Watchdog, Lapdog -- or Canary in the Mine Shaft?

One of the most perplexing yet little observed phenomena of the past century has been the relentless decline of the so-called “labor press.” Once a widely adopted tool for reaching unorganized workers with the union gospel and for communicating within union ranks, the labor press today is at best an afterthought, at worst a public relations machine for union presidents to massage their images. Where once there were thousands of labor publications nationwide, today there survive only a couple of nationally-distributed independent magazines, a couple of scholarly journals and a declining number of union-produced magazines and newspapers with ever more infrequent publication schedules.

This decline parallels that of organized labor itself, with American unions representing less than 9% of all workers in the private sector-a smaller proportion than were represented prior to passage of the National Labor Relations Act. By comparison, it’s worth noting that the world’s most unionized nation also has a union press that is characterized as the world’s most independent and vibrant: while more than 80% of Sweden’s workforce is unionized, its labor publications rival the commercial media in size, production values and scope of coverage.

Is there a relationship between union vitality and an independent, aggressive labor press? That question scarcely would be raised by political scientists, for whom the primary role of a free press in promoting democratic self-government is pretty much a given. But it sparks furious debate among American labor editors today. For while unions tend to advertise themselves as participatory democracies, with constitutions, elections and all the other trappings of egalitarian civil society, many union leaders prefer to think of themselves-and act-as labor’s counterparts to corporate chief executives. "Unions are big business," Dave Beck, former president of the Teamsters, once summarized. "Why should truck drivers and bottle washers be allowed to make big decisions affecting union policy? Would any corporation allow it?"

But unions, it should go without saying, are not corporations, which despite any short-lived success ultimately are brittle creations. Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, General Motors, IBM, AT&T-all once seemed impregnable, and all were cut down to size by competitors, obsolescence or government intervention. Fully functioning democracies, on the other hand, survive through a constant process of reinventing themselves. A society whose citizens are knowledgeable about the issues confronting them, who discuss and debate possible solutions, who require leadership accountability-that society ultimately will be stronger and more long-lived than an oligarchy or dictatorship. Simply in terms of durability, therefore, a truly democratic model would seem better suited to organized labor-and, conversely, a lack of union democracy might be predictive of decline.

To be sure, association is not causation. This paper will not present any evidence to show that organized labor in the United States is shriveling because the labor press has been emasculated. Moreover, the author recognizes that a one-dimensional comparison of U.S. labor and its press to their Swedish cousins may be criticized as an oversimplification. Sweden’s political and judicial history, it can be argued, creates an entirely different-and more hospitable-environment for its labor movement than has ever existed in the U.S. Fair enough. But neither the Swedish nor American models sprang into existence fully formed, and their separate evolutions were shaped to one extent or another by the very issues discussed here: by the content and sophistication of their labor publications, by different relationships between their labor editors and union leaders, and by the overarching vision that guided both.

For those reasons, the author believes there are valuable insights to be gained from tracing the arc of American labor journalism; from examining some of the crucial decisions regarding editorial control and financing that destroyed attempts at editorial independence in the U.S.; and from contrasting the current American experience with the Swedish one.


Although the preceding introduction refers to the labor press as a “widely adopted tool” of the labor movement, anyone researching the subject soon recognizes that the labor press is the Rodney Dangerfield of union institutions. Perpetually underfunded and vulnerable to political manipulation, the labor press presents a ripe target for critics. Even more telling is the virtual lack of scholarly attention it receives, as if its transgressions-or accomplishments-were simply too superficial for comment.

A rare attempt to chronicle the medium was undertaken two years ago by Karla Kelling, a graduate student at the University of Washington, in a paper titled The Labor and Radical Press, 1820-the Present: An Overview and Bibliography. As Kelling soon discovered, researching the 1800s was surprisingly easier than looking at recent history. Historians “have largely ignored the labor journals of this era, as well as the decades that followed,” Kelling laments, in describing the Great Depression and subsequent birth of the New Deal. (Indeed, one of the section headings in her paper on the subject is titled, "Uncharted Territory: The Labor Press Since 1940.") Later, she quotes academic Jon Bekken, editor of Industrial Worker, as complaining that historians use labor newspapers to recreate the struggles of working-class organizations while ignoring the medium itself. “The press as a subject itself has barely begun,” Bekken observed in 1988, castigating journalism historians for remaining myopically focused on the commercial press instead.

(While historians have paid at least some attention to the radical press, especially to such journalistic milestones as Appeal to Reason and the Daily Worker, their attention has been highly selective. As an example, Kelling offers, the Federated Press-the first news service to provide affiliated papers with international reports of interest to the working class, started in 1920 and lasting into the early 1950s-has been “ignored in the historiography.” Apparently the only research on the subject to date, Kelling adds, is “one unpublished master’s thesis” that discusses Carl Haessler, a Federated Press founder. Even that scant notice is more than has been accorded to the Labor Press Association, however. Launched in 1949 specifically to drive the communist-dominated Federated Press out of business, the LPA became prominent enough to gain accreditation to White House press conferences and to be admitted to the Congressional press gallery, but historical references to its existence are scant.)

The scholarship vacuum persists to this day. An internet search for analysis and commentary on the labor press produces virtually nothing; a search of specific, ostensibly comprehensive web sites dedicated to the labor movement is as fruitless. For example, the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, among the country’s leading labor research institutions, has made an index of its resources available on the web-but although it includes such titles as “Guide to Labor Unions and the Internet” and “How Unions Can Use the Internet,” it lists nothing about the labor press or labor journalism. Similarly, a web-based directory of labor resources created by Ed Czarnecki, retired associate director of the AFL-CIO’s education department, has a comprehensive index of internet links that includes “religion and labor” and “internet and unions”-but nary a mention of the labor press.

