Media accounts of the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle plastered images of violence front and center. The rage over globalization had ultimately boiled over, the reporting said.
David Moberg saw the unprecedented fury, but also much more. As he wrote in In These Times:
After Seattle it will be difficult for any politician to talk about global economics without addressing links to labor rights, human rights, food supplies and the protection of both consumers and the environment. After Seattle it also will be critical that the protesters maintain their broad coalition, link up more with movements in developing countries, and define with greater clarity what they are for as well as what they are against.
His words were guided by a lifetime discipline of providing the long view. As a staff writer for In These Times from its birth in 1976 and later a senior editor, he secured a unique position for himself in the small band of the nation’s labor writers (which until recent years had seemed on the edge of extinction). What made his work stand out was the combination of grounded reporting on people and events with a very clear analysis about where American workers had come from, where they were headed and what more could or should be done on their behalf.
His death on Sunday, July 17, at 78 years old after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease stirred an outpouring of loss and admiration for a somewhat shy, soft-spoken journalist, whose vision ranged from the struggle of Chicago cab drivers to theories about how to make capitalism more just and fair.
“What struck me about David was that he inspired so many of us to fight for labor’s cause without ever raising his voice, without ever overstating his case, without ever going beyond the facts. That’s what made him so persuasive,” says Tom Geoghegan, a labor lawyer-who has written extensively himself about workers and unions. “Like many others, I just trusted every word he wrote. He could have made a fortune as a big-name journalist, but he chose instead to enrich the rest of us. I feel I owe him so much.”
Lance Compa, a former professor at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School is one of many who credit their devoted readership of In These Times to Moberg’s reporting. “David not only dug deep into U.S. labor affairs, he was also keenly attuned to the international dimension of trade union work, often writing about international campaigns, as in his 2007 feature article ‘“Solidarity Without Borders,’” Compa wrote in an email to In These Times. “That piece is still the best single concise analysis of labor’s international efforts.
“It’s heartening that there’s a new generation of labor journalists on the ground now, during a time of labor resurgence, who can draw on David’s work as a model and inspiration for their own.”
Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation, where many of Moberg’s articles appeared, hopes that upcoming labor writers “learn the rigor about studying the history [of labor] and bring it to bear.”
In extensive reporting for The Nation, The New Republic and The American Prospect, in addition to In These Times, Moberg, who held a PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago, brought a historian’s long view to a floundering labor movement.
With union leaders headed to Chicago for a conference that would lead to the splintering of the AFL-CIO into two groups, one group dead set on leaving the organization, saying it had failed to confront organized labor’s many challenges, Moberg wrote in The Nation in 2005:
Whatever happens at the convention, the battle over rebuilding a labor movement that overcomes the shortcomings of a half-century merger will continue, with an outcome that is far from certain.
He was prescient. The hopes for changes were illusory. Organized labor’s downward slide has spiraled onward.
Unlike those whose calling to labor sprung from union roots, Moberg, who grew up on a small family farm in Galesburg, western Illinois, cited a very different inspiration. He wrote that his appreciation of work came from “the collective work of putting up hay with neighboring farmers and the cooperative traditions of the farm supply company my father managed.”
A self-described “60s student radical,” he published an alternative newspaper at Carleton College, which, according to classmate and long-term friend Noel Barker, school officials shut down. Moberg, Barker and 10 other students, who put out the paper, were briefly suspended by the college, Barker says.
His first job after college was reporting for Newsweek in Los Angeles, where he covered the beginnings of the United Farm Workers union and “learned important lessons about solidarity, persistence and the flaws of even labor movement saints.”
He came to the University of Chicago to study anthropology, and eventually focused on a GM plant, where “tyrannical work rules, boredom and work speedup were subjects for his contemporary anthropology,” wrote Barker in an e-mail. Moberg’s dissertation was on the 1971-1972 upheaval by workers at General Motors’ newly opened Lordstown, Ohio, plant. His papers from that research are on file at the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University, Detroit.
As a graduate student, he formed a commune in a large eight-bedroom house in Hyde Park, and that is where he met his wife, Jo Patton. She is a retired official for a public service workers union. They were married for 41 years at the time of his death. He was also survived by his son, Carl, and his daughter Sarah, two brothers and a granddaughter. As the commune members moved on, Moberg and his wife bought the house, where they stayed until his death.
His writings for In These Times and other publications roamed broadly. He went from wide-ranging analysis to minute details about how unions operate: from predicting the spread of globalization to portraying the despair of middle-aged workers, cut loose from their jobs, tumbling down financially, and ultimately out of the job market; from describing organized labor’s steady downhill slide to explaining the ins and outs of its bureaucratic dysfunction and the failure of some unions to prevent the collapse of their pension plans.
“There are central labor councils in most American cities, but usually there’s not much to them,” he wrote for The American Prospect in 2001. “Often poorly financed and lacking staff or strategy (or sometimes even a fax machine), they’ve typically focused on banquets, golf outings, breakfasts with local business leaders, and photo opportunities with politicians collecting a campaign check.”
