#BoycottBlackouts: Confronting the media's disappearing labor beat

'Dear journalists, if workers win their struggles, democracy wins, justice wins, and you win.'

Christine Galunan

11:42:7am August 31, 2018

11:42:14am August 31, 2018

RESILIENCE AMID INJUSTICE. Victor Vallega, served as a contractual worker for 3 years before he was unjustly retrenched when the management felt threatened by the bargaining unit they were building. Photo by Herbert Docena

RESILIENCE AMID INJUSTICE. Victor Vallega, served as a contractual worker for 3 years before he was unjustly retrenched when the management felt threatened by the bargaining unit they were building. Photo by Herbert Docena

When did the NutriAsia struggle catch the limelight? When the struggle was ongoing for almost 2 months, why did it have to take the image of Nanay Leti’s bloodied face at the violently dispersed NutriAsia picket line for the issue to get public attention? 

#BoycottNutriAsia soon erupted on social media, and only then did newsrooms began paying attention. Headlines in print media the following day were strangely silent on the dispersal, but soon they published statements denying responsibility from the corporation in the same breath as those of strikers who were bludgeoned and detained. (READ: NutriAsia protesters violently dispersed despite regularization talks

Without student journalists and independent media on the ground, the dispersal would have been cast in the same light as other labor disputes in general – deafening silence or token minimal coverage, followed by a “balanced” explanation from either the government or the company.

If workers went on strike and no one heard, did they make any sound?

labor strike

labor strike

Despite dismal media coverage, news on strikes and labor disputes peaked in 2018 since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency and failed to fulfill his promise to end contractualization.

I say dismal because although there seems to be renewed media interest in workers’ struggles this year (from zero and single-digit news stories/day in the past), this uptrend pales in comparison to the sheer volume of news stories published every day.

In 2018 so far, news stories on labor disputes only covered 0.15% of a month’s news on average. This translates to roughly 4 stories on labor disputes in an average of 2,400 stories every month. (READ: What brought workers, students to Labor Day 2018 rally

This share of labor in the news space is diluted even more when looking at the organizations and personalities covered by news stories on labor disputes.

A simple analysis based on data from MediaCloud shows that news stories are usually focused on government sources, with only a very small percentage – ranging from 6 to 7% – focusing on or mentioning labor organizations. 

This inevitably leads to uneven narratives, especially in the context of labor disputes. Strikes and actions are reduced to mere numbers. The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) is left to explain and assure investors that all is well in the business climate.

To the workers, it seems that their struggles are the subject of an indefinite media blackout that has always preferred the perspectives contrary to theirs. (READ: LOOK: Why NutriAsia workers are on strike

But these disputes are more than just unexpected shocks to an otherwise harmonious relationship between workers and their bosses. What the media misses out on in this silence are the real, compelling stories behind these labor disputes that can liven up the drab hopelessness of our politics today.

The latest in these missed opportunities is the sight of a 20-foot plastic tent that, despite the torrential rains, stood unyielding below the highest twin towers smack in the middle of the venerated Bonifacio Global City.

Even more remarkable are the extraordinary people behind it – engineers and maintenance workers – who have built this structure as their barracks in the uphill battle for justice and democracy in their workplace. (READ: IN NUMBERS: What you need to know about the Philippine labor sector) 

If the search for the next newsworthy thing remains key in the media mindset, they can’t look any further than this and a myriad labor disputes that house rich narratives of ordinary people finding strength in a collective vision.

Only if the media dared to look closely can they find an unlimited well of stories that give human faces to the dismissive scare of lifeless, powerless numbers that President Duterte and Secretary Bello are painting of workers’ strikes.

Speaking truth to power

Although workers in the picket line are dismayed at the dismal media coverage, they understand that media work is also a struggle for individual journalists.

The increasing precarity of media work – not to mention the white elephant of contractualization in many newsrooms – is making practitioners in the mainstream media more and more cautious on the stories they cover and publish, feeding into an endless loop of the status quo where workers and labor are undesired subjects. (READ: Labor group to Duterte: Hike wages amid shrinking purchasing power

This reality should be all the more reason for media practitioners – who are workers themselves – to unite with struggling workers against undemocratic boardrooms and corporate-based editorial control.

The sheen of the Pacific Plaza Towers where the strike is happening is no different from the tinted-glass skyscrapers owned by media moguls whose power over their media workers is preventing historic stories like strikes from spreading like wildfire, because struggling workers’ human faces would force them to confront their own.

It is no puzzle therefore that only a few media outlets have retained their labor beat, which, as we see, is becoming more necessary than ever.

The Duterte administration’s vicious attacks against press freedom in recent years also compel us to revisit the media among the shrinking spaces of our civil society.

Under Martial Law in the 1970s and 80s, when workers’ strikes were pivotal to sustaining the mass movement, it was student publications and independent media circulated in secret that informed the public of the ongoing struggles. A total media blackout was the chosen weapon of an authoritarian regime. Despite this, strikes persisted to be ripples of people power over decades that little by little, fueled the resistance that toppled the dictator.

In our context, the invisibility of labor disputes from mainstream media is a dangerous precedent in our weakening democracy. More so, it is a counterproductive affront to the growing strength of workers against the tyranny of the minority and threats to press freedom.

HEIGHTENED SECURITY. More security personnel guard the gate of the industrial complex where the NutriAsia plant is located. Photo by Aika Rey/Rappler

The uptick of strikes and labor disputes in 2018 is alarming for this government because workers’ growing discontent and their resistance to the changelessness are the biggest threats to a fascistic regime that envisions to project order and popular appeal.

Yet it is not only the government that uses the blackout as a tool for control but also corporate media, whose own unfair labor practices are yet to come to the fore. To the government, there is reason to be afraid of strikes. To media practitioners who are fighting for real democracy in all aspects, strikes are a reason for hope.

Dear journalists, there’s no reason for you to be silenced other than fear of your own power. The workers on strike, and the thousands more who will be in the coming days, are victims of that same silence.

If workers win their struggles, democracy wins, justice wins, and you win.  

Believe me when I say that amid the grueling struggles at their own workplaces, these workers and labor centers were never absent in lightning rallies to #DefendPressFreedom.

In return, you have the power to #StandWithWorkers and bring their voices to the forefront. Time to #BoycottBlackouts and speak truth to power. – Rappler.com 

Christine Joy L. Galunan finished political science at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. She is a member of the secretariat of the Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) and works on issues of economic justice – labor rights, tax justice, debt, and alternative economic policies.