Four Ways Media Attack Organized Labor

As Labor Day approaches, Media Matters looks back at how media have attacked organized labor over the past year. In the midst of several important battles for labor unions in 2016, media have often pushed misleading information about union membership and fees, attempted to delegitimize the votes of union members, uncritically cited and elevated voices from anti-union dark-money groups without proper disclosure, and claimed that teachers unions’ activism shows that educators do not care about what’s best for their students.

1. Misleading About Union Membership And Nonmembers’ Agency Fees

Supreme Court Upheld Agency Fees For Nonmembers In Public Sector Unions

Supreme Court Issued 4-4 Decision In Friedrichs V. California Teachers Association, Upholding “Fair Share” Fees For Public Sector Unions. The Supreme Court in January heard oral arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case challenging the state teachers union's right to charge agency fees, which are smaller “fair share” fees paid by those who opt out of full union membership but benefit from the union's collective bargaining. In March, the court announced a 4-4 split decision, which left in place the lower court's ruling preserving the union's right to charge an agency fee to nonmembers. As The Atlantic explained, the smaller agency fees preserved in the Friedrichs ruling cover only the cost of collective bargaining activities and cannot be used by the union to support political activity, nor do they constitute full membership dues (emphasis added):

The case concerns a teacher in California, Rebecca Friedrichs, who has sued the California Teachers Association, arguing that being required to pay a fee to the union violates her First Amendment rights. Friedrichs is not a member of the union, but, like many other public employees, is required to pay a so-called agency fee to cover the costs of collective bargaining and other negotiations with the school district--union activities that all teachers, even non-union teachers like Friedrichs, benefit from in the form of higher salaries and better benefits. To be clear, these agency fees are different from dues that union members pay, which can be used by the unions for political expenses such as lobbying and electoral work. The law allows public-sector employees to opt out of dues and just pay an agency fee to cover the cost of bargaining--an accommodation intended to protect people's First Amendment rights. Teachers who, like Friedrichs, have opted out of the union are still represented by it in various contract negotiations, which is why they are required to pay a fee. [The Atlantic, 1/8/16; The Associated Press, 1/11/16, 3/29/16]

Media Mischaracterized Agency Fees And Hyped False Claims About Union Membership

Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade Falsely Claimed That People Are “Forced To Join Unions” And Nonmembers' Agency Fees Go “To Political Causes.” In a January interview with the lead plaintiff and a member of the legal team in the Friedrichs case, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade conflated agency fees with membership dues, asking if it was right for unions to “collect dues ... even if you're not a member.” He also claimed that teachers were “forced to join unions,” falsely stating that “if you want to teach, that's what you have to do.” Kilmeade asserted that “a lot of” the fees paid by nonmembers go “to political causes.” From the January 12 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:

BRIAN KILMEADE (CO-HOST): [H]ere's a big, big story. Should unions be allowed to collect dues from your paycheck, even if you're not a member? In states like California, they can. And now, a group of teachers are challenging the controversial practice over how their money is being spent. Some of it just all goes to political causes, or a lot of it. Sarah Friedrichs is one of the teachers taking her case all the way to Supreme Court. She joins us now with her attorney Terry Pell, who gave oral arguments yesterday in front of the Supreme Court. Welcome to both of you. Thanks so much for joining us.

TERRY PELL: Thanks for having us.


KILMEADE: Rebecca, you and nine other teachers brought this all the way up. You've had it with unions. How, in your mind, what were the unions doing that you were not happy with?

FRIEDRICHS: Well, the unions take stances in collective bargaining that we are totally opposed to. And unfortunately, the union in my district was voted in when I was a child. And you know, it didn't matter what I did, even when I served as a union representative, I couldn't make my voice heard. And the union continued to make decisions, and collective bargaining stances that were actually harmful to my students. So we just decided enough was enough.

KILMEADE: Terry we've heard this for the longest time, that you know, people who were forced to join unions, some people feel that they are are happy with it, and not happy with the agenda. But if you want to teach, that's what you have to do. What made you think that Rebecca and her nine friends had a case here?

