The Incredible Shrinking Labor Press

April 1, 2015

One reason unions are so important is that they provide a voice to working people in a society that is dominated by profit-seeking corporations. Labor newspapers, other publications and communications organs are, at their best, an alternative news media for working people and their organizations. But in recent years, as unions have faced hardship and attacks, the number of union publications has fallen. Some would also argue that the quality and independence of the labor press has also declined in recent decades.

The UE NEWS spoke to three veteran labor journalists to get their views on the state of the labor press today.

A PERFECT STORM HITS THE LABOR PRESS

Peter Gilmore joined the staff of the UE NEWS in March 1977, and in 1987 he became the third managing editor of this newspaper, following in the footsteps of the late Tom Wright and Jim Lerner. He retired from UE in 2005.

“The labor press was hit by the perfect storm of the decline of the labor movement and the decline of newspapers,” he says. “What’s happened to the labor movement is not just a loss of members which undermines the institutional base, but there’s also a crisis of mission and of vision. If you go back to the days when the labor press was at its most influential, there was a sense of mission.

“We can look at the forerunner of the UE NEWS, a paper called the People’s Press in the 1930s. Before the UE NEWS was launched in 1938 there was this fill-in which was targeted to the membership of a number of unions that would come into existence under the banner of the CIO. It was lively, it was interesting to read, visually interesting, good cartoons, hard-hitting coverage, and it spoke to a sense of movement. People were in motion and the People’s Press, and subsequently the newspapers of the CIO unions including UE, were part of building that momentum but also reflected the hopes of people for real change in their lives.

“But as the labor movement became ossified – had a hardening of the arteries – I think the labor press did as well. So even before you had massive plant closings, difficulties with the labor board, and what Bob Kingsley calls the labor rights emergency, there was an ossification of the labor movement and with it the labor press. I’m speaking broadly, there are plenty of honorable exceptions, but too many newspapers which existed to reflect the particular agenda of whoever was in office at that time in that particular union, and not so much mobilizing the members to take on the bosses of the politicians.

“The fact that too much of the labor movement became so closely tied to the major political parties – and of course we basically mean the Democrats – meant that there wasn’t much for the labor press to say other than you have to get out and vote for the Democrats, and next week we’ll campaign against NAFTA or whatever it is that the Democrat in power is doing to us.

“The shrinkage of the membership and the general employer assault placed greater pressure on the labor movement, all of which affected the vitality of the labor press. This is occurring unfortunately at the same time when daily newspapers are facing shrinking readership, are dropping the labor beat, when people are getting more information from Facebook or The Daily Show. That creates a downward spiral which allows less opportunity for the leadership role that the labor press could have and used to have.

“Eugene Victor Debs, himself the former editor of a labor newspaper, once said the most important role in a union is that of the editor of the newspaper because ideally that editor is in a conversation with the membership but also articulating the aspirations of the membership and helping them find a way to get into motion to challenge power.

Gilmore says the attacks on the labor movement are not the fault of labor leaders. “But it hasn’t helped when they respond with an overwillingness to be accommodating to those in power, in the mistaken belief that, if only we had a better relationship with the CEO the plant wouldn’t close. Or if we take good care of our friends in the Democratic Party they’re going to somehow allow us to hold on to this nursing home or this plant.” He says this accommodating strategy not only undermines the credibility of elected union leaders, but of the labor press as well.

Gilmore says that his experience as UE NEWS editor, and the experiences of the editors who came before and after him, has been that, “unlike the editors of a lot of union newspapers, we’re not put in a position where the publication of … is dependent on the approval of some union officer of each article and every line. I think that says something about the role of the UE NEWS in this particular union, where there’s a sense of mission and general agreement that the way forward for working people depends on their ability to struggle, rather than the good graces of bosses or politicians. It’s that unity of purpose which means that the editor of the UE NEWS has always had heightened responsibility for sure, but also greater freedom of operation.”

IF UNIONS DON’T DO IT, WHO WILL?

Mike Konopacki is one of the leading labor cartoonists in the United States and started drawing labor cartoons for the Madison Press Connection, a local daily created by striking newspaper workers in 1978. In 1983 he and UE’s Gary Huck created Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons, syndicating their cartoons to the labor press in the U.S. and Canada.

“We can see the decline of the labor press in how our subscribers have just disappeared. When we started in ’83 it was at the height of the Reagan recession and we were confronted with steel mills and rubber factories and auto plants shutting down like crazy, but there were still a lot of labor union publications, so much so that they created the International Labor Press Association (ILPA). The labor press prior to 1985 was pretty vibrant because you had a lot of unions and they created enough media that they had to form an organization. Later it changed its name to the International Labor Press Association (ILCA) because they had to include digital. I recently downloaded a master’s thesis on the history of the ILCA by Matt Bates. When they had their contests they started including unions that were doing radio spots, videos, and eventually websites.

