Years in print:
Labor Tribune Breaking News
By Eliot Porter
Has the Labor Tribune, the slender weekly tabloid organ of the AFL-CIO in the St. Louis region, become more newsy? Is it running more echt-news stories of general interest in addition to the puff pieces about union officials and the politicians who support them?
Or, is it mostly an illusion, owing to the fact that a spike in coverage of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had caught the eye of journalists who would pay little attention to news about, say, contract negotiations at Anheuser-Busch?
The Trib’s managing editor, Dana Spitzer, a former Post columnist and reporter, suggests that it is probably the latter and that the Trib really hasn’t changed much during the five years of his tenure.
But, absent a systematic column-inch study, it appears Spitzer is just being modest. The Tribune has more news, and while some of its best stories have dealt with the Post and its long and painful contract talks with the Guild, the union that represents its white collar workers and janitorial staff, others have not.
In fact, Spitzer refutes his own argument when he says that the journalistic effort of which he is most proud is the eight-part series last spring on a species of storefront loan sharking called payday lending. The Post has paid scant attention to the problem.
The victims of payday lending are, to be sure, mainly wage workers, many of them union members, but the problem is also severe among servicemen and college students. The effective cost of a so-called payday loan can be as high as 1,000 percent, and many victims have been forced into bankruptcy.
Still, much of the Trib’s best work has been related to Pulitzer, Inc.
Last May, for instance, its lead story was about a returning Air Force reservist who got the runaround from the Post’s advertising department when he tried to get his job back.
The story had all the elements of a perfect hard news piece: A large, complacent, self-righteous institution gets caught red-handed in flagrant violation of federal law – to say nothing of the norms of common decency; a simpatico victim (he looked like an Eagle Scout) who tells his story in temperate, straightforward terms; and his erstwhile supervisor who digs her own grave, PR-wise, with her mouth.
But, the supervisor’s words were those quoted by the veteran. The story’s flaw was its failure to give Pulitzer, Inc., an opportunity to comment directly, a rather serious breach of the canons of conventional journalism.
Luckily for the Trib, the issue turned out to be a moot question. The returning serviceman’s account was apparently fair, accurate and complete. There’s not much, short of telling a pack of outrageous lies, the Post could have said.
The episode must have been an eye-opener for Pulitzer, Inc., for after the story appeared in the Tribune, the Post received scores, perhaps hundreds of angry phone calls from Tribune readers. Two days later, the Post capitulated and invited the veteran back to work.
That did not stop the Post, however, from issuing a memo and running a story generously laced with mendacious innuendoes about the Trib’s account. Most of them seemed to have originated with Kathy Joyce, the Post’s vice-president for human resources and apparently a past mistress of double-speak. The Trib had fun with that issue too.
The episode was an epiphany for the Trib as well as the Post because it demonstrated that there are stories – interesting, important hard news stories – that the Post will not touch with a 10-foot pole. It gives the Trib a niche.
It was just such a niche the Trib filled when it reported that the Post had granted steep discounts to the supermarket chains for advertising during the grocery workers’ strike and lockout last fall. Meanwhile, the Post charged the union full freight for its informational ads.
It was this niche the Trib filled when it reported that the Post’s political cartoonist resigned after being censored and screamed at by the editor.
The Trib’s core readership is, of course, the membership of the AFL-CIO unions in the St. Louis area and Southern Illinois, whose organizations subscribe for them at a rate of 47 cents an issue. The big exceptions are the Teamsters and the auto workers, who have regional newspapers of their own; though, according to Spitzer, many individual Teamsters and auto workers subscribe to the Trib on their own.
The Trib also has a fringe readership among politicians, lawyers (especially those practicing labor law) and academicians, Spitzer said. The total circulation is about 90,000.
Spitzer said, somewhat wistfully, that he would like to enlarge his news hole but is limited by the amount of advertising space the paper can sell. Except for special editions on holidays, such as Labor Day, the Trib runs about 12 pages.
It is also constrained by the size of the news staff which, unless you count the publisher, Edward Finkelstein, comprises Spitzer and one reporter, Kevin Madden. “Dana’s the chief and I’m the Indian,” says Madden.
Much of the display advertising in the Trib is by workmen’s compensation lawyers. The rest is mainly low-end real estate, work clothing and sporting goods.
The Trib would like to attract automobile ads, and Spitzer said he cannot quite understand why the auto dealers cannot see the market in blue-collar folk, most of whom are fascinated by cars and trucks.
