Page 17


Working Papers BY BILL ADLER THE NEW LABOR PRESS: JOURNALISM FOR A CHANGING UNION MOVEMENT Edited by Sam Pizzigati and Fred J. Solowey. 256 pages. Ithaca, New York: ILR Press. $16.95 paper, $38.00 cloth BACK IN THE BAD OLD DAYS of the early eighties, the New York Times hired William Serrin as its one and only full-time labor reporter. The Times gave him license to cover not just strikes and high-profile bargaining sessions but to foam American workplaces as he saw fit. He wrote profiles of legendary labor activists such as H.L. Mitchell, who founded the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, and Florence Reece,, the writer of the anthemic “Which Side Are You On?” Serrin reported on dissident movements among miners, steelworkers and teamsters, wrote about OSHA’s contempt for occupational health and safety standards, about the sabotage of federal labor law and how that has made it nearly impossible to organize workers and win respectable contracts. It was an exciting beat on the nation’s most influential newspaper. Unfortunately, Serrin’s editors viewed the beat differently. “They saw the labor movement as passe, even dead,” Serrin writes in one of two dozen essays in The New Labor Press, a provocative if overly optimistically titled collection about the unfulfilled promise of labor journalism. Serrin’s editors killed many of his pieces, or held them for weeks or months, or buried them deep inside the paper. Much as he protested their judgement, Serrin admits his bosses had a point: There is little movement in labor today, particularly at the higher echelons. For the most part, as Serrin puts it, the labor movement is “about as creative and militant as the Rotary Club.” The labor press the periodicals unions publish for their members is, on the whole, irrelevant, predictable and unread. “Institutional wallpaper,” one contributor tagged it seen regularly but unnoticed. This is not news. Take a gander at almost any national union paper, or maybe the flagship AFL-CIO News. Though the look of the federation’s weekly is downright sprucely these days, the focus is the same as ever: Lane, Lane and more Lane. The difference nowadays is that Lane attends to his duties in fourcolor glory: President Kirkland Bill Adler is an Austin-based freelance writer and a member of the National Writers Unionl UAW . In the mid-1980s he served as spokesperson for the Texas State Employees Union/CWA. meets with so-and-so, announces this, surveys that. The paper’s slavish devotion to its leader is great for an editor’s job security, but not so hot for building a movement. \(The self-promotion syndrome is just as acute closer to home. Last year’s 12-page post-Labor Day issue of the Texas AFL-CIO Labor News, for instance, contained seven, count ’em, seven But, as I say, this is hardly stop-press material. What is novel is that from the belly of the beast comes an unflinchingly candid and critical book. \(The volume is edited by staff members of the National Education book might well inject some life into labor’s comatose house organs, and, it is hoped, into the movement as a whole. It is long past time, runs one thread through these essays and interviews, to dispense with parched accounts of conferences and speeches seasoned with platitudes and larded with grip-and-grin photos of union fat-cats swaddled in suits. As Dave Elsila, the editor of the UAW’s deservedly acclaimed Solidarity, writes: “Too many union officials still measure a labor paper’s value by how many times it runs their photo and whether it prints their columns on page one.” In the early fifties, one of every three U.S. workers carried a union card; today barely one in six does. Labor beat reporters on major daily newspapers, always in short supply, have dwindled to the point of near extinction. TV news? If a union shuts down a railroad or an airline, Ken and Barbie elicit comments from stranded travelers inconvenienced by “labor with few exceptions working people are cast on television as fleshy, bumbling beer-swilling whiners who bowl’ every hour of the day they’re not walking a picket line. With a combined circulation in the tens of millions, the labor press remains the greatest potential source for countering the mass media’s ignorance and distortions; it also could and should offer working people a view of politics and economics unavailable elsewhere. But first it must transform itself from a mouthpiece for union heavies to a voice that helps members better understand and change their world. The commitment must no longer be to public relations but to hard-nosed, feisty journalism. To read many union papers is to read that unions only win elections. Why avoid bad news, why the pretense? Why not ask organizers and members to analyze election losses and failed campaigns? Would such analysis not be instructive? And why not publish, as Solidarity has, investigative reporting of corporate PAC donations, for example, or of the political ties of union-busting law firms, or of the reasons behind particular workplace injuries and fatalities? Why not include cultural coverage from a working person’s perspective? Why not an unfettered letters page? \(Even a prison magazine like the Angolite in Louisiana offers more independence than many union could greatly enhance the labor press’s credibility among the very people it most needs to reach. The book is rich in invigorating ideas, models, and dreams, from the pieces that envision a national labor daily Working People available within a decade at newsstands alongside McPaper and People, to discussions of successful, community-oriented local publications. These include the kick-ass \(and Mill Hunk Herald of Pittsburgh and the 50-year-old-and-going-strong Racine Labor, a Wisconsin weekly. Racine Labor, according to Richard W. Olson’s essay, “An Isolated Survivor,” considers itself both a labor paper and a community paper. Its politics are leftish, Olson says, but not excessively so for the era or the area. It is incorporated as a cooperative: Most local unions subscribe for their members and the locals vote proportionally at the paper’s annual meeting. Other chapters explore the sorry historical portrayal of women, minorities and immigrants in the labor press. And there are nutsand-bolts chapters on the use of photographs, cartoons, and desktop publishing that working labor editors should find beneficial. Obviously, no matter how revitalized the labor press, it can do little to ease the economic and political vise-grip around the movement’s neck. But if labor is to rise again, it must be accompanied by its own resurgent press. Unions cannot rely on Bill Serrin or his successors at the New York Times to tell their story. \(In fact, says Serrin, once he had arranged for a Washington-based colleague to cover the annual AFL-CIO executive committee plaidfest in Bal Harbour, Florida. At the last minute, the reporter begged off. He told Serrin he “had to do a story about Unions must tell their own story. “We are facing hunger, want, thousands are unemployed,” wrote a labor journalist named Meridel LeSueur in the 1930s. He is quoted in Dave Elsila’s “Taking Readers Seriously.” “More and more,” LeSueur exhorted his brethren, “we need words to write and express the true history of the past and to create the true history of the future….Who is to record the true history of our lives? You live it. You make it. You write it.” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21 ,…..41″,*”.103,41.4.1,6″,….,..Afqnt V.* -,40.x* to”,!!