The one apparent exception to this state of affairs is the Labor Press Project, sponsored by the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington and maintained, for all practical intents and purposes, by a single professor with some research and technical assistance. Because of those limited resources, the project thus far remains focused solely on the labor press of the Pacific Northwest, although it acknowledges that labor media “have been a critical part of American labor movements since the early 19th century, and an equally critical, if largely unacknowledged, part of the history of American journalism.”

That critical role dates back at least to the late 1820s and early 1830s, when the burgeoning labor movement was denied access to the established newspapers of the time, a problem that persists to this day. Labor’s response then was to create its own press, notably the Mechanics Free Press and the Working Man’s Advocate in Philadelphia and New York, respectively. By the end of the century, working-class newspapers had proliferated across the country; by 1940, literally thousands of labor papers (as well as utopian, socialist, anarchistic and other publications) had been published nationwide. Such newspapers, various analysts and historians have argued, were crucial not only for the development of working-class movements but for shaping popular political and social agendas.

But by 1950, as Sam Pizzigati and Fred Solowey observe in the introduction to their book, The New Labor Press, “labor press meant union press.” Done in by a combination of anti-communist fervor and heightened competition from the commercial press, the independent labor publications had ceded the field to their union dues-supported rivals. Even in that more limited form, however, the labor press was still an imposing force. The IAM Machinist, published weekly, had a circulation of 800,000. UAW Solidarity published only monthly but had nearly twice the circulation, at 1.5 million.

Indeed, the labor press of this period was potent enough to worry its commercial rivals. As the 1952 elections loomed, The Wall Street Journal worried that "the influence of the labor press could be a potent factor in determining voting results." With more than 800 labor publications circulating in the U.S., up from only 500 a decade earlier, the labor press was “an important means for stirring up rank-and-file discontent with wage stabilization and with rising living costs,” the Journal further fretted.

This was organized labor’s heyday in the U.S., at least as measured in numerical strength, and the ILPA was a symbol of that potency. Founded in 1955, as the AFL and CIO neared their merger, the ILPA was created primarily to eradicate racketeers who posed as publishers of labor papers to shake down frightened employers for ads. But the association sought also to provide union editors with professional standards, as well as to give them a little political clout-with no little success. President-elect Jack Kennedy sent a message to the 1960 ILPA convention expressing his “deep gratitude for the unprecedented support which the labor press gave to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket.” Anticipating difficult years ahead, he added, “I look to the labor press as an essential medium of education.” Five years later, Lyndon Johnson likewise lauded the organization for performing “a most useful-and indispensable-function in our free democratic society.”

ILPA-represented editors became regular visitors at the White House starting in 1963, when they held their editors’ conference and were received by Kennedy. The 1964 conference included a full-dress televised speech by Johnson, followed by questions, marking the first time a U.S. president staged a press conference exclusively for labor editors. The 1966 conference included an address by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and a reception at the White House, at which Johnson again spoke.

Meanwhile, ILPA’s work on the anti-racketeering front led to meetings with the Federal Trade Commission, the FBI, the Justice Dept. and various district attorneys, as well as publication of cautionary articles in numerous mainstream publications, including Fortune and Advertising Age. In 1958 the ILPA presented testimony before a Senate committee investigating the racket papers; that same year, it teamed up with the Better Business Bureau to issue a special bulletin on the subject that received wide circulation. “The fight is never ending,” an ILPA report observed. “But there is a big difference today. ILPA used to go to the authorities. Now they come to us.”

The organization also increased its visibility by publishing a press relations guide, with more than 50,000 copies distributed by 1961, and published a primer on libel and copyright law. In 1964 it instituted the annual A.J. Liebling Memorial Lecture, named after the prominent press critic, publishing the lectures in pamphlet form and distributing them to union locals. The ILPA, in other words, was a player.

Yet even as the labor press as an institution attained new heights of effectiveness and acceptance, its member publications were getting hammered by higher postal rates, declining membership rolls and a lack of union commitment to a journalistic -as opposed to public relations-mission. “It was stunning news to labor editors when it was announced last April 28 that one of the premier labor organs . . . was to be cut drastically,” ILPA convention-goers were told in 1975, in a report summarizing a survey taken the previous year. The organ in question was none other than the Machinist, in many respects the most dominant labor paper of its time, which was reducing its publication frequency from once a week to once a month in order to save $700,000 a year.

The ILPA survey disclosed other bad tidings, including the news that over the previous decade, 31% of responding national and international union publications had reduced the number of pages per issue, as had 44% of regional and community papers. At least one staff member had been cut from 21% of the larger papers, and from 14% of the smaller ones. And approximately 45% of all such publications had reduced publication frequency. Moreover, the 1974 survey found “an interesting and alarming response” by the national and international union editors, with one in five reporting that union editorial departments had received a lower priority than other union departments “in determining financial retrenchments.”

A somewhat similar survey by the renamed International Labor Communications Association in 1987-economically a more favorable time than 1974-was presented with a more upbeat gloss, but with some disturbing undercurrents. The surveyed publications “reveal a fundamentally healthy labor press that views its future with cautious optimism,” the report summarized, offering as one statistic that 81% of respondents reported maintaining or increasing staff and budget over the previous 10 years. But “when asked whether their publications are reaching their potential,” the survey report added, “more than two of every three editors said no. Most often cited as reasons were a lack of funds and the need for more membership involvement.”

