Over the past couple months Americans have seen protests erupting from Egypt to Wisconsin. The protests in the Middle East/North Africa and the U.S. have few similarities; one is protesting corrupt, authoritarian and despotic governments along with high food prices and in some cases extreme unemployment, while the other is protesting the right to collectively bargain for wages and rules in the workplace. The potential risks to protestors are as well dissimilar: protesting in the Middle East can bring a quick death while public union protesting brings a paid day off of work. The results of these protests will also be quite distinctive, as protestors in the Middle East will be determining how they want to be represented in government while public union protestors are determining how they want to be represented during worker contract negotiations. Both protests are important, but to put equal weight on both is unfair at best.
There's much support for U.S. public sector union protests and their efforts to be treated fairly at the negotiating table, but the media frenzy surrounding these protests seems extreme. Left-leaning news is falling all over itself and declaring that this is a stand for the American worker, or this is a war against government overreach, or an attack on the middle class. The right-bending media insists this is a chance for the taxpayer to take the reins from out-of-control public sector unions, or that unless unions are harnessed states will go broke and the taxpayer will have to endure higher taxes to pay for the bountiful pensions of 20-year union workers. Both sides use hyperbole and rhetoric to make their points, which can drown out the real message, which essentially is whether public sector worker collective bargaining will live or die in some states.
Why is the media making such a spectacle of these protests? It could be that most Americans are generally so ambivalent and apathetic that any large scale protest is considered big news. It's been 40 years since Americans took to the streets in this large a scale to protest the Vietnam conflict. It's possible that the media sees these protests as the ultimate fight between Democrats who support unions and Republicans who want unions weakened or eliminated. Whatever the reasons, it's interesting that this union/government, left/right, Democrat/Republican conflict overshadows all other issues in a financially struggling America. The people protesting in Wisconsin and other state capitals have jobs and earn livable wages and benefits that would be heartily welcomed by millions of less fortunate Americans, yet the media seems overly attentive to this revolt, and willfully blind to the elephants in the room.
The elephants in the room
How many unionized workers in the US? According to the latest survey by the BLS, there are 14.7 million.
The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined by 612,000 to 14.7 million. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.
The union membership rate for public sector workers (36.2 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private sector workers (6.9 percent).
How do 14.7 million union workers stack up against the elephants in the room?
The number of unemployed persons (13.7 million) and the unemployment rate (8.9 percent) changed little in February 2010.
The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was 6.0 million and accounted for 43.9 percent of the unemployed.
Many long-term unemployed are 99ers (93ers, 73ers, etc.) who have exhausted all unemployment benefits and have no other means of financial support.
The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) was essentially unchanged at 8.3 million in February. 2.7 million persons were marginally attached to the labor force.
Using the conservative BLS unemployment numbers, 24.7 million Americans are unemployed/underemployed.
Where are the large scale protests and media carnivals for those 24.7 million Americans?
How many Americans live in poverty? A stunning 39,829,000.
A family of four earning less than $21,954 and a household of two earning less than $14,439 would be considered living in poverty.
Who's making the protest signs and setting up the media tents for those nearly 40 million impoverished Americans?
Nearly all public union protestors and media mavens have access to one luxury that 50.7 million other Americans can only wish they had; health insurance.
The number of people without health insurance coverage rose from 46.3 million in 2008 to 50.7 million in 2009, while the percentage increased from 15.4 percent to 16.7 percent over the same period.
For some odd reason there haven't been massive demonstrations and media events showing the deplorable disparity in healthcare.
How many Americans are receiving government help to purchase food?
Nearly a year and a half into the economic recovery, some 43.6 million Americans continued to rely on food stamps in November.
More than 14% of the population drew food stamps in November to purchase groceries as high unemployment and muted wage growth crimped budgets.
43.6 million Americans are receiving help to buy food for their families. Are there protests in state capitals and a media focus on this American tragedy?
This is not union bashing. Unions are a vital counterweight to increasing corporate power and the purchasing of congress and state houses by the connected class. This is media bashing, since it appears that a large percentage of less fortunate Americans are being overlooked, while an inordinate amount of time is being dedicated to those that can afford to stand up for themselves.
Worker unions of all stripes may want to step out and demonstrate that they aren't simply protesting to further their own situation, but they are there also for millions of invisible Americans that don't have the wherewithal to make the trip to Madison, WI, Columbus, OH or Indianapolis, IN. The underrepresented must make the effort to participate in union protests to foster teamwork on attacking important economic issues that effect many millions of Americans. The media needs to take a closer look at its role; is it going to act merely as a megaphone for those who can afford to protest in large numbers, or is it going to acknowledge all Americans and open its eyes to see the elephants in the room?