PELL: Well, the First Amendment is clear. The state can't compel individuals to support an organization that takes positions that they fundamentally disagree with. Individuals have the right to decide for themselves what organizations they allow to advocate on their behalf. So when the union takes positions, not just political positions, but positions during collective bargaining, that teachers fundamentally oppose, they should not have to support the union. They should not have to pay money to the union. If they don't agree with what the union is doing, then it's up to them to decide whether to support it. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 1/12/16]

Fox's Andrew Napolitano Falsely Asserted That Teachers Are “Forced To Join The Union” And “The State Can Force You To Pay The Union Dues.” Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano agreed with host Stuart Varney’s false claim that, in paying “fair share” fees, teachers would be “forced to join the union.” Napolitano wrongly asserted that ”school teachers ... under California law were forced to join a public sector labor union and be bound by the union's negotiations on their behalf" and that “the state can force you to pay the union dues.” From the March 29 edition of Fox Business’ Varney & Co.:

STUART VARNEY (HOST): Now this, last hour we broke news from the Supreme Court. Deadlocked on a union dues issue. This has to do with union fees, dues being paid by non-union members. At least that's the way I see it, but I think the Judge is going to straighten me out. Judge, where have I gone wrong?

ANDREW NAPOLITANO: Well, no, you haven't gone wrong. It's a California case involving school teachers who under California law were forced to join --

VARNEY: To join the union.

NAPOLITANO: -- to join a public sector labor union and be bound by the union's negotiations on their behalf. Teachers said we don't want to join, we don't want to pay dues, we don't want to be bound by what this union has negotiated on our behalf. We want to be hired or fired on merit and on our own. So you have two issues. One is freedom of speech, you are forcing us to accept the speech of others as if it was ours. And freedom of association, the state of California is forcing people to associate with people they don't want to associate with.

VARNEY: No changing this. I mean, they will be forced to join the union, they will be forced to pay up.

NAPOLITANO: Correct. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is right below the Supreme Court, it's the federal appeals court for the 15 westernmost states of the United States, has upheld what the law has been. This was an effort by the plaintiffs to change the law. The law has been the state can force you to join the union, and the state can force you to pay the union dues, but you're entitled to a rebate of those portion of your does that go to overt political activity by the unions with which you disagree. These challengers are trying to say, “how can you force us to join an organization we don't want to join?” and “how can you force somebody else that we don't trust or we don't like to speak for us?” Could you imagine if all of us were forced to join a labor union, and that labor union negotiated for us against our will with our employers here? [Fox Business, Varney & Co., 3/29/16]

Rush Limbaugh: “This Kind Of Stuff Is What Tears Up The Fabric Of Our Culture ... Requiring People Who Are Not Members Of Unions To Pay Dues.” Rush Limbaugh claimed that the Friedrichs ruling “means that unions can now demand non-union workers on the job pay union dues” and that union dues constitute “money laundering for the Democrat Party,” further misrepresenting the role of agency fees, which are expressly not permitted for use in union political activity. From the March 29 edition of Premiere Radio Networks’ The Rush Limbaugh Show:

RUSH LIMBAUGH (HOST): Supreme Court decision today, this is what happens, we have a 4-4 decision out of the Supreme Court. It was deadlocked. Compulsory wage confiscation for all public sector, nonunion employees was upheld. It was a 4-4 vote, which means the case stands as it was when it got to the court. There's no change in it, which means that unions can now demand non-union workers on the job pay union dues. Union dues is a money laundering operation for the Democrat Party. Here's how it works:The Democrat Party cannot yet go to the United States Treasury and write itself checks to run campaigns and win elections, so what it does, it throws little bones here and there to unions, in terms of policy, protectionism, any number of things. The unions go out and charge their members dues and most of that money, a majority of that money, ends up being donated back to the Democrat Party and the cycle continues. This is essentially how the Democrats launder money from unions back to themselves in order to, it all comes under the guise of campaign contributions. But what's happened is that a lot of people were upset that non-union members are being charged dues. How can that happen? So a suit was brought, and it deadlocked 4-4 at the U.S. Supreme Court, so it remains now compulsory wage confiscation called “dues” for all public sector non-union employees.


This kind of stuff is what tears up the fabric of our culture. This kind of ruling, the Supreme Court, this kind of behavior, requiring people who are not members of unions to pay dues, this is what people expect leadership in Washington to protect them from. [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 3/29/16]

2. Delegitimizing Union Voters

Hillary Clinton Won Nevada Democratic Caucuses In February

CNN: “Clinton Notched A Decisive Win In The Nevada Democratic Caucuses.” As reported, now-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton “notched a decisive win” in the February 21 Nevada Democratic caucuses, fueled by “strong turnout among minority voters and a well-organized machine in populous Clark County.” [, 2/21/16]

Media Attributed Clinton’s Nevada Win To “Service-Union Bosses”