Since then the situation has grown more dire-although, tellingly, there have been no more ILCA surveys to document it, reflecting that organization’s own more limited activities. Today, only a few central labor councils attempt to publish more than once a month, while a growing number of union publications that were publishing monthly have gone to 11 or 10 issues a year, and some to six or four-while some have just disappeared. And, of course, there are no more White House receptions, no more meetings with high-level government officials or business representatives. Indeed, in an inadvertent testament to the growing irrelevance of what’s left of the labor press, the AFL-CIO’s top officials have said they won’t be able to attend the next ILCA convention, scheduled for this November.


Although such a thumbnail history of the labor press suggests a rise and fall-of influence, numbers and sense of professionalism-a closer look reveals its shaky underpinnings even in the best of times. Two shortcomings in particular stand out: a chronic shortage of funds, and an equally chronic lack of commitment to either the independence or the journalistic sensibilities that define a “press.” The two deficiencies, it appears, are closely correlated.

The money issue is as old as the country itself. “In the labor movement’s earliest days, union-published papers were the exception, not the rule,” Pizzigati and Solowey observed in the introduction to their book. “Far more common were the publications edited by independent, outspoken advocates for labor, printers and journalists who scraped out a living publishing papers that working people bought to find the information and the inspiration they could find nowhere else.”

But even the supposed heft of union treasuries couldn’t guarantee that labor editors would be spared the chore of scraping up sufficient funds. Samuel Gompers, a union editor long before he became president of the American Federation of Labor, pleaded for greater financial support for the labor press at every AFL convention he attended. As early as 1903 he implored fellow AFL delegates: “Not merely as a platonic declaration, but as an earnest appreciation of the splendid service rendered our cause, our fellow unionist, our fellow workmen, friends and sympathizers everywhere, should give the labor press unstinted support.”

A more plaintive appeal was issued in 1953 by Irving Fagan, a writer for the Labor Press Association, on winning an award from the Sidney Hillman Foundation- “the first time in the history of American journalistic awards,” observed The Guild Reporter, that “recognized the labor press as worthy of notice.” Fagan was appropriately grateful at the awards presentation, crediting his father and stressing the vital role that the labor press had to play. And yet, he added, “that press, its own voice, is often neglected by labor.”

“I refer in particular to community papers-the papers that speak for AFL or CIO bodies in their area,” Fagan continued. “Such papers carry the endorsement of the central bodies, but all too seldom do they have the financial support of the body. So they have to scratch and scrape to make ends meet, and too often the struggle is too great and they succumb. . . . Their editors are underpaid and overworked. They persist because many of them are dedicated men and women.”

Remarkably, that description of financial desperation came as the labor press was reaching its apex, yet the scramble for adequate funding never ceased. For example, an ILPA scholarship, instituted in 1956 to help students with “a good grounding in economics and an interest in labor reporting,” lasted just one year before the executive council “decided this was too rich for our blood.” Five years later, ILPA president Dick Howard also was pleading for more financial support, observing that “the labor press can do a more effective job, but it must be adequately financed. You get only what you pay for.”

Yet as the 1975 and 1987 ILPA surveys indicated, the financial faucets were tightening, not loosening. Even the notably more upbeat 1987 report included excerpts of survey comments that in one way or another underscored the toll being taken. “Need help and money” and “Need more money and time” cut to the chase, but other comments included: “Impossible to do the best paper possible because of no staff, other duties”; “The labor press gets less money than necessary to do a first class job”; and “Our worst enemy: Our own labor leaders who won’t support the paper.”

Indeed, as these comments suggest, by the late 1980s the very concept of a labor “editor” was archaic. Only half of the respondents to the 1987 survey were full-time editors, with the balance almost evenly divided between volunteers and part-timers. But being “full-time” didn’t mean full-time as an editor: 57% of the editors reported they also had public relations responsibilities, 31% were responsible for education, 30% for union administration and 28% for research. And, in a telling statistic: one in 10 was a union officer.

This last figure probably understates the case, at least at the international level, judging by a cursory look at publication mastheads: the majority list the union president as editor or executive editor. Indeed, many union constitutions stipulate that the union president’s duties will include those of editor; and the overwhelming majority of union presidents require the person who actually edits publications to submit them for review-and approval-before printing. Of 194 respondents to the 1987 ILCA survey, for example, 59% reported that their work was always reviewed before publication, with another 21% saying it was reviewed sometimes. The “principal reviewers” almost invariably were “principal officers.”

Such review is unremarkable for a corporation, whose publications are expected to promote a corporate image or message and have a predominantly public relations function. And there are numerous arguments that are advanced on behalf of a tightly scripted union press: because such papers are funded by members’ dues, it’s appropriate-indeed, a fiduciary requirement-that the members’ elected representatives oversee how their money is spent. Because union publications are a union’s official “voice,” it’s essential that they communicate union policy clearly and consistently. Unions are besieged on all sides by hostile forces, so it’s crucial that union publications not provide their enemies with additional ammunition in the form of dissension, internal criticism or adverse news.

But such a rationale, however defensible on its own terms, is inherently conservative of the political status quo: it consolidates leadership control, marginalizes ideological challenges and limits informed membership participation in union decision-making. As such, it is both the result of, and contributor to, the triumph of business unionism over shop-floor activism, a struggle that crested in the late ’Forties with the expulsion by the Congress of Industrial Organizations of its communist-dominated internationals. The result was a flattening of discourse. As summarized by Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin in Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions, (p. 84), “business unionism, as a set of ideas justifying the narrowest definitions of a union’s role in society, discourages controversy for it implies that union leadership is simply the administration of an organization with undebatable goals: the maximization of the members’ income and general welfare.”

