Greenhouse Violates NY Times’ Policy in SEIU-NUHW Story

by Randy Shaw on September 15, 2010

In his September 14 story, “Union vs. Union,” New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse relied on confidential sources (“outside labor experts”) to back SEIU’s false claims that an NUHW victory jeopardizes worker benefits under Kaiser’s current contract. Greenhouse interviewed a number of labor experts, but none was willing to publicly support the SEIU view. Yet instead of concluding that SEIU was wrong and/or lying, Greenhouse propped up SEIU’s falsehoods by claiming “outside labor experts” backed them. Greenhouse also failed to disclose a recent NLRB regional director’s finding that Kaiser violated federal law when it rescinded pay raises for workers who earlier voted to leave SEIU for NUHW – the exact situation now at issue. The Times policy on confidential news sources states, “we will not use anonymous sourcing when sources we can name are readily available.” Despite many “readily available” labor experts, some of whom were cited by other news outlets, Greenhouse violated Times policy and used unnamed sources in his zeal to promote SEIU.

The New York Times is the gold standard for newspapers in the United States, and has adopted a tough policy against reliance on confidential news sources. The introduction to its policy states:

“Readers of The New York Times demand to know as much as possible about where we obtain our information and why it merits their trust. For that reason, we have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality.”

As I recently reported, SEIU’s chief campaign argument at Kaiser is that workers will lose current contract benefits if they switch to NUHW. SEIU has repeated this false argument despite an NLRB ruling directly to the contrary.

The truth of SEIU’s charges does not require a labor expert to be an undisclosed whistleblower, or to remain unidentified in order to avoid jeopardizing public safety or national security. Rather, it requires a conscientious reporter to talk to a labor expert and provide readers with this expert’s interpretation of federal labor law.

That’s what veteran reporter David Moberg did in his September 13 In These Times article, Kaiser’s Bitter Labor War. Ellen Dannin, a former attorney for the NLRB and author of Taking Back the Workers’ Law, told Moberg, “Going on basic [National Labor Relations] Board law, the terms of employment remain the status quo until there is an agreement between the successor union and the employer, or if the parties reach impasse, when the employer can impose terms.”

New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse has far more resources at his disposal than Moberg, and can pick up the phone and get nearly any labor expert in the country to talk to, and be quoted in, the Times. In fact, Greenhouse’s article cites two prominent labor experts, Nelson Lichtenstein and William Gould IV, neither of whom were quoted to support SEIU’s legal position.

Contrary to Times policy, Greenhouse never explained why he cited “outside labor experts” rather than providing their names. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Greenhouse did not like what he heard from labor experts willing to be identified, so relied on unnamed sources to bolster SEIU’s multi-million dollar disinformation campaign.

And Times editors should be particularly troubled by Greenhouse’s omission of the NLRB regional director’s ruling on this legal question. The opinion of the preeminent government agency on federal labor law should be given greater weight than the “outside labor experts” Greenhouse preferred.

A Journalistic Failure

Greenhouse’s article fails on journalistic grounds for other reasons as well.

First, his fundamental framing is that Sal Rosselli “did create a rival union” and that he is now using “brass knuckles” against SEIU. Greenhouse knows perfectly well that NUHW was created, and could only legally have been created, by workers themselves.

This is not a small point. The only reason there is an election at Kaiser is that thousands of workers filed petitions to decertify SEIU. As much as Greenhouse and others seek to portray this as some sort of Star Wars-like revenge saga by Sal Rosselli, this struggle is about workers choosing between two very different models of unionism.

Greenhouse’s attribution of “brass knuckles” to Rosselli is particularly inaccurate, given that it is SEIU that has been associated with virtually every act of violence and thuggery during its many elections against NUHW. This includes the death threats made by an SEIU staffer against NUHW employees at Kaiser’s Baldwin Park hospital, which resulted in a court issuance of a temporary restraining order against her.

Second, while Greenhouse cites SEIU President Mary Kay Henry urging NUHW to “consider organizing non-union workers,” he fails to acknowledge that NUHW did precisely this in winning the nation’s biggest hospital organizing campaign at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Santa Rosa in December 2009. Nor does Greenhouse ask Henry why SEIU has only organized one new health care facility in California over the past eighteen months, which is one less new facility than that organized by NUHW.

Third, readers have come to expect Times reporters to check crucial facts rather than just citing each side’s claims. Here, Greenhouse quotes NUHW saying SEIU is spending $40 million on the Kaiser campaign, and SEIU saying they are spending at most $4 million.

Having clearly spoken to many inside and outside labor experts, one wonders why Greenhouse did not make even a minimal effort to assess SEIU’s campaign costs. If he had, he would have likely found that SEIU is waging perhaps the most expensive political campaign per voter in United States history, which certainly would have given readers a different take on the entire Kaiser contest.

Sadly, Greenhouse likely knew the truth about SEIU’s spending and felt it was not fit to print. A reporter who claims that SEIU has dispatched “hundreds” of foot soldiers when SEIU is not even hiding the fact that it brought in 2000 to add to its prior 600 has lost any claim to journalistic integrity.

Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century has just been released in paperback by the University of California Press.

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