Union Publications Persevere Through Media Crisis—and Deserve to be Celebrated

Kari Lydersen

Union members play in jazz clubs and symphony orchestras, fight forest fires, build water treatment plants and bridges, design video games, fly planes, mine coal, and teach college.

Images and stories showing the diversity, creativity and tenacity of union members — and the wide array of professions that are unionized, even in these days of record low unionization — are bursting from the union local and national magazines, newspapers and newsletters that the International Labor Communications Association (ILCA) celebrates in its annual contest.

Serving as a judge for this contest recently, along with Working In These Times blogger (and former Chicago Tribune labor reporter) Steve Franklin, I got an inspiring reminder of the various battles that unions are fighting, and in many cases winning, nationwide, as well as the rich histories of many unions. In a time when the mainstream media is shrinking cataclysmically and labor stories in the mainstream press are becoming rarer and rarer, many union publications are still picking up the slack by telling their own stories and rallying their members and supporters.

ILCA, the professional organization of labor communicators, was born with the AFL-CIO’s formation in 1955 and includes hundreds of member publications produced by AFL-CIO-affiliated and other unions, with a combined circulation in the tens of millions. (Read ILCA’s Labor Media Center coverage during the 2009 AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh here).

Labor publications of course lack the stamp of objectivity” of regular mainstream media, and many union publications likely don’t have a wide reach beyond their own membership. Some union members surely read the publications faithfully, others probably throw them in the trash or use them to line the bird cage without a second glance.

But the evocative photos, clever illustrations, compelling teasers” and interviews and articles on display among the ILCA contest entrants would catch the interest of many people whether or not they are union members or sympathizers. Especially in light of the changing media landscape and drastic shifts in where and how people get their news, perhaps there could be an expanded role for individual union publications to reach broader swaths of organized labor and the general public, at least within a given industry, scene or geographic area. 

Since labor media are not dependent on the advertising, subscriber or increasingly philanthropic dollars that sustain most other media, they would logically be poised to weather the media crisis better than other publications. This includes the survival of actual print publications, becoming rarer as a form of daily news but surely crucial for reaching members or allies who are less likely to continually visit their union’s website on a regular basis than to read an attractive publication that arrives at their door.

This year’s ILCA entrants (published in 2009) not surprisingly had many stories focused on how their union is affected by budget cuts and the economic crisis. Many also dealt with the health care crisis and healthcare reform, and took stock of Obama’s first months in office.

They naturally emphasized how workers are being squeezed from all sides, but stressed they can do something about it. They harkened back to the Civil Rights movement, their own unions’ genesis and past struggles for democracy and equality within the union to show that this isn’t the only period where workers and unions have faced difficult times.

This year’s ILCA awards contest deadline was April 1. Awards will be presented in November in Washington D.C. Check back for details on next year’s contest.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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