The implications for union democracy are obvious. William Z. Foster, founder of the Trade Union Education League-an intellectual forerunner of the CIO-could have been speaking yesterday when he lamented that the organizing of unorganized workers is “the supreme problem of our times.” Instead, those words were uttered more than 70 years ago, and the remedy Foster prescribed then sounds only a little less radical today, including the “right of free expression by minorities,” the “right of all members to run for and hold office,” the “right of all members to hold any political beliefs,” the “free discussion of all economic and political questions and opinions in the local meetings and official union journals”-and, of course, the need to “establish a free press in the unions.” (Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin, p. 86)

Today, most unions respond to the “supreme problem” by hiring a small army of organizers to conduct corporate-style enrollment campaigns. Instead of promoting intellectual ferment and membership engagement, most unions can trace their culture directly to the attitude articulated by Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, following his successful purge of the union’s communist faction. Faced with lingering convention-floor dissent in 1951, he pleaded for peace by promising: “You are going to have contests for offices. But let’s have democratic contests without factionalism. Let’s have democracy but not factionalism.” (Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin, p. 54)

The ongoing tension between democratic values and a dissent-free oligarchy has preoccupied labor editors for decades. The official ILPA report on its 1974 survey, for example, included an attachment of “interesting comments as to whether, as AFL-CIO President Meany termed it, the labor press is realizing ‘the job of communicating, getting down to the grass roots of the labor movement.’ ” Among the comments: “Not enough airing of real controversies within the labor movement” and “Most publications follow a trickle-down theory with information flowing from top to bottom. Improvements would mean more feedback from membership.”

But “feedback” and airing of controversies were never part of the agenda, with Meany repeatedly stressing the importance of the labor press-but only as a vehicle for the leadership’s views. As he told ILPA convention delegates in 1960, describing a distinctly one-way flow of information, the labor press “is, or ought to be, the most effective single avenue of communication between union leadership and union membership.” As it happened, one way to control the one-way flow of traffic on that avenue was by controlling its revenue.

The same racketeer papers that prompted creation of the ILPA and its “seal of approval”-still displayed in the mastheads of most union publications-also provided the rationale for slowly choking off the only alternative source of funding for union publications. If “legitimate” union papers didn’t carry advertising, racketeering imitators would be squeezed out of existence. If that also meant the labor press would be even more dependent on union treasuries, all the better. So it was, on May 27, 1958, that Meany announced union papers should be financed by labor unions, not by advertising, and hence would no longer be allowed to accept advertising from companies not 100% organized by the AFL-CIO.

The implications of the directive were devastating. “The Meany ruling would have decimated the labor press,” summarized an ILPA history of the period. Instead, a hasty series of meetings resulted in a modification of the edict, limiting its reach merely to prohibit ads from companies that were resisting AFL-CIO organizing. But other bans already had been imposed, on ads from companies against which a strike or lockout was in progress, or which were on the “unfair” lists of central bodies, and more restrictions followed. The ILPA outlawed “friend of labor” ads, then ruled that ads in member publications had to be for services or products for consumer use, barring “institutional” ads or ads from wholesalers or makers of capital goods. In 1963, the AFL-CIO prohibited its central bodies from soliciting ads outside their geographic areas. In 1964, the ILPA required labor papers to get the approval of all central bodies in whose areas it might solicit ads.

The unsurprising result was a gradual decline-and for most union newspapers, eventually a complete loss-of paid advertising. By 1965, ILPA reported, only 26 of 109 international union newspapers accepted advertising; today, only a handful do.


The loss of financial independence, coupled with greater centralization of editorial control, has ensured that today’s labor press most closely mirrors the ideal articulated by Meany, Reuther and other labor leaders decades ago. But the price of that achievement has been a measureable loss of journalistic credibility and a less well-defined, but still observable, decline in relevance to the union members at whom the labor press is targeted-and, in an ironic twist, to labor leaders themselves. It’s as though, having sucked most of the vitality out of their own publications, the union elite recognize how little of value remains.

Lack of leadership respect was distracting ILPA’s officers even as they scrambled to make the labor press conform to Meany’s vision. “One of the greatest dangers facing our unions is the handicap of an inadequate press,” ILPA President Gordon Cole told the group’s first convention, in 1956. “That is the primary problem facing the labor press. I believe that through ILPA we can, if we are agreed on the need, help awaken the leaders of labor to some of the opportunities afforded by a more adequate labor press.” But there was a somewhat obsequious undertone to this effort to “awaken” labor leaders. As an ILPA executive council report noted on the same occasion, “Rather than pleading for a seat higher up at labor’s council as has been the practice in the past, the International Labor Press Association must demonstrate by its actions that it has earned such consideration as it must receive if it is to contribute effectively to the trade union cause of a better America.”

Instead, as the labor press became more of a lap dog over the next several decades, it became easier just to ignore. Pizzigati and Solowey-inadvertently or otherwise-attested to that in the introduction to their book, as they recounted that two years of deliberations by a blue-ribbon panel of AFL-CIO leaders on how best to revitalize the labor movement had resulted in a “landmark” report in 1985. Titled “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions,” the report’s findings included the “imperative” need for improving how unions communicate with their members and the public. But “how could labor communicate more effectively?” Pizzigati and Solowey asked rhetorically. The report’s answer was “a long list of recommendations. Buy advertising. Stage teleconferences. Produce videocassettes. Link up with cable TV. A good list, except for one rather significant omission. The entire ‘Changing Situation’ report carried not one word about the labor press-the newspapers, magazines, and newsletters published, at great cost, by America’s unions.”

The oversight was not exceptional: as subsequent events confirmed, the labor press simply doesn’t register on organized labor leaders’ radar screen. Ten years after that landmark report, with labor’s fortune continuing to swoon, John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thomson swept into power at the AFL-CIO as the ironically named “New Voice” insurgents. One of their first actions was to set up five transition workshops, staffed by representatives of the federation’s largest unions, to review organized labor’s resources, propose new initiatives and recommend how those initiatives should be implemented. The five workshops focused on organizing, political action, public affairs, strategic campaigns and union education and training.