MSNBC's Chris Matthews On Clinton's Nevada Victory: “How Much Of That [Was] A Controlled Vote, Among The Unions?” MSNBC host Chris Matthews told NBC correspondent Kristen Welker that he wondered ”if union voting is a little bit more like the old days ... where the ward leader ... really has an influence when he puts the ballot in your hand." Matthews then questioned Clinton's victory, asking, “How much of that is a controlled vote, among the unions?” From the February 20 edition of MSNBC’s special coverage of the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary:

CHRIS MATTHEWS (HOST): You and I know both big city politics, I'm from Philadelphia, and I'm just wondering if union voting is a little more like the old days of ward voting, where the ward leader or the [indecipherable], really has an influence when he puts that ballot in your hand, and says vote for this guy or this woman. How much of that is a controlled vote, among the unions, along the strip here, the culinary workers and those unions?

KRISTEN WELKER: Well the culinary workers didn't endorse this year, so I think that's significant --

MATTHEWS: So nobody is telling them how to vote?

WELKER: I don't think anyone is telling them how to vote. They've been very careful when you talk about the union leaders in terms of how they're talking to their constituents, but as you know there's been a big push to try to get out the union workers. [MSNBC, special coverage, 2/20/16]

National Review: Party Leaders “Pushed Service-Union Bosses ... To Help Push Clinton Over The Top.” National Review claimed that Clinton had “many organizational advantages in Nevada” to win the caucuses, “including Harry Reid, who pushed service-union bosses in Las Vegas to ... help push Clinton over the top.” From the February 20 article:

Clinton had many organizational advantages in Nevada. Most of the state's Democratic establishment fell in behind her campaign -- including Harry Reid, who pushed service-union bosses in Las Vegas to help casino workers come out and help push Clinton over the top. [National Review, 2/20/16]

Fox Guest: “The Machine Put Her In. ... She Just Squeaked Through.” Fox guest and former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY) said Clinton “squeaked through” to win the Nevada caucus, claiming that “the machine put her in. ... the workers, the casino workers, the unions.” From the February 21 edition of Fox News' Sunday Morning Futures:

ALFONSE D'AMATO: It underscores the vulnerability that Hillary has. The machine put her in. By the machine, it was the workers, the casino workers, the unions that pushed them out, Senator Reid, et cetera, and she just squeaked through, just squeaked through. The vulnerability is, number one, people and all the polls say this, they don't trust her. She has a very big trust factor. And in the general election that's going to be huge, and that is not to mention the vulnerability if there is a referral from the FBI, and I think there will be because you have seen General Petraeus on much less than what was revealed, they indicted him. What is the Justice Department going to do? I don't think they can play politics as usual. So, it isn't over. She escaped in Nevada. She may win in South Carolina, probably will, but there is out there the feeling of distrust for Hillary. [Fox News, Sunday Morning Futures, 2/21/16]

Jon Ralston: Nevada Was In Part About “A Self-Neutered Union” That “Conspired To Revive The Clinton Campaign In A Remarkable Bit Of Backroom Maneuvering.” Longtime Nevada reporter Jon Ralston wrote that the Culinary Workers Union “helped steer” the Nevada Democratic caucuses in favor of Clinton, claiming that “the culinary union's reputation as a powerhouse ... can sway elections.” From a February 21 USA Today op-ed:

The story of the Nevada caucuses is that a lame-duck senator and a self-neutered union conspired to revive the Clinton campaign in a remarkable bit of backroom maneuvering that helped Madame Secretary crush Sanders in Clark County, the key to winning almost any statewide election. Combined with a Clinton machine, erected last spring and looking invincible, that suddenly had to scrape the rust off its gears and turn out her voters, Caucus Day also was a remarkable story of an indomitable candidate, her nonpareil Nevada staff and a ragtag but committed Sanders operation that made them sweat.


A lot was at stake for both -- Reid's national and in-state credibility, and the state's early-caucus status (kudos to his superb political lieutenant, Rebecca Lambe, who runs the party), and the culinary union's reputation as a powerhouse that can sway elections.