The Trib is understandably and unabashedly propagandistic and even its best work has a pro-labor bias and a specific axe to grind. The worst, and there is plenty of it, is a litany of items resembling society columns in a small-town weekly – awards, retirements and the like, illustrated by deer-in-the-headlights flash photographs of people shaking hands, along with prose of equivalent mediocrity. In fact, the quality of even the best writing in the Trib is not equal to that in the Post.
In the broad band in between the hard news and the puff are some sweet surprises, such as the piece recently reprinted from American Teacher, the national organ of the teachers’ union. It described how the achievement gap among Asian, white, Hispanic and African-American kids in grade schools on military installations is far narrower than it is in civilian public schools, and the article tried to explain why. (Not only are the kids more obedient, their parents are too.)
“One of the advantages we have today is the Internet,” says Spitzer. It enables the Trib to pick up good stuff from other labor papers.”
(Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review 3/2004).
Labor Tribune – On A Mission
By Don Corrigan
The editorial staff at the weekly Labor Tribune in St. Louis had a lot to celebrate this past Labor Day  on the occasion of the paper’s 70th anniversary of publishing. After all, the paper has survived.
“We are one of about a half dozen surviving labor weeklies in the U.S. So we have a lot to be grateful for,” said Dana Spitzer, managing editor of the publication. “At the time we got started in 1937, there were literally dozens of labor weeklies in big cities like New York and Chicago.
“We have 90,000 subscribers and a very attentive readership,” said Spitzer. “Our paper has been read by several generations in many union families, and they will let us know when they are not happy about some item that the paper runs. That keeps things interesting.”
The Aug. 30-Sept. 5 anniversary issue of the Labor Tribune numbered 48 pages. The issue made lots of readers happy with stories about union members who are painters, teachers, electricians, bricklayers,miners, grocery employees, auto workers and more.
In an anniversary editorial, publisher Ed Finkelstein recalled the early years in the 1930s, when the Tribune ran stories on how union carpenters fought to expose shoddy building practices. He jumped forward to the present and outlined what he sees as a battle to save America’s middle class from harmful policies of the current White House.
“In 2007, our American way of life is threatened like it has not been in my lifetime,” declared Finkelstein. “The working middle class – white and blue collar – that made this nation what it is, is slowly, methodically being destroyed…
“The Labor Tribune will continue to give workers and their unions a strong voice at a time when alternative voices are slowly being drowned out by the consolidation of media into conglomerates that don’t want our voices heard,” Finkelstein concluded.
Voices Not Heard
Labor Tribune staffers can point to any number of stories that have been ignored or underreported by the local news media. Among those stories:
Top union leaders such as the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney get little or no coverage when they come to town. Sweeney, head of a union federation that’s 10 million strong, has been in town several times in recent years, but few St. Louisans – except readers of the Labor Tribune – know about his visits, much less what he may have said. Even so, he’s a major player in national politics.
Anti-union bills in the Congress, such as efforts to take away the right of unions to engage in politics or inform their members about bread-and-butter issues, get scant attention. When such stories do get attention, euphemisms such as “right-to-work” or “paycheck Protection” mislead audiences or distort key issues.
When the state legislature passed a new workers’ compensation bill in 2005, which effectively repealed no-fault provisions of the law that had been there since the 1920s, the state’s media virtually ignored it. The law politicized the administrative law system governing workers’ compensation cases by giving Gov. Matt Blunt and the GOP-controlled legislature more authority to meddle in workers’ comp cases, a situation rife with the opportunity for political favoritism.
As the new governor, Blunt repealed an executive order by his predecessor giving state employees the right to organize. But earlier this year, the state Supreme Court ruled that the constitution gives local and state employees the right to unionize. It remains to be seen how successful unions will be in organizing them. What is certain is the issue of public employee bargaining is here to stay, despite Blunt’s efforts. It’s a story waiting to be told by the media.
Closer to Home
In the St. Louis area, Tribune staffers have reported on any number of labor-related issues that have gone largely unreported by the local news media The Tribune has picked up the slack for union members by providing solid reporting on such topics as:
Wal-Mart’s low wages, sexual discrimination allegations and use of illegal-immigrant labor. Also in need of attention are the company’s restrictive health care policies in which Wal-Mart encourages workers to get state-paid health care and other welfare benefits.
Highway workers’ safety: The Tribune ran a long series on the problem of highway workers getting killed or injured because of negligent drivers. One finding: Missouri’s law to punish negligent drivers has no teeth in it. It should be at least as tough as what’s across the river in Illinois.
Payday loan sharking: When the Labor Tribune ran a series pointing out that a bill authorizing payday loan sharks to charge interest rates as high as 1,950 percent annually and that nobody in the legislature or the governor’s office was the least bit concerned about it, the state’s media virtually ignored it.
Stock market scams: The Labor Tribune has disclosed cases of rogue stockbrokers bilking union retirees out of their pensions and life savings by churning their accounts with inappropriate investments. It’s a big story that cries out for investigation.
According to Spitzer, the Post picked up on the issue after one of the brokers was arrested and indicted for fraud. Bill Lhotka, the Post’s county courthouse reporter, has done a good job of covering the broker’s trial and recent sentencing to 12 years in prison. But Spitzer, who broke the first two articles, contends it’s a much bigger story that desperately needs more coverage.
The Tribune has more than held its own in covering highly publicized stories in the news media such as the long slog of Catholic elementary school teachers to unionize, as well as the battles to organize local hospital nursing staffs.
Difficulties in organizing nurses and Catholic grade school teachers have been a local sore spot for labor. Kevin Madden, the Tribune’s senior staff writer and a self-professed devout Catholic, said he is upset about the St. Louis Archdiocese’s failure to recognize the collective bargaining rights or grade school teachers.
“It’s indefensible that the teachers want to be recognized and the church defies its own doctrine,” said Madden. “The teachers appealed to the court of last resort, the Vatican – and Rome turns its back on them based on a technicality. I feel for the teachers,” Madden said.
Spitzer said labor will continue to face an uphill battle in organizing workers as long as management can intimidate employees and control the messages that employees receive before workshop elections. Spitzer said legislators at the state and national level have stacked the odds against new union shops.
“We have got to get the Employee Free Choice Act passed in Congress,” said Spitzer. “Everybody says no one wants to join a union anymore. Polls show that is not true, but it is dangerous to talk about unions in non-union shops. People get fired for it now and the laws to protect them aren’t enforced.
“Employers call meetings to show videos against unions, and labor can’t even respond,” noted Spitzer. “At St. John’s, RNs were given $600 prizes if they filled out an anti-union quiz card and got a perfect score. That’s incredible. The Employee Free Choice Act would give workers a chance to organize in a fair and open environment.”
Unions at Crossroads
“Unions are at a crossroads, and our country’s middle class is really at a crossroads right now,” said Spitzer. “If we don’t start looking out for our own people, if we don’t stop hurting labor and outsourcing jobs, we are going to become like Argentina or a banana republic in Central America – a few haves and a lot of have-nots, which is no good for anybody.”
The message that American labor is at a critical crossroads is echoed throughout the 70th anniversary issue of the Tribune. Articles note the loss of jobs to China; the loss of workers’ pensions to “modern-day robber barons” like Enron; the decline of the average American’s income; and the terrible inequity of the richest 1 percent owning 40 percent of the world’s wealth.
Despite all this grim news, despite decades of union membership decline, despite union leaders often having to negotiate benefit reductions rather than pay package increases, there are some bright spots for the news media to report about on the labor front.
“Winning the White House is key in 2008, and when you look at the money the Democrats are raising, you can really see the depth of America’s frustration with Republican rule,” said Finkelstein. “In 2009, we will see Congress pass the Employee Free Choice Act with a president who won’t veto it. Unions will finally get an even playing field.”
Finkelstein said that even with the defection of seven unions from the AFL-CIO in 2006, unions have never been more united. He said he prefers to think that the union movement is diversifying, rather than splintering – and that there is great strength in diversity.
"Politically, what is making the difference for us is the Republicans are no longer succeeding with their wedge issues: gay marriage, abortion, taking away folks’ gun rights,” said Finkelstein. “People in and out of unions now realize they were being manipulated by that stuff. They’re turning back to economic issues because those are what put families and our country in crisis.
“Republicans have owned the air waves, talk shows and conglomerate media for far too long now,” said Finkelstein. “They’ve bashed unions, made unions a bogeyman, said we are too powerful. All you have to do is open your eyes to see that’s not true. That’s what makes grassroots media like ours so much more believable now than the right-wing media.”
(Printed with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 10/2007).