Although “labor journalism” or something similar was not a separate workshop, many, if not all, of the workshop reports touched on themes that could have resulted in recommendations for press initiatives. The political action transition workgroup, for example, observed that “many of our members, like other Americans, are disconnected from politics”-and that what they want is for their union “to inform them about issues and voting records.” Yet nowhere in this workgroup’s recommendations is there a discussion of how the labor press might meet this need. Similarly, the union education and training transition workgroup stated that “informing and engaging rank-and-file members to encourage participation in their union and community” is “key” to implementing the “new” AFL-CIO’s priorities-but, like the political action workgroup, this workshop also ignored any consideration of the labor press.



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The one workgroup that explicitly looked at the labor press was the one on public affairs-and the emphasis that emerged out of its discussions was unmistakably one of image manipulation, rather than “communication” in a meaningful sense. As the workgroup noted at the outset, “Unless we change the public face of the labor movement, we will fail to organize, bargain good contracts or win political and legislative gains for working people.” Changing that face “requires a strategic plan, a common message and new images.” The goal should be “to make progressive, pro-union messages more visible.”

Notwithstanding this message-driven attitude, ILCA lauded the transition workgroup’s recommendations as a “historic juncture for the labor movement.” ILCA president Jim Earp, writing Jan. 26, 1996 to Denise Mitchell, Sweeney’s assistant for public affairs, said the association was “very pleased and heartened” at the recommendations the public affairs workgroup had made, including specifically its call for more training for union communicators and for greater integration of the ILCA into the federation’s communications strategy.

Piquing Earp’s interest was the workgroup’s lead recommendation, that the AFL-CIO and its affiliates should “give international union communications professionals a real role in planning and execution and develop greater integration with organizing, education, bargaining, and political and legislative action.” Seven years later, however, no such role exists: the only structured relationship between the federation and its “international union communications professionals” consists of sporadic meetings at AFL-CIO headquarters, at which the federation sets the agenda to present information of its choosing. Meanwhile, the proposed increase in training for “union communicators” has not materialized, and rather than being integrated into the federation the ILCA has an even more distant relationship.

Perhaps a more accurate view of how the federation views labor journalism was presented by Jo-Ann Mort, one of the members of the public affairs transition workgroup, when she edited Not Your Father’s Union Movement. The essay she contributed, “Finding a Voice: The AFL-CIO Communicates,” chided the AFL-CIO’s pre-Sweeney public relations department for failing to search out news coverage and for not having a media outreach strategy. But the “New Voice” insurgents apparently weren’t too proud to use the “father’s union’s” handiwork for their own purposes, adopting a public relations study that had been commissioned by interim federation president Tom Donahue.

That study, Mort wrote, “recommended a range of measures, from ‘core positioning and message discipline’ familiar to political campaigns to linking communications to substantive actions and goals.” [p.44] Its advice was adapted “to restructure the communications component” of the AFL-CIO. As a result, she added approvingly, “the AFL-CIO has a handful of media outreach professionals whose job is to pitch stories to a press increasingly interested in news related both to the labor movement and to working families.” [p.47]

As organized labor steadily transformed its press into a propaganda tool, outside observers took note, sometimes with a tone of sorrowful reproach. One of the most scathing indictments of the labor press, for example, was a 1964 article in Columbia Journalism Review by Morton A. Reichek, a staff reporter with the Newhouse Newspapers’ Advance News Service in Washington, D.C. While the Newhouse newspapers had always had the most determined union-busting publishers in the country, forcing the very first strikes in the American Newspaper Guild’s early years, the Columbia Journalism Review was considered the country’s premiere journalistic standard setter. And whatever Reichek’s motives, his criticisms cut uncomfortably close to the bone.

Under the headline, “Labor press: Limited hopes,” Reichek acknowledged that the labor press had made some progress since the AFL-CIO merger nine years earlier, principally as a result of “following the lead of former CIO affiliates who were the first labor employers of professional newsmen on a large scale.” Yet for all that, he added, “probably the most serious indictment of the labor press is its continuing immaturity, its reluctance to present both sides of a dispute on internal union matters.” If UAW President Walter Reuther were to attack AFL-CIO President George Meany, Reichek contended, “the AFL-CIO News would never carry a word of it.”

Worse yet, he added, were publications like The Teamster, “a study in editorial sycophantism.” Such traits as “excessive self-adulation . . . are hallmarks of the labor press,” Reichek concluded, noting that most national union editors also serve as public relations directors for their organizations. Union publications, he summarized, are “in every sense, a ‘kept press.’ ”

The criticism was only marginally milder in 1977, when that consummate champion of the average American consumer, Ralph Nader, took a shot in The Progressive under a headline-"The Sorry State of the Labor Press"-that telegraphed its punch. “The feeble state of the labor press means that thirty million union members are often left in the dark about some major issues, never review or discuss them, and can not really come to grips with many of the problems that beset labor,” Nader complained. “Instead, union leadership and corporate interests dominate the flow of information to workers, dictating the limits of debate on many labor issues. The drawbacks are obvious.”

Five years later, writing in Working Papers, Curtis Seltzer of the Institute for Policy Studies sounded many of the same themes in an article headlined “Get me rewrite!” But the declining labor press, he concluded, simply mirrored the decline of organized labor overall: “[A]s unions have drifted from the barricades to the boardrooms,” he observed, “labor newspapers have followed. . . . Contrasting today’s labor press with its early precursors, one sees the vision labor has lost.”