But the story here is about the Culinary Workers Union and especially Sen. Harry Reid, who helped steer the state to Clinton. They gave a whole new definition to neutrality (they will both endorse soon, I'd guess) and might have changed the course of history. [USA Today, 2/21/16]

3. Giving Voice To Those With Dark-Money Ties To Undermine Unions

Las Vegas Review-Journal Op-Ed Used Research From The Conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute To Blame Government Unions For Income Inequality. The Las Vegas Review-Journal on February 1 published an op-ed from Robert Fellner, a member of Transparent Nevada, a product of the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute. The op-ed misleadingly argued that government unions are a “key source of income inequality,” and failed to disclose the author's ties to anti-union dark-money donors. [Media Matters, 2/3/16]

Fox’s Newt Gingrich Praised Anti-Union Legislation Without Disclosing Lobbying Conflicts. Fox contributor Newt Gingrich published an op-ed for on March 1 urging Republicans to support the Employee Rights Act (ERA), which “would require all union elections to take place via a federally supervised secret ballot vote.” Gingrich praised the ERA as containing “common-sense” reforms and said it would be “a vehicle to propose specific pro-employee solutions on the campaign trail.” Gingrich also appeared on the January 12 edition of Fox Business’ Varney & Co. to praise the ERA, saying it “has a lot of protection for the workers as opposed to the union.” However, Fox did not disclose that Gingrich was a paid adviser to The Center for Union Facts, a dark-money-fueled organization led by a corporate lobbyist, which claims it “researched and educated the public about the Employee Rights Act” and “engaged in limited lobbying in support of the ERA.” [Media Matters, 3/4/16]

Charleston Gazette-Mail Cited Biased Anti-Labor Studies To Attack Ads From The AFL-CIO. The Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial board attempted to fact-check radio ads from the AFL-CIO that targeted the state’s anti-union “right-to-work” laws that were being pushed by West Virginia legislators. The editorial cited “conservative” studies, including a report from “CAPCON,” or Michigan Capitol Confidential, an online outlet created by the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy to push the organization's studies. The Mackinac Center, part of the conservative State Policy Network group of think tanks, has received millions of dollars from prominent, privately funded anti-union donors, including the “dark money ATM” of the conservative movement funded in part by the anti-union Koch brothers. The Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch project has previously noted that Michigan Capitol Confidential “produces articles and blog posts intended to appear like those of traditional news sources, but with a demonstrated conservative bias and pushing a right wing agenda.” [Media Matters, 12/15/15]

4. Suggesting Teachers Unions Don't Care About The Children They Educate

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough Claimed Detroit Teachers Union Sick-Out Over Lack Of Funding “Isn’t About Educating Children.” MSNBC Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough criticized the Detroit Federation of Teachers for having “put the children in the middle” of a fight for funding, referring to one of several organized teacher sick-outs that caused 94 out of 97 Detroit public schools to close on May 2. The union representing Detroit public school teachers called for the action after learning there was not enough funding to pay already earned salaries after June 30, and after months of union-led actions designed to call attention to the deplorable conditions in Detroit public schools caused by inadequate funding. The hosts additionally failed to mention that the new funding cuts would also mean summer school and extended special education programs would be canceled. [Media Matters, 5/2/16]

Chicago Tribune Asserted That Teachers Are Throwing A “Tantrum” And Abandoning Students Over Contract Disputes. The Chicago Tribune editorial board continually condemned actions by the Chicago Teachers Union to protest inadequate funding in schools by accusing teachers of throwing a “tantrum” and abandoning students. The main negotiations for a new contract, which expired in June 2015, include class sizes, staffing resources for school nurses and librarians, members' pensions and health care plans, pay cuts and modifications to scheduled pay raises, and school closings. However, the Tribune argued in one of a series of editorials that “the teachers’ tantrum” would be “cheating kids of a precious day of education.” The editorial board also attacked an April 1 “day of action,” writing, “If teachers walk, students would learn an acrid lesson about the teachers union's astonishing disrespect for the value of classroom instruction.” The editorials did not acknowledge that teachers’ contract concerns -- like class sizes and the closing of neighborhood schools -- directly impact children’s learning environments. [Media Matters, 4/1/16]

WSJ Editorial Board Generalized That Teacher Job Protections Hurt Poor And Minority Students. Following an August 22 decision from the California Supreme Court that kept in place state job protections for teachers, The Wall Street Journal published a scathing editorial blaming progressives for working to “deny upward mobility to poor black and Hispanic children” by supporting these standard job protections. The editorial echoed the flawed argument of education reform groups, such as the group that brought the California case, that strong protections for educators contribute to educational inequality. The board condemned the court’s decision for “doom[ing] tens of thousands of lives to diminished possibility, if not poverty” in order to protect “failure factories.” The editorial ignored numerous studies that show strong teachers unions can lead to better overall teacher quality and can improve economic mobility for entire communities. [Media Matters, 8/23/16]