“It was pretty robust at that time. When we started to get subscribers, we had the Woodworkers, the Rubber Workers, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, the Paperworkers, the Allied Industrial Workers. None of these unions exist anymore, they’re all in the Steelworkers now. There was an article in The Nation years ago where the critique was that instead of organizing workers all they did was merge with other unions, and they called it conglomerate unionism. And we were the direct victims of it because when the Allied Industrial Workers merged with the Paperworkers we lost them but we still had the Paperworkers. Then the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers merged with the Paperworkers, and eventually they all merged into the Steelworkers.” Each of these mergers meant that another union newspaper ceased to exist, and meant the loss of another voice in the labor press, which Konopacki and Huck experienced as the loss of another subscriber to their cartoon service.

“So to use that was the gradual demise of the labor press. And then during the Reagan years local unions were shutting down, and we had quite a number of local unions that subscribed and they started dying off. Then when Act 10 was passed in Wisconsin we lost all of our public employee subscribers except for one. Previously we had five or six AFSCME locals in Wisconsin and the TAA, the teaching assistants union.

“Today we’re lucky if we have 20 or 30 subscribers. We used to have 120 subscribers. So on our watch we’re seeing it die. Whether it’ll survive is a good question.” He noted the demise of some community labor papers and a paper called Labor that was a joint publication of several railroad unions.

Even bureaucratic and conservative unions often provide some kind of opportunity for the voice of working people to be heard. “Unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot out there, and if unions don’t do it, who will?”

Konopacki mentioned a unique publication from Pittsburgh in the 1980s, the Mill Hunk Herald, not a union newspaper, but a journal of wide-ranging writings by workers that included poetry, fiction, non-fiction, cartoons and more. “That was an effort by rank and file to do some really cool labor journalism. What they did was encourage writers, and even had writing workshops for workers. There was also a group called Temp Slaves and they had a publication called Temp Slave, it was a zine, out of Silicon Valley. So this was independent workers realizing that they could do writing and poetry and drawing and stuff.

“So there were efforts that came and went, kind of ad hoc, to create a labor press, working class voices. Does that vibrancy still exist? I don’t know. There may be stuff that I’m just not aware of.”

PLENTY OF GOOD STORIES TO COVER

Steve Stallone is a former editor of The Dispatcher, newspaper of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) former president of the ILCA, and now works on communications for SEIU Local 1021, a public employee local in California.

“My main gripe about union journalism is that too much of the publications are controlled by the officers who have not the interest of informing, empowering and activating the membership. They want to control everything. The whole thing of having a lot of pictures of the officers with other ‘important people’, that is really what way too many of these publications are, and it’s sad. But there still are many publications that are doing really good stuff. I don’t know if I would say that the direction of it is going downhill. I’d say it’s uneven and has always been uneven. And it can change as the officers change.”

“There have been unions that had bad publications, people didn’t read them, so they conclude that people don’t read publications, so they cut back on them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or the newspaper is the first to be cut in a budget crisis.

Stallone makes a distinction between labor journalism and union journalism because there are people who are doing great labor journalism “not constrained by internal union politics. One of my favorite guys who does it, and I published him like crazy, is David Bacon,” who writes a lot about international and immigrant labor issues. “He goes to Mexico regularly. He went to the jungles of the Philippines to cover banana workers organizing, and got shot at. He went to Iraq just a few months after shock and awe to talk to Iraqi workers about what was going on and how the U.S.-installed government was keeping the unions for organizing and enforcing Saddam Hussein’s anti-labor laws. That was one of the stories we published in The Dispatcher.

“My contention has always been that there are plenty of good stories you can cover about the workers actually doing something that don’t need to be censored by officers and leadership.” He says there’s a place for writing exposes when union leaders sell out their members. “But there’s so much more you can do to promote good stuff within the labor movement.”

He finds troubling the number of unions and labor councils that no longer have a publication, nor even a very good website. “Many unions have moved their communications departments from internal communications with the members to a sort of external PR kind of thing.” Some national unions that have a lot of money, and could certainly afford to have excellent publications, have no regular publication at all because they choose not to. “It’s a matter of priorities in the budget.”

*****

There is no question that labor journalism, like the labor movement, has taken a beating over recent decades. As Peter Gilmore noted above, the great upsurge of the labor movement in the 1930s, which gave birth to UE and other unions, was accompanied by a vibrant labor press. If we’re going to revive the workers movement in this country in the years ahead, we will need a revival of the labor press and other forms of communications by and for workers. The UE NEWS will continue trying to do its part, and one positive development over the past three decades has been the rise of Labor Notes, an independent labor newsmonthly that advocates rank-and-file democracy and fighting unionism. But many more voices will be needed, on the printed page, the internet, videos and other media, if we want to make this a country in which working people really have a say.

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