The following year, in 1983, the Columbia Journalism Review took its apparently final comprehensive look at the subject it had first flayed so tellingly 19 years earlier. “Is the labor press doing its job?” asked the headline over a lengthy, 6-page treatment. Readers didn’t have to search far for an answer, delivered in the sub-head: “At a critical time for labor, many union papers seem to be out to lunch.”

“I work for a client, the Steelworkers,” author Michael Hoyt quoted one editor. “I call myself a propagandist. I don’t lie. I propagate what the union message is.” Elsewhere, Hoyt included the observations of Mike McGraw, who covered labor for ten years for the commercial press and who thought that labor simply didn’t understand the role of the press. “They feel the press is a management tool,” he explained. “They say ‘management’s got its tool; this will be our tool.’ ”


However they accommodate themselves to political realities, many labor editors have voiced a fundamentally consistent if wistful vision over the decades: that their publications have enough soul and independence to touch their readers in a meaningful fashion; that they make a difference in union members’ lives. And as often as not, when those editors begin to chafe under their constraints, they resurrect the idea of a national labor newspaper: a Main Street Journal for the working class, as contrasted with the Wall Street Journal of the investor.

Several proposals to create such a newspaper were floated in the 1940s. All foundered on geography: the United States was simply too big, its population too dispersed, for the economics of such a venture to succeed. Still, changes in technology kept raising new hopes, and the accelerating trend toward journalistic monopolies of the commercial press fanned the flames. “The recent national election campaign, in which all means of mass communication were taken over by the Republican Party with a newly developed saturation technique, has reemphasized the highly critical need for such a daily newspaper as the projected National Reporter,” declared the executive board of the American Newspaper Guild in late 1952.

Appointing a committee to consult with CIO vice presidents to promote “the matter of adequate financial support” for such a project, the ANG board insisted that “it is clearly evident that such a project can become self-supporting within a reasonable period of time.” Such a newspaper, it added, would be owned by trade unions collectively and would be “dedicated to the presentation, independently, of the news of labor and the facts of everyday life that are particularly of interest to labor.”

In 1958-the CIO venture shelved, in part, by the merger with the AFL-the dream was still alive enough to prompt Al Hayes, president of the Machinists, to urge something similar at the Cincinnati Labor Conference. The American worker needed “a stronger and more influential labor press-a press that reaches and interests every member of his family-and does more than merely report on union activities,” he said, before elaborating:

“Since we know that our present labor papers are not designed to attract a general readership, our instinct should tell us the logical thing to do is to develop, in as many communities as possible, a labor-owned weekly or daily with the kind of features, news and readability that will tell our side of the story and that will interest people both in and out of the labor movement. . . . What I am proposing is a labor-sponsored press dealing in local news and local issues. It is these issues, in the final analysis, that are the most interesting to most people.”

While that vision never was breathed into life in the U.S., at just about the time Hayes was making his plea, a similar message was being heard in Sweden-with a markedly different response. There, as in the U.S., the labor press had flourished in the 1930s-and, as in the U.S., it too had succumbed to institutional stagnation. “The LO newspapers of that time established a high degree of journalistic integrity and a tradition of promoting open debate on trade union and cultural questions. . . . But this vitality didn’t last,” writes Gunilla Wettergren, editor of Kommunalarbetaren, in The New Labor Press. (p.51) “Unions increasingly chose their editors from the ranks of national full-time union officers, and the editorial desk of most labor papers became an integral part of the national union, which tightly controlled the contents. This didn’t leave much room for real journalism, and labor papers became little more than a means of passing information to union members.”

But that trend, paralleling the U.S. experience, started turning around in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although Wettergren does not explain what prompted the shift, she writes that Sweden’s unions began recruiting more professional journalists, provided them with greater resources, adopted modern layout and journalistic techniques and embraced new expectations. “Cases of old-style authoritarian control over trade union editorial desks still linger,” she concedes. “But what’s different today is that such authoritarianism leads to direct confrontation between editors and national executives.”

In 1990, for example, the firing of two union editors because of their “critical” reporting-an event that would go unremarked in the U.S. today-resulted in “a heated labor movement debate on the role of union newspapers.”

The fruits of all that turmoil are a Swedish labor press that today closely matches the vision described by Al Hayes in 1958. Dagens Arbete, for example, which advertises itself as “Swedish industry’s largest magazine, with a monthly circulation of some 590,000 copies,” is a slick, four-color monthly the size of Newsweek or Time. Its 60 pages feature professional graphics (last September’s cover, apparently illustrating a story on alcoholism, is of a blue-collar worker slumped in despair inside a bottle of vodka), various news and lifestyle articles, cartoons, workplace photographs, profiles, crossword and chess puzzles, music, art and book reviews, recipes-and ads. Lots of ads.

Aside from the sheer breadth of coverage, however, the Swedish labor press is distinguished by its rank-and-file orientation. “(The) Swedish union press is a part of a democratic structure,” volunteered Dagens Arbete editor Hans Larsson in the first of a series of e-mail exchanges. “It is not a tool of leadership. It is the members’ voice, not leadership’s voice. We often get calls from members who feel that the union is not helping them. . . . There is always a contradiction between (the union’s governing) board and the paper.”

Such independence isn’t unique to Dagens Arbete or a function of its large size, which presumably might insulate it politically. Annmarie Bergström, editor-in-chief of Jusektidningen, which has a circulation of just 63,000, writes that in her case, “nobody outside the editor’s office reads the articles before (they are) printed and published.” Unn Edberg, editor-in-chief of Civilekonomen, which has an even smaller circulation of 32,000, declared-in a statement most U.S. labor editors would regard with disbelief, if not envy- that “I am the only one with influence over the paper, which means that no other person can decide what will be printed in the paper. . . . In other words, not even the chairman can tell me what to write.”

