Unions face uphill struggle


Trade unions have traditionally been suspicious of the media and unwilling to engage with press and broadcasters on what they believe to be the media's own terms.

This attitude is often based on the belief that the mainstream media are biased against the trade-union movement.

A number of academic studies in Britain have shown that this can be true. The Glasgow University Media Group looked at industrial disputes in Britain during the 1980s and concluded that there was strong anti-union bias in both the coverage and the use of language. In this regard, a number of writers were very critical of the media's coverage of the British miners' strike in the mid 1980s.

There are also theoretical explanations as to why this is the case. One view is that the media always act in the interest of the dominant ideology in a society; this, during an industrial dispute, conforms to the interests of the employers.

Consequently, many trade unionists have held that there is little point in trying to improve their public relations. A development of this view came from the ideas of a famous Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who argued (in the early 20th century) that groups in their struggle for power use persuasion and consent. Today the struggle for persuasion and consent takes place in the media. Those involved in public relations within the trade union movement believe, like Gramsci, that the dominant value system can be challenged.

These persuaders have also accepted that journalists work within certain routines and practices and that, once these are understood, it is possible for people with varying points of view to get access to the media. Increasingly, trade unions are employing media strategists and public-relations consultants to advise during disputes.

Indeed, it now appears that to gain the upper hand in such a dispute it is necessary to win public opinion. The nurses, for instance, had public opinion on their side; the taxi-drivers do not.