Labor Gets a Word in Edgewise

The Times gets credit this morning for initiating and prominently displaying a story on organized labor, or as I like to think of it, the unicorn of the business press.

True, working people don’t count, or so I must infer from slogging through the financial pages day after day (talk about substandard working conditions!). And I understand that labor unions are not the players they once were. But still.

If the idea is to look for areas in which the business press institutionally can be improved (though self-examination is not, shall we say, the business press’s strong suit, as evidenced by this story in which senior editorial leaders blame readers for the mortgage crisis), it would take some doing to argue that the financial press could not be in better touch with the economic lives of everyday Americans, which, I have to tell you, was not so good even before the crash. The American family’s deteriorating balance sheet was, in the view of many people I agree with, a key reason for the debt explosion of the previous decade and the debt crisis that followed.

Point is, more labor coverage is welcome. The Times also should be credit for even having a full-time labor reporter, the veteran Steven Greenhouse, who last year broke into the debate over how to run an economy with his valuable and under-appreciated, “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.” That book is really good.

Today’s piece is more pedestrian, but it reports on unions’ new-found clout under Obama and describes worries among some that Big Labor, or what’s left of it, is taking advantage of an ostensibly friendly White House to win protectionist measures that will spark a trade war.

While labor’s opposition to free trade is nothing new, having an ear in the White House is. The Obama administration, though it says it supports free trade, has so far seemed more aligned with labor’s trade agenda than has any administration in decades.

What has alarmed America’s trading partners is the steelworkers’ victory when the president imposed a 35 percent tariff on Chinese tires under special trade rules that allow punitive measures without a finding of illegal trade practices.

Fair enough. Fellow bizpress decoder Dean Baker might take issue with some of the characterizations of the nuances of the trade disputes. But all sides get their say, including salty Steelworkers chief Leo W. Gerard:

“They [the Chinese, natch] cheat in every area,” Mr. Gerard said, pointing to repeated findings of illegal subsidies, as well as one American tire maker’s saying that Beijing had illegally required one of its factories in China to export all its output. “If the bully keeps beating you up, is it so bad to stand up to him?”

I’m perfectly willing to believe, by the way, that real economic harm could come from the union-backed measures including proposals for any cap-and-trade bill that would impose tariffs on imports from countries with weak anti-pollutions laws.

But at least both sides are getting a hearing.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.