Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#9 - JRL 7023
The Russia Journal
January 17-23, 2003
Surprise! Unions are real!
By Matt Taibbi

I recently read a book about Ernest Shackletons legendary Antarctic voyage and, specifically, about the 800-mile open-air sail he undertook across the Drake passage in a 20-foot skiff called the James Caird. The marooned explorer took the voyage in winter, in the highest and meanest of seas, navigating by the stars with limited food supplies in a desperate attempt to reach remote South Georgia Island. Once he and his five mates reached it, they had to cross 22 miles of snow fields, mountains and glaciers in 36 hours to reach civilization a small whaling camp. They were at the end of their supplies and frostbitten when they arrived. In life, people are occasionally called upon to make difficult journeys. Then there is the problem labor leaders face when trying to attract positive news coverage.

Such a Shackletonian journey was made recently when Irene Stevenson, an AFL-CIO activist who has lived in Russia since 1989, was barred entry into the country despite the fact that she had a valid visa. The Russian governments blatantly high-handed attempt to silence legitimate labor activism drew the predictable outcry from international media outlets, even prompting an indignant Washington Post editorial. It seems that when a labor activist has a beef, the world is immediately ready to rush to her defense.

Yeah. Except when the beef involves labor issues.

There is no more blatant example of organized media bias than the virtual boycott of labor issues in mainstream press outlets. The lack of coverage of labor problems in many ways defies all predictable models of mass-media behavior.

For one thing, the media generally love conflict so much so, in fact, that it is willing to give top billing to fat people on Jerry Springer who stage fictional chair-throwing battles for the camera. But some of the most dramatic and violent conflicts that can be found in the world are routinely passed over in media coverage. Last year America, for instance, saw the unfolding of a brutal real-life "On the Waterfront" drama in which the International Longshore and Warehouse Union closed 11 West-Coast ports in protest of declining worker safety; five workers had been killed that year. The Bush administrations response to the threatened port closings was extreme, as Bush invoked the vicious Taft-Hartley act to stop the strike and threatened to use federal troops to man the ports if the workers did not stand down.

This gigantic conflict, which affected some 7 percent of all goods imported into the United States and represented perhaps the largest labor dispute since the air-traffic controllers strike during the Reagan years, barely scored a blip on the national radar screen. When a tentative settlement was finally reached in November, it earned just a small page 14 item in the New York Times. The workers voted on the settlement this past Monday but unless you happen to subscribe to some of the sorry publications that I read, you wouldnt know that, since it was not even a brief in most American papers.

Similarly, Russian air-traffic controllers scored a dramatic victory earlier this year when a four-day hunger strike, which threatened to close several airports, succeeded in forcing the government to approve a 28 percent pay hike. This, too, was very poorly covered in the Western media, despite the obvious visual sex appeal of hunger strikes, closed airports, etc.

Getting back to Stevenson: When the AFL-CIO activist was stopped at Sheremetyevo, it provided a rare opportunity for a two-in-one PR coup for American observers. It allowed them to trumpet two messages around the world at maximum volume. Those messages were, respectively: Vladimir Putin viciously represses democratic activists. America, unlike Russia, values its democratic activists.

The first message? Well, no kidding. Any journalist who paid any attention at all in 1999 should have known this was coming. Of course, few journalists did: Most were committed to the "finally, a strong hand for Russia" articles that so effusively welcomed the ex-KGB-shnik into office after Yeltsins resignation. We heard more about Putins prowess at handball and judo before he took office than about his stance on labor and grassroots activism.

But the second message? No way. In fact, the very idea that the Stevenson incident could be used in some way to illustrate the differences between our two countries is preposterous. That didnt stop the Washington Post, however:

"[Stevenson] was also organizing people in a society where independent organizations themselves are a novelty helping, in other words, to create the kind of civil society that the Bush administration says it wants to spread around the world, not only in Russia, but in places such as Iraq. Nevertheless, her expulsion comes just as the administration is contemplating slashing the budget for democracy promotion in Russia, including funding for the kinds of programs Ms. Stevenson runs, on the grounds that the Russians have graduated beyond the need for them. Far from graduating, this latest incident is further evidence that Russia is backsliding, that the power of the Russian security services is growing and that the tolerance for opposition is shrinking."

This is a typical propaganda technique to bury an affirmative message in apparent criticism. The Post here criticizes Bush for easing off on Russia when he says he is committed to democracy promotion, but the implication of the entire passage is that if Russia is "backsliding," its doing it in a direction away from some unchallenged American standard. Youd never know, from the Post editorial, that Stevensons own AFL-CIO said last year that a series of Bush anti-union executive orders amounted to a "declaration of war" against workers, that unions all around the country are being crushed, that labor is in every bit as much trouble in America as it is in Russia.

American press indifference to labor issues is at least partly to blame for Stevensons problems in America. For years now and I know this because Ive interviewed Russian labor activists who nearly fainted in disbelief when I called Russian workers have been all but ignored by the American media. Except for that very brief period in 1998 when miners set up camp outside the White House, issues like non-payment and the usurpation of national trade unions by private interests have gone more or less uncovered here. The new Russian Labor Code, which made it basically impossible for minority trade unions to organize, was less than even a minor issue for the expat press.

In other words, people like Stevenson, who have been campaigning for a decade, have gotten no support from their own countrys journalists. That makes it easier for the Putin government to push them around. You know they could never have pulled something like this on an IMF official. The Russians arent stupid. They know where our priorities are. Do we?

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