It’s not a stretch to say the media, the press, or more specifically, The Kansas City Star, is not on the public’s most admired list. Likewise, organized labor, be it the AFL-CIO, or more specifically, Local 691 of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers & School-Related Personnel, doesn’t win much applause from the public
The reasons are varied. Sometimes, it’s simply because of the institutional makeup of the media outlet and the labor union.
The media’s job is to report the news and have opinions. A labor union, with its leadership, considers its members first; how the public interacts with the organization, or not, depends on what jobs the union’s members do. One could generalize by saying the media has an active relationship with the public, organized labor a passive one.
In sheer numbers, more people know a little more about the media than they do about labor unions. Simply put: more people watch TV than belong to a labor union — and organized labor is not a hot topic of coverage for TV news. And in terms of influence of over public policy — both are exaggerated. Money remains the dominant factor in politics, not press coverage or union support.
So when an issue erupts between the press and organized labor, most people don’t really care. Not that they shouldn’t, but they don’t. Stereotypes kick in: The media distorts and is bias; labor unions are corrupt and only care about themselves. Not surprisingly, when the local newspaper’s editorial board and a local union’s leadership square off, it doesn’t hit the 6 o’clock evening broadcast.
On April 16, the Star published an unsigned editorial backing the election of Tim Brennan for president of Local 691 of the teachers union. He was running against the reelection of current president Judy Morgan. The union represents some 3,000 teachers and other personnel in the Kansas City MO School District.
Union members and their supporters were surprised and angered at the Star’s editorial. No one could remember the Star ever taking a position in a union election.
“The best we could tell, it had never been done before,” said Morgan. “I thought it was inappropriate.”
Morgan quickly figured out the editorial writer was Barbara Shelly, columnist and member of the Star’s editorial board. Shelly had called Morgan before the editorial appeared. At the time, Morgan said, “I didn’t know she was doing an endorsement.”
Shelly said seeking information in order to write about the upcoming union election was her idea and one the editorial board agreed with. She considers the teachers union one of the significant players, along with the school board and parents, in the KCMO district and open to comment from the newspaper’s editorial board, also.
“The union’s internal affairs have a significant impact on public schools and the kids,” said Shelly. “It’s in the public’s interest to know a little about the teachers union and its elections, and how that places itself in the public landscape.”
Morgan doesn’t agree. “I still think whenever there’s an election for president of the union, the Star doesn’t have any business. They don’t know the facts and didn’t do the due diligence.”
Shelly said she heard the election was “an interesting, contested union election” and decided to find out more about it. She contacted Brennan and found he “was looking for a different way of doing things.” Shelly had a son who attended Kansas City MO District schools K-8.
Judy Ancel, with the Institute for Labor Studies at UMKC and Longview Community College, agreed with Morgan. In a letter to the Star, which the newspaper published, Ancel noted the newspaper’s “long history of hostility to unions,” and suggested that if the newspaper wanted “to influence education, then it would be appropriate to endorse candidates for school board, however, unions represent their members, not the public, and they are private organizations.”
True, but some teachers union members do interact with the public — with the parents of children they teach. Morgan recognizes that fact yet is convinced the Star should have “butted out.”
Yet, it must be noted. The editorial was an exercise in free speech
Realistically, The Kansas City Star can have way more success when it comes to influencing public opinion than Local 691. Morgan no doubt wonders about that fact when talking about her union’s concern of the district “moving too fast” in making program changes without “sufficient teacher input.”
Still, the Star editorial didn’t hurt Morgan much or give Brennan much juice. Morgan won by 85 percent. “I think it may have hurt my opponent,” she said.
Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.
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