A couple months ago, MSNBC host Ed Schultz ignited something resembling an online controversy by ducking some important questions about unionization efforts at Peacock Productions. Peacock Productions is the nonfiction production wing of NBC News and The Writer’s Guild of America-East (WGA-E) has been fighting for a union vote since 2012. They envision portable health insurance and overtime pay for staffers. The company’s most recent effort to quash agitation involves their claim that producers can’t actually vote, on whether to unionize, because they’re technically “supervisors.” This farcical suggestion was enough to delay the process and get the seemingly torpid National Labor Relations Board to investigate. The vote was held in June, but the Peacock Productions appeal has impounded the ballots.
In December, the AFL-CIO sent an open letter to MSNBC’s prominent hosts, hoping to drum up support for WGA-E’s efforts. “Since July 2012, producers and associate producers have worked with the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) in order to organize a union and bargain with Peacock Productions. They have expressed real concern about access to affordable health insurance, declining pay rates, long hours and an overall feeling of job insecurity among even the most talented and qualified,” explained the letter, “Unfortunately, Peacock has not acted in good faith, as its parent company NBC has in the past. Instead, Peacock has fought against its workers’ rights, jeopardizing the livelihoods of the workers.”
The note was enough to get Chris Hayes (often defined by lefty critics of the network as MSNBC’s “notable exception”) to meet with the Peacock workers, but not enough to inspire a public endorsement from Hayes or any other host. While Hayes, Maddow, O’Donnell, and Sharpton remained silent, Schultz responded to a Salon inquiry on the subject, by choosing to focus on the fact that MoveOn.org posted a similar petition, “Moveon.org has never been an ally of Ed Schultz, why should I help you with a story? Give me a reason.”
Schultz’s evasiveness didn’t stop there. After people began questioning the fiery progressive’s silence on Twitter, he took to his radio show in an effort to set the record straight. He declared that he has always been a supporter of unions, but refused to mention Peacock workers specifically. He claimed that the online critiques of his stance were, merely, a product of “income envy,” hurled at him from jealous leftists. “There are going to be minions out there that are going to twist and turn and spin and have expectations without going to the source,” he explained, before continuing to talk about his support for labor in the vague terms. “Do you think the management and ownership know who Ed Schultz is?” he asked rhetorically. “Do you think they know what I stand for? Do they think they know what my position is? Of course they do.”
Shortly after this perplexing rant, he took an on-air call from labor reporter, Mike Elk, who asked him if he would make a statement in support of the workers. Within no time, Schultz had somehow steered his analysis to asides about how he dislikes journalist David Sirota. Schultz has continued to imply that he might be steering the direction of the proceedings, and that critics are unaware of his actions, but there’s no evidence to suggest any of this is true.
It’s easy, and enjoyable, to criticize Ed Schultz. He’s a right-wing blowhard who transformed himself into a liberal blowhard. He’s a man who travels around in a jet to give pep talks to unions. (He is paid thousands of dollars to do so and insists it all goes to charity.) He’s a media member who relentlessly shills for the Obama administration’s foreign policy. His diagnosis for every organized labor setback is a firm denunciation of the GOP, even when reflection is in order. After the failed attempt to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, he had little to say about how a legitimate people’s movement was co-opted by slick Democratic strategists. How could you blame him? It’s a culture he revels in.
However, as ridiculous as Schultz can be, he’s small potatoes. His name didn’t even come up when I talked to the Executive Director of the WGA-E, Lowell Peterson, who wanted to stress that, in the end, this isn’t about MSNBC, but about the workers. When I asked him what he thought was behind the silence of the hosts, he admitted he had no idea, but speculated that, “maybe the feel pressure from a corporate parent.”
This theory appears to be the most logical explanation, as it seems that the stars of MSNBC, at the very least, believe firmly in the liberal analysis they are paid to deliver; every host identified on the MoveOn.org petition regularly celebrates unions on their program. A staple of nearly every network profile is the part where an MSNBC personality brushes away charges of the station being a Fox New for Democrats, by explaining that their commentary is never questioned or coached by higher-ups. These facts are generally juxtaposed with the propaganda of the right-wing media machine, which tends to be direct in its coercion.
This begs a question: if MSNBC hosts have never really been squeezed by their corporate overlords up until this point, is this the first time their voices have threatened Comcast’s bottom line? If so, what does this say about our country’s progressive media?
While a Schultz endorsement might not tip the scale, it’s hard to believe that support from Rachel Maddow would not. The union vote seems to be inevitable, but the process could no doubt be sped up if the network’s most prominent superstar endorsed the effort. Maddow, who makes $7 million a year, has spent the past two months droning on about The Fort Lee lane closure scandal, regularly excoriating Chris Christie for his alleged involvement. The focus is, no doubt, fueled by Christie’s 2016 presidential aspirations. In the end, Maddow’s time seems to be spent fighting battles for the Democratic Party as opposed to fighting battles for the workers outside her office.
Lean forward, indeed.
Michael Arria writes for Vice’s Motherboard.tv and is the author of the new CounterPunch book, Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC.