When Thomas Frank wrote in 2000 about the decline of labor reporting in American newspapers since the 1970s, he summed up the prevailing attitude by the late 1990s as "Unions are obsolete and strikes are sad." Strikes are no longer indicative of any underlying labor dispute, and certainly not extensions of any social or class conflicts (America having magically purged itself of the concept of class in the Reagan years). They are simply sad things that happen that make people fight and end with companies losing money and people losing jobs. The most damaging change, however, was the abandonment of the idea that the interests of management and labor are – or even could be – different. The 1990s revolution of Third Wave whiz-bang techno-capitalism, complete with video montages of the crumbling Berlin Wall and other tomahawk dunks of the free market, told us all that the interests of management and labor are one and the same. Strikes, unions, and class conflict are little more than personal vendettas and grudge matches played out by New Deal era relics who are too stupid and too stubborn to accept the inevitability of progress, refusing to accept the new, improved future in which the wage-grubber and CEO join hands and stride proudly onto the broad, sunlit uplands of post-regulation capitalism. Federal law prohibits the pre-1930s practice of setting up bogus "company unions" to derail organizing drives, but that is no longer relevant: the entire country is a company union now and we're all members.
In the interceding years, news coverage of labor issues has further degraded – which is to say that it is essentially nonexistent. The coverage of the pilots' strike at Spirit Airlines has abandoned any pretense of talking about labor-versus-management. Instead it focuses on passenger inconvenience, the quintessential "What's in it for me?" angle. Don't talk about the issues, just tell me if my flight has been canceled and how I can use my iPhone to get a refund.
No matter how many coats of sugar we apply over the issue with corporate propaganda and compliant, unquestioning journalism (due in no small part to the consolidation and successful union-busting in the print journalism industry since 1990) our society and economy really haven't changed that much. Workers and their employers are in a fundamentally adversarial relationship. The Company wants to get as much work out of you as possible at the lowest cost, and if they find a way to do your job more cheaply they will do it. You want to work as little and get paid as much as possible, and if a higher-paying job comes along you will take it. They are trying to fuck you, and it is in your interest to see to it that they do not succeed. That truth is fundamentally absent from labor journalism these days, which is unsurprising given the anti-union position of the newspaper industry and the generation after generation of brainless 23 year old journalism students with little practical skill aside from writing bland, inoffensive copy and sucking up to their corporate masters.
That said, the Spirit Airlines strike is an excellent example of how 21st Century strikes are born and play out. Management is emboldened by decades of compliant legislation and judicial willingness to strip away regulatory and labor protections. Labor is endlessly frustrated by the continued degradation of the things that have always defined "good jobs" in our society – benefits, pensions, reasonable hours, and good salary. The emboldened management acts like a swaggering caricature of John Wayne; the exasperated employees dig in their heels in an effort to salvage pride if not a better deal. Basically, picture two people holding a revolver to one another's head and saying "Don't push me, or I'll…"
The end result of this dispute is most likely going to be the collapse of Spirit as a viable airline, which feeds into the "strikes are sad" storyline. But the important questions go unasked. What kind of system produces management willing to burn their company to the ground rather than pay their pilots wages in line with other bargain basement airlines? What kind of system produces employees who would rather strike and possibly lose their jobs rather than continue to work under the existing conditions? Examining the underlying issues that produce this kamikaze approach to negotiation would require not only more effort than we are willing to devote to any issue but the admission that, believe it or not, labor and management are fundamentally in opposition – not to mention that they are engaged in a death struggle over a piece of a rapidly shrinking pie.
We can probably do better than "Unions are obsolete, strikes are sad." But even good labor reporting under the current economic circumstances would probably conclude that labor-management disputes are like two bald men fighting over a comb.