This sense of empowerment among Swedish labor editors is driven by at least three elements not found in the U.S. labor press: journalistic values, national law and advertising.

Most Swedish labor editors come from professional journalistic backgrounds, which means they bring journalistic sensibilities to the job-coupled with a healthy skepticism of official pronouncements. Larsson, for example, was a journalist for 30 years prior to becoming the editor of Dagens Arbete four years ago, including 11 years as an investigative reporter with Swedish Television; now he oversees a staff of 15 journalists, two administrators and five advertising sales people. “We are not the union,” he emphasizes. “We are journalists. We write about things we feel are relevant for most members. . . . The aim is to some extent to be the voice of the members, to educate, to entertain and to be relevant. The members must be able to identify with (what we write), even if it’s not always their voice.”

Unn Edberg, meanwhile, writes that she was “ a journalist with experience from (the) daily press and was, I hope, chosen on the basis of my competence in journalism.” Unlike many U.S. labor editors, she had no prior connection to the union for which she now works, getting a lead on the job through a magazine ad. Perhaps because of that distance she now feels free to declare, “I always say that I am the voice of the members and not of the union-if I find something about the union that the members have the right to know, it’s my duty to tell them.”

As befits professional hires, Swedish labor editors are retained under long-term employment contracts that further insulate them from political pressure-and which carry hefty severance packages. Larsson writes, for example, that his union would have to pay him two years’ salary if it wanted to terminate his contract. “Of course, editors (like all employees) can be separated from their posts if they have done something very bad and against the interests of the union,” adds Bergström. “But this will cost the employer a lot (if it’s not illegal, of course), and the journalists’ union will be involved.” Edberg similarly notes that “in my contract it says that this is a permanent job,” and although she acknowledges that won’t protect her in all instances from being fired, “they will have to have legal reasons for doing so.”

Further restraining labor leaders are Sweden’s cultural norms. “In Sweden we have a strong tradition of papers standing free from the owners,” Larsson writes, including the labor press under that umbrella. “And the owners are used to the freedom of the press, which means they have to accept criticism. But we have had some examples when trade union leaders have acted to stop critical articles, and in those cases there always has been a strong debate in other papers-and usually the owners hesitate in acting for just this reason. They don’t want to be pointed out as bad press owners.”

Similar arguments are advanced by the Swedish Union of Journalists, which represents labor editors and reporters as well as newsroom employees of the popular press. “We claim that a union paper must be as detached from the owner as possible, as all other media should be from the (owning) power,” writes Pär Trehörning, the union’s ombudsman for transparency. “A journalist has more knowledge about the media market and its conditions than a politician or civil servant from the union,” he adds. “One other argument is that if there is any wrongdoing or corruption within a union, that should be revealed first from its own paper. . . . A union paper, even if the union owns it, can’t be that union’s megaphone.”

Aside from such informal constraints, all Swedish editors, labor or otherwise, also bear the protection-and responsibility-of a legal concept known as ansvarig utgivare, or “responsible publisher.” Enshrined within “The Freedom of the Press Act,” which applies “to all written matter produced using a printing press,” ansvarig utgivare requires that every periodical have a responsible editor who is appointed by the owner and identified in that capacity to public authorities. The responsible editor, the law stipulates, “shall embrace the power to supervise the publication of the periodical and to determine the contents thereof in such a way that nothing may be printed therein against his will.” In American terms: this is where the buck stops.

More than a mere legal smokescreen, the ansvarig utgivare concept apparently is relied upon by Swedish labor editors to protect their flanks. “To make the editor legally responsible is a way of marking his/her independence, if you know what I mean,” writes Annmarie Bergström. “In my case, if I were not the responsible publisher, another person from the organization would have to read every word in the magazine before it was published to be sure there was nothing illegal. As it is now, nobody outside the editor’s office reads the articles before they are printed.” Conversely, ansvarig utgivare protects a union’s leadership from being sued or charged with a crime in response to something printed in the union publication.

Finally, a certain degree of editorial freedom is granted to-and to some degree required by-Swedish labor publications because of their acceptance of paid advertising. While the amount of revenue generated by ads as a percentage of costs varies considerably from one publication to another-one-fifth at Dagens Arbete, one-third at Civilekonomen and one half at Jusektidningen, with the balance of the budget met mostly from union dues and a smattering of paid subscriptions-the separate cash flow contributes a level of flexibility and freedom that the great majority of American labor editors don’t enjoy. But advertising dollars create another compelling reason to produce something that’s more than a propaganda tract: “Outside companies would not put their ads in an information brochure from the union,” argues Unn Edberg. “They demand a real magazine before they open their wallets.”

Given such a combination of influences, it may not be remarkable that Swedish union publications occupy a significant segment of that country’s media market. While Kerstin Lööv, editor of Förbundshuset, asserts that the “Swedish union press plays an important role in Swedish democracy,” it is highly unlikely that any American labor journalists would say as much about their own publications.

“The great variety (of labor as well as other publications) means that there are lots of active eyes in the life of society to tell, to tip other papers or magazines about important things happening,” Lööv writes in an extended essay in response to e-mailed questions. “Practically every reading person has got some magazine outside the more superficial media. . . . The union magazines are, I believe, quite free to write not only about the matters which strictly belong to the field they cover, but also about conditions or phenomena which are important for the development of society in aspects that concern their readers.”

Rather than being destructive of either their unions or their employers, Lööv adds, the independence of Sweden’s union press has strengthened both. “Criticism and warnings become more integrated in the life of the company, and this influences the whole atmosphere in a way that promotes its efficiency and survival. (Look by comparison at) the Enron scandal and collapse, where, it seemed, quite a number of people on different levels had actually known about the false accounting but none, evidently, dared to inform their chiefs,” she observes. Conversely, more independent coverage of union leaders “has made it difficult, for instance, for the chairman of a big union to connect with other interests or do other rotten things outside of his commission.”


