Union Stations

BY David Moberg

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Add up the audience for all of the progressive independent press: national magazines, local newsweeklies, liberal blogs, Pacifica radio stations. It probably isn’t more than a few million households.

But add other anti-corporate alternatives—the magazines and newspapers produced by American labor unions—and the audience soars by an estimated eight million households. Yet, the labor press wields little clout, even with union members. Could this sleeping giant, if awakened, play a role in the revival of labor unions and progressive politics?

In the debate over what new directions the union movement might take, the labor press has received little attention. That reflects its sorry state. Labor unions once owned popular radio stations and produced thousands of publications. There were also many independent, often left-wing publications with a significant working-class readership. Some publications still do good work, and there are fledgling labor-backed ventures on local cable and radio, such as the daily shows produced by Worker Independent News. Unions have expanded Internet activity and given growing support to media reform. But compared to a decade ago, there are fewer publications, appearing less frequently, and often of declining quality.

Labor members and union staffers have plenty of ideas about what kind of media labor could create—a national online daily newspaper, a cable channel, a weekly trade journal. Or how it could improve media operations—be more professional, report controversy and debate, give editors more independence. But the first question is simply: Why bother?

Matt Witt, director of the American Labor Education Center and previously communications director at the Mineworkers, the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), conducted focus groups while at SEIU. “The huge majority of people receiving a union publication are not looking at it, in the sense of not looking at it—period,” says Witt. However, they do read short leaflets distributed at their work sites, where, Witt argues, people learn through action more than through reading. Other surveys, however, indicate the situation is not so bleak, but creating audience interest is a huge hurdle for any new proposal.

The challenge is not just finding money to mount massive new television programming or publications, says Witt, but also developing skill in delivering a populist message. Labor press advocates like Martin Fishgold, a local union newspaper editor and president of the International Labor Communications Association, argue that labor publications would be more avidly read if they were livelier, filled with professional reporting and controversy, and edited by a staff with independence from union officers’ dictates. Labor pursues only a public relations strategy, not a democratic media strategy, he says. Fishgold wants the AFL-CIO to immediately develop national radio and cable TV shows and a weekly publication, and then, within two to five years, create a radio and cable network. He advocates that local labor federations produce mass-circulation newspapers, much like free alternative weeklies.

But with both organizing and politics demanding more money, funding for such ambitious outreach ventures is unlikely. And almost no union leaders support making union editors unaccountable to officers, who legitimately see labor publications as a means to deliver the messages they consider most important. But those union presidents, if they wanted, could decide that a more freewheeling labor press, featuring voices of members as well as the words of elected officials, best delivers a crucial message—that the union belongs to its members.

If a labor press is to exist, its potential audiences include union members, staff and activists, non-union workers, and potential allies and supporters. No one strategy reaches all audiences, or does all jobs well. Leaflets may mobilize workers for campaigns, but they’re not as good for providing activists with broader information about the labor movement or developing the intellectual foundations of a new movement, as the right wing has done over decades.

Within likely financial limits, labor could try—while closely measuring effectiveness—several experiments. For example, unions could create some open and democratic local union newspapers, labor-backed alternative weeklies in several cities, more radio programming and internet publications and a weekly “trade journal” for activists and staff, similar to what exists for professionals in fields like computers and education. Sam Pizzigati, former publications director for the National Education Association, envisions a trade weekly supported by unions and by advertising, which would give it some economic basis for editorial independence. But unions could also effectively expand the labor press on the cheap by providing support—including money, paid subscriptions or mailing lists—to progressive, pro-labor publications or by funding independent reporting on labor-related issues.

Ultimately, a revived labor press depends on revitalization of the labor movement itself. But until that happens, labor must explore how to talk more effectively to others and within its own ranks. It may be too much to hope in the foreseeable future for a vital labor press, voraciously consumed by working people. But it is still possible—and necessary—for unions to be influential contributors to a more powerful alternative media.

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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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