Book Note

The Labor Press

The New Labor Press:
Journalism for a Changing Union Movement

Edited By Sam Pizzigati and Fred J. Solowey
Ithaca, NY: ILR Press
238 pages

Reviewed by Holley Knaus

MANY HAVE NOTED THE FAILURE of the mainstream media to cover labor issues adequately. In a 1990 report on labor's press for the media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Jonathan Tasini concluded that "the lives of 100 million working people - those who make the U.S. economy and society run - are being routinely ignored, marginalized or inaccurately portrayed in the media." William Serrin, a former New York Times labor reporter, writes in The New Labor Press, "It used to be ... that reporters and editors often came from working class backgrounds. Some brought working class concerns to their journalism. ... Today, many reporters and editors regard unions and the working classes as beneath them."

 The New Labor Press, edited by Sam Pizzigati and Fred J. Solowey, examines working people's alternative to mainstream media: the labor movement press. The book's essays discuss the traditional and current role of the labor press, and offer some proposals as to what direction it may take in the future. The essays cover a range of subjects from labor photography and cartoons to racism, sexism and language barriers in union coverage. All are informed with a vision of a labor press that provides sufficient information - and debate and challenge - for union members to make sound decisions about their lives in the workplace.

 In their introduction, Pizzigati and Solowey argue that the need for a labor press goes far beyond simply filling in the blanks about working people's lives left by the mainstream media. "The labor movement is about empowering people," they write, "about tracing problems to common root causes, about helping people make sense out of the world. ... All this, of course, places a tremendous burden on the newsletters, newspapers, and magazines of the labor press."

Most of the book's contributors agree that the labor press of the 1970s and 1980s was not up to the task, failing to reflect the embattled state of the labor movement or to challenge the corporate assault on organized unions and workers. Pizzigati and Solowey note that by the 1980s, "Most union papers, unfortunately, published little that could help reconnect members to their unions. Too many labor publications ... had become little more than Šin-house puffery sheets' for out of touch labor leaders."

 Matt Witt, a former editor of the UMW Journal, argues that editors' responsibilities to their readership must be written into unions' constitutions to guarantee that a change in union leadership does not stifle open debate in the union publication. "Members' right to know about corporate, government, and union developments should not depend on whether top leaders share that enlightened view."

 Many critics agree with Witt that labor leadership has had an enormous influence - often negative - on what is reported in the labor press. Pizzigati and Solowey write, "Far too many labor leaders have historically treated union publications as little more than vehicles for self-promotion." The most successful union papers have made efforts to shift focus away from union leadership and toward the rank-and-file. David Elsila, editor of the UAW paper Solidarity writes, "Effective union education and communication mean using as much available space as possible to reflect the experiences and voices of union membership."

The strength of The New Labor Press itself lies in the candid assessments of its contributors. The book does not back away from criticizing labor's press or union leadership, and some of the essays are discouraging about the prospect of an open and vibrant union press. Most, however, are based on the assumption that a revitalization of the labor movement depends upon a strong labor press that engages workers in open debate about their links to union, corporate, government and international issues. Many of the writers offer suggestions - both practical and philosophical - on how union papers can move in this direction.

 The New Labor Press is an essential guide for union paper editors. It also offers much to both labor leaders and the rank-and-file in its discussion of communication and debate between a union and its membership.

The book, in fact, is important to anyone concerned with the state of labor today and revitalizing unions. Pizzigati and Solowey conclude, "No publications alone, no matter how vital, can overcome the social and economic pressures currently squeezing labor. But we deeply believe that a reinvigorated labor press ... can help people feel their unions belong to them."