Kilgore in the face of an anti-worker onslaught, and for all his attempts to build a new brand as a pro-labor populist urging other workers to risk their jobs by joining union organizing drives, Schultz may simply not have the courage of his own purported convictions when the issue becomes personal.

Remember, from a rebranding effort that has him regularly touting worker rights, Schultz knows that workers are so often fired with impunity. He also knows that if he stands with the organizing drive in his own workplace he and his $4-million-a-year lifestyle could be put at risk. Put another way, this talk show host knows that pro-union talk isn't cheap -- it can be quite lucrative, but only if it isn't backed up by any action on his part in his own workplace. He thus knows that he personally has to risk his own standing with management to embody his alleged pro-labor convictions -- and he seems completely terrified by the prospect of such a risk.

And so while Schultz's angry tirade last week against those asking him to support the organizing drive may have sounded like macho kick-some-ass bravado, it probably was instead the whimpering voice of cowering fear in the face of the media oligarchs. That fear is evidently so powerful that when confronted with the situation in his own workplace, Schultz has abruptly dropped his power-to-the-people populism and is now loyally parroting the management class's most banal anti-union talking points about "class envy" and "jealousy."

That kind of rhetoric from Schultz is no doubt music to the ears not only of the media oligarchs in both the news and entertainment industry, but really to everyone in management class of the entire information economy. After all, here is one of the most famous icons of pro-union sentiment not only belittling labor allies with "class envy" rhetoric, but also effectively telegraphing that his hypocritical contortions (he's for labor in general, but won't publicly and explicitly stand with labor in his own workplace) come from a deep fear of the information economy's management class.

To be sure, Schultz may soon change his tune on the union drive now that his meltdown so humiliatingly spotlighted his own hypocrisy. Either way, though, the message to rank-and-file information economy workers has already been sent. That message is crystal clear: if a guy who built his new brand on labor and who also has real potential leverage over management is nonetheless so deathly frightened of publicly standing with labor in an organizing drive in his own workplace, then the average information-economy employee with far less leverage should also be frightened -- and should relinquish any small hope for collective bargaining rights in the future.

Put another way, by virtue of his position and his sudden reversal, Schultz is transmitting the management class's most Machiavellian warning of all. It is a warning that most efficiently stops organizing drives before they ever happen. And that warning is simple: "Be afraid, be very afraid."

Fear as the accepted standard in the information economy

To be sure, there is no justification for Schultz's hypocritical actions. However, it is natural for him to feel pangs of fear when considering the idea of personally embodying his professed pro-labor convictions. That's because, as mentioned before, thousands of workers are fired every year for exercising their organizing rights -- and in many cases, the employers are not seriously punished for such illegal acts.

TV hosts with platform leverage over management -- just like, say, highly specialized Hollywood writers and Silicon Valley engineers -- certainly have greater defenses against similar treatment. Unlike most worker-bees in the information economy, these individuals often have stronger contracts, they know management has invested valuable capital in them, and they know (like Greenwald, for example) that their notoriety and following gives them a chance to move to another outlet if they are mistreated or fired.

That said, Schultz and others like him also know they are not immune from being terminated for exercising their union rights. So there is real risk, especially when such legally questionable firings are so standardized and so accepted that it's not even considered minimally controversial inside the industry itself.

To appreciate that reality, consider this Inside Cable News dispatch about Hayes' meeting with union organizers (emphasis added):

He just crossed a line he shouldn’t have crossed and put himself on the bad side of NBC corporate. That he may have only just listened without ever having any intention of trying to intervene on their behalf is irrelevant. From NBC’s standpoint he stuck his nose into a situation he shouldn’t have…and NBC will be keeping score as to who is on their side and who isn’t.

If this wasn’t officially approved, I can almost guarantee NBC will be talking with Phil Griffin if it hasn’t already and it will be saying “What the hell is going on over in your shop? Your employees are running around like loose cannons getting involved in things they shouldn’t be. Do something about it!” And Griffin will then take Hayes to the woodshed. I can’t say with 100% certitude that this isn’t a firing offense because I don’t know how secure Hayes’ position inside MSNBC really is. But this sort of betrayal, and from NBC’s standpoint this is a betrayal if it wasn’t signed off on in advance, is the kind of thing people lose jobs over. Under federal law, it is illegal to take a worker "to the woodshed" (read: harass, intimidate or terminate) for meeting with union organizers. Yet, such punishments are now so pervasive and violations of labor law are now so accepted as AOK within the information economy that prominent industry publications like Inside Cable News don't even bother to contextualize such punishments as potentially illegal. Just as bad, they actually slam people like Hayes for supposedly committing acts of "betrayal" for daring to exercise what are ostensibly their statutorily protected rights. Yes, even among the trade press that is supposed to objectively cover the information economy, even a better-protected worker like a TV host even thinking about forming a union is depicted as "crossing a line he shouldn't have crossed."

For Hayes (or any other similarly positioned host who follows his path), standing on his stated pro-union principles and courageously crossing this line could mean anything from being yelled at to being moved out of prime time. But as Inside Cable News notes, it (thankfully) probably won't mean being fired - mind you, not because such firing could run afoul of the law, but because MSNBC is experiencing some unrelated turmoil that prioritizes some sense of personnel stability. But what about other information economy voices?

For instance, in the media sector of the information economy, will people like Charles Davis be blacklisted from writing for media outlets because he wrote a scathing Vice dispatch on exploitative labor practices in the industry? Will Schultz and his cronies make sure that Elk (or me, for that matter) never appear on MSNBC again for reporting on the Peacock Productions union drive? Will other MSNBC hosts follow Schultz's lead and bash allies of that union drive for supposedly representing "income envy"?

The same questions pervade the tech sector of the information economy. Will Apple store workers like Cory Moll who meet with union organizers be blacklisted by the industry? What about Amazon employees who do the same thing -- will they be blacklisted by the company's notoriously anti-labor CEO? What about call center employees who try to organize a union -- will they be fired?

In all these cases it is difficult to offer a definitive answer. However, the fact that the answer to all of those questions is not a very clear "no" highlights the fear that defines labor management relations in the information economy. This is a fear that the management class has continued to sow and it is a fear that may continue to limit the labor movement's reach into the information economy.

That outcome, in fact, is all but guaranteed if information-economy workers with the most leverage either stay silent or worse, shroud anti-union behavior in the brand of pro-worker populism.