Amid the Teamsters’ union’s national struggle to clean itself up after years of corruption, he presented a deeply detailed examination in 1999 of the forces facing reformers within Local 705, one of Chicago’s biggest, for the Chicago Reader. It can be read as detailed drama about the indelible stain of Teamster corruption and the reform efforts of everyday Teamsters, who were stumbling uncertainly towards a new way. It wasn’t flashy writing. It was details driven though some of the facts were stunning. He wrote:
It’s also true that most workers have little experience with democratic unionism. Many of the members who suffered most from the local’s previous neglect still don’t come to meetings, take advantage of the local’s training and educational opportunities, or even vote. Many union members are apathetic about politics, including union politics. And immigrants, especially those who don’t speak English well, are often slow to get involved in the union.
In the end, the battle over reform in the Teamsters often involves deep-seated issues that go far beyond any rational calculus of what policies produce the greatest good for the greatest number. To those on the outside looking in, reform seems stymied most often by entrenched biases; it’s as if two distinct worldviews were clashing under all the debates over contracts and grievance procedures. But sometimes the problem is simply that many individuals doubt their own abilities or are apathetic about their jobs. McCormick and Zero seem to be slowly winning ground on both fronts, but it’s an endless battle. Still, says McCormick, “I didn’t think it was possible 705 would be this deep into reform, that you’d get power back into the hands of the rank and file.”
McCormick and Zero were union activists in Chicago, who rode the reform wave to top positions within local 705. But Zero later split to align with then union president James P Hoffa. Moberg’s optimism about the Teamster reform seems ultimately to have come to fruition, however. Sean O’Brien was elected in 2021 as the union president with the backing of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), saying it was the best chance for union reform.
In a remembrance of Moberg to Facebook, Denise Mitchell, the former communications director for the AFL-CIO, recalled his slow, precise and polite questioning that he carried out without “posturing or gotcha-ism.” In a telephone interview, she called him an exception from other journalists because he “understood the labor movement.” So, too, she said “he would be incredibly curious about what would come out of what is happening today.”
He was a writer, who cared about words.
“He did a really good job of defending from editors, who might unnecessarily want to condense what he was trying to say,” says Joel Bleifuss, former editor & publisher of In These Times. “As a writer he fought for his stories and stories that matter.”
As his health steadily faded, his passion for reporting didn’t, however. His production of stories was “incredible and he was still doing it when was physically declining,” recalled Micah Uetricht, a former associate editor at In These Times, who is now editor of Jacobin.
And he clearly felt deeply about those whom he considered to be doing good work for workers. After the death in 2013 of the head of USLEAP, a small Chicago-based organization that fought for workers’ rights in Latin America, he wrote:
“When Marx exhorted workers of the world to unite, I doubt he envisioned a major role for the American son of a Baptist missionary couple. But I would argue that the life and work of Stephen Coats, who died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack on April 2 at the age of 61, might very well have pleased both Marx and Jesus, if not the institutions that claim to follow the teachings of either.”
John Judis, who worked with Moberg in the early years at In These Times and remained a friend, recalled how “David always tried to see things positively, which I did not.” In the same vein, “you’d never see David doing a hatchet job on somebody,” Judis added.
In a Facebook post soon after news of Moberg’s death, Judis remembers urging him 40 years ago to cover other issues, as labor was declining, and likewise to move to Washington, D.C., to reach a bigger audience. But Moberg didn’t take his advice. “David was nothing if not stubborn,” he wrote.
One advantage for Moberg of staying in Chicago and staying with In These Times, according to Craig Aaron, a former In These Times editor, was the following he had garnered. “There were these legions of readers, who would literally tell you they were reading the magazine because of David Moberg, and that was especially true for people in the labor movement,” says Aaron, who is now co-CEO of Free Press, a media policy and advocacy organization.
Moberg’s success as a journalist came as well from his reporting technique, Aaron says “David was one of those journalists that I learned to admire,” says Aaron, who joined the magazine straight out of college. “He would sit quietly and patiently for them (his sources) to tell him more.”
In 2002, Moberg interviewed Studs Terkel, whose passion for workers was very akin to his own, although Terkel’s technique was sui generis — no other American writer before or after Terkel has so exalted the meaning of work in our lives or made sacred the small and large tasks we do.
The meeting at Terkel’s book-cluttered North Side Chicago home had another symbolism for Moberg. He was one of the inaugural winners of the Studs Terkel award from the Community Media Workshop (now Public Narrative) in 1994. Moberg wrote:
Covering roughly 75 years of American history, Terkel’s books capture the experiences and reflections of a cross-section of Americans, a few famous, most of them little-known, many from poor or working-class backgrounds, on some of the great issues of their time, or in some cases, of any time. These assembled personal tales do not constitute a grand, explanatory narrative, but they are a reminder that history is lived through many small histories in which the great themes and challenges of the epoch are mixed together in distinctively complex biographies.
Terkel, who was about to turn 90, was churning out books and giving lectures without any hint of stopping. The article ends with Moberg asking Terkel about his mortality. Rather than answer directly, Terkel dashed upstairs to where piles of books surrounded his bed, Moberg wrote, and chose one by a Polish poet, Wisława Szymborska.
The poem Terkel selected was about the permanence of life. In the same vein, Moberg makes an observance about Terkel that could apply to himself.
“In capturing a record of his subject’s lives and thoughts, Terkel also preserves something of himself.”
Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.