Measured by virtually any yardstick, the American labor press is in critical condition. The number of publications, page count and publication frequency are on a continuing downward slide. Much of what does get published is superficial, much is uncritical and self-congratulatory and little is memorable: no one from the commercial press plagiarizes a union publication. Ignored by society’s power brokers and by organized labor’s elite alike, labor journalists are a couple of rungs below jingle writers in terms of influence or relevance.

That’s regrettable for more than the labor journalists themselves. Having neutered the labor press through a combination of political and financial control, organized labor has anaesthetized the nervous system that all organisms need to maintain their equilibrium. It is, in effect, flying blind-and into the ground. But whether it’s the demise of the labor press that contributed to organized labor’s decline or vice versa is less relevant than the observation that the two clearly are linked: the vitality of one reflects the vitality of the other, for reasons that have been described above.

A diagnosis having been made, the appropriate prescription is clear-albeit one that will be unpalatable for union leaders who have come to view the labor press as their personal podiums.

The first, most obvious yet perhaps most difficult step is for the American labor movement to recognize its shortcomings and to look to more successful models-Sweden is only the most notable prototype-for better ideas. Although the AFL-CIO has taken some tentative steps toward recognizing that we now live in a global economy, the federation and its affiliates still tend to approach the world stage in stereotyped American fashion, which is to say, as though it is others who should pattern themselves after us rather than the other way around. That might have been an understandable, if still objectionable, attitude 40 years ago, but it is counterproductive and ultimately self-defeating today. Corporate America learned that lesson from the Japanese and Germans several decades ago; a greater dose of humility might enable American unions to do likewise.

Second, the American labor movement must determine what is within its control and what is not-and focus more of its energies, and diminishing resources, on the former. For example, Swedish regulation of the relationship between employers and employees is far more intricate and extensive than in the United States, and therefore possibly worthy of emulation. But given the current U.S. political climate, the lack of a true U.S. labor party and organized labor’s eroding numbers, America’s unions have virtually no leverage at all in creating a similar system. The logical conclusion? While political lobbying and get-out-the-vote campaigns can’t be abandoned, it is delusional to think such efforts will do more than buy a little extra time-and some of the assets they absorb could be used more effectively elsewhere.

What labor does control is its own institutions, including its own media. What it lacks is a guiding intelligence-a coherent philosophy, a statement of principles and standards of conduct, a defined set of expectations. That, then, is the third missing step: a reasoned answer to the question, "Why are we doing this?" Why are unions spending millions of dollars in membership dues each year to publish a dwindling array of magazines and newspapers? What do they hope to achieve through this effort? How will they know if they succeed?

Framed in those terms, this becomes not a resource issue but primarily one of leadership-and then of resources, as priorities are adjusted. As the history of the past half-century indicates, the most influential leadership regarding the labor press has been to confine or restrict it, from Walter Reuther’s efforts to squelch "factionalism" and George Meany’s lobbying to rid labor publications of paid advertising to the ILPA’s preoccupation with racketeers and communist influences. Their cumulative success was evidenced in 1985, and again a decade later, when two successive blue-ribbon panels of AFL-CIO leaders altogether ignored the labor press while casting about for ideas to salvage their sinking ship. It’s past time such neglect and outright opposition to an independent labor press are reversed.

Not every union will embrace the idea that a more independent labor press will make it stronger, nor can unions mired in a top-down autocratic model be forced to adopt a more progressive, democratic framework. But one definition of insanity is the repetition of ineffectual activity in the belief that sooner or later the outcome will be different. To continue down the path we are taking is to ensure we’ll end up where we’re headed, which is complete irrelevance and institutional death.

The AFL-CIO and at least some of its affiliates can-and should-change course, and in doing so provide an example for members of other unions to follow in pressuring their own leaders for change.


    Hoyt, Michael. “Is the labor press doing its job?” Columbia Journalism Review (July-August 1983): 34-38.
    Mort, Jo-Ann (ed.). Not Your Father’s Union Movement. New York: Verso. 1998
    Nader, Ralph. “The Sorry State of the Labor Press.” The Progressive (October, 1977): 29-31.
    Pizzigati, Sam and Solowey, Fred J. (eds.). The New Labor Press: Journalism for a Changing Union Movement. Cornell University: ILR Press. 1992
    Reichek, Morton A. “Labor Press: Limited Hopes.” Columbia Journalism Review (Summer, 1964): 36-39.
    Seltzer, Curtis. “Get Me Rewrite!” Working Papers (Jan.-Feb. 1982): 69-72.
    Stepan-Norris, Judith and Zeitlin, Maurice. Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2003.

The author also relied for his research on the files of the International Labor Communications Association, including several letters and typewritten reports referenced in this paper:

    • “ILPA: The First Ten Years,” plus appendices titled “Membership and Circulation,” “Code of Ethics and Constitution Changes,” ”Finances,” “Klass 1959 Survey on Wants and Needs,” “Publications and Promotions” and “Rackets.”
    • “Convention Report: Survey on Trends in Labor Publications.” Sept. 30, 1975.
    • “1979 ILPA Membership Survey: Summary of Report to the Convention of the International Labor Press Assoc.”
    • “1987 ILCA Survey by Education Committee.”
    In addition, the author established e-mail communication with the following Swedish labor editors:
    • Bergström, Annmarie. Jusektidningen.
    • Edberg, Unn. Civilekonomen.
    • Larsson, Hans. Dagens Arbete.
    • Lööv, Kerstin. Förbundshuset.