Improving the Labor Press

Earlier this year, a stream of letters from workers at the Dow Chemi­cal plant in Michigan pour­ed into senatorial offices to protest the bill that would require safeguards for toxic chemical substances.

Inspired and guided by Dow executives, these workers wrote their sena­tors because management had led them to believe that jobs would be lost if the bill passed.

THIS EPISODE is typical of a substantial amount of one-sided material that is reaching laborers at the plant level through both oral and written cam­paigns.

Company publications for workers are numerous, slick and active. Which raises the question What about the labor press?

If you are not familiar with the labor press, you may wish to consider the following:

There are about 800 na­tional and local union Magazines, newspapers and newsletters with a com­bined circulation of more than 30 million. From its humble beginnings in the 1880s, the labor press has developed publications of sizable circulation.

The International Teamsters News,” a monthly magazine, and the United Auto Workers “Solidarity,” a monthly newspaper each have circulations of just under two million. The United Steel Workers’ monthly newspapers, “Steel Labor” and the “Electrical Worker’s Journal,” have print runs of 1.4 and one million respectively.

Don Stillman, editor of the revamped and highly regarded United Mine Workers “Journal,” de­scribes the mission of such publications. “Hundreds of crucial economic, social and political problems are facing people. And one of the jobs of the labor press is to help make sense out of all the confusion.”

HOWEVER, despite their impressive distribution, many of these union period­icals have little impact on the workers.

While noting that union publications range from very bad to very good, with most of them very dull, Frank Wallick, editor of the UAW’s weekly, “Washing­ton Reports” — one of the best labor prints — said: “Labor papers are instru­ments of union political or­ganizations.”

He added that the condi­tion of the labor press “is sad because the potential is great and because the union’s newspaper is the one direct contact union members have with the union — the one regular benefit.”

The labor press will get better, he said, when unions get editors with more au­tonomy, imagination, layout ability, good staff and ade­quate budget

The UMW’s Don Stillman has implemented a number of operating principles that he believes all labor publi­cations should adopt.

These include investiga­tive reporting, especially of the pertinent industries, readable layout with interes­ting pictures, space for letters to the editor to encourage dialogue, equal space for competing union candidates and consumer coverage. These features are not widespread in the labor press today.

MOREOVER, according to Stillman, as long as labor organizations represent a system that concentrates power at the top and does not give access or encour­age input by its members, “the labor press will be what it is.”

“Most union news­papers,” Stillman wrote soon after the reform group took over the United Mine Workers in 1973, “are long on flattery for the incumbent officers and short on
comment for the rank and file.”

There are a few union publications — like “Soli­darity,” the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers “News,” — which deal with such subjects as high oil prices, workers’ health and safety, atomic power haz­ards and the struggle of the farm workers

Too many of these publi­cations, however, are, in the words of one veteran unionist, “in-house puffery sheets.” Broadening his comment, he noted that “a lot of unions don’t go after corporations or government agencies because they’re afraid to give their mem­bers ideas to go after their dormant union leadership.”

IN THE 1930s and 1950s there was talk of a national labor daily Now some laborites dream of a union-sponsored, national TV pro­gram to check their corpo­rate counterparts. So far, neither of these ideas is close to realization.

What is needed, as a starter, is a convocation of forward-looking union edi­tors, reporters, officials, and workers to develop the commitment for such ideas and to provide more adrenalin for the current tabor press.

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