Studying labor journalism at the Pacific Coast School for Workers, Berkeley, 1938. From The New Deal Network
by Karla Kelling Sclater
Denied access to established newspapers, the burgeoning labor movement of the late 1820s and early 1830s launched newspapers to provide a forum for working men”s voices. Born in antagonism to both merchant capitalists and the mainstream press, labor leaders in Philadelphia and New York published the Mechanics Free Press and the Working Man”s Advocate, criticizing corrupt politics and demanding that capitalists and politicians alike reckon with working-class men as citizens and the “blood, bone, and sinew” of the market place. Early labor papers commanded political and social recognition, calling for reduced working hours, public education, and the abolishment of debtors” prisons.
By the end of the 19th century, working-class newspapers proliferated in cities across the country. Between 1880-1940, thousands of labor and radical publications circulated, constituting a golden age for working-class newspapers. Although both radical and labor newspapers struggled to finance their publications, utopian, socialistic, and independent journalism produced thousands of papers during this period that contributed significant alternative voices to mainstream journalism and society. Socialist, Wobbly, and Anarchist papers printed in many languages, burgeoned from the late nineteenth century until World War I, when anti-sedition laws succeeded in suppressing radical left-wing publications. Labor union publications, however, increased after Socialist and Wobbly papers declined.
During the Depression unionizing gained momentum, and the labor press continued to grow. Historians, however, have largely ignored the labor journals of this era, as well as the decades that followed. No published work discusses the content of the many Central Labor Council newsparers or the AFL-CIO”s the American Federationist. The historiography of the labor press is surprisingly small considering its prevalence. The extant literature, nonetheless, provide some important ideas about the course of working-class journalism, pointing to fertile research ground, while also offering insight into the variegated and complicated history of labor in America.
Nearly 2,000 different labor periodicals have been preserved in research libraries and by labor unions. There is no up-to-date guide, but several older bibliographies provide extensive lists, some with annotations. See the guide to labor periodicals created by Andrew Lee of Tamiment Library.
Early Labor Journalism
Philadelphia”s Mechanics Free Press, founded in 1828 by activist editor William Heighton, looked to politicize laborers. Rodger Streitmatter”s article, “Origins of the American Labor Press” argues that early labor journalism profoundly affected politics and society in the United States. Communication was key to forging a strong social movement and Heighton called for Philadelphia”s trade societies to convene and nominate candidates for City Council and the Pennsylvania legislature. The Working Men”s Party initially succeeded in seating city officials in 1828 and 1829. New York elected labor candidates as well, sweeping Syracuse elections in 1830. The Working Men”s Party won local offices in Newark, New Jersey, and state legislative seats (one each) in New Hampshire and Connecticut. Although the Working Men”s Party”s success was short-lived due to the combined efforts of the Federalist and Democrat parties who allied with mainstream newspapers to effectively crush the labor party, the ten-hour day in Philadelphia and other cities was established. Likewise, imprisonment for debt became a relic of the past. Public education supported by tax dollars also took shape beginning in Pennsylvania in 1834, precipitating a nationwide public educational system. The development of the labor press was not only crucial to the development of working-class movements, but for shaping popular political and social agendas.
Despite these significant implications, no extensive study exists on the early labor press. “The press as a subject itself has barely begun” Jon Bekken lamented in 1988. Historians have used papers to recreate the struggles and structures of working-class organizations, but neglect the labor and socialist press as subjects themselves. Journalism historians, Bekken continued, similarly neglect the labor-press, instead focusing on commercial newspapers. In ” “No Weapon So Powerful”: Working-Class Newspapers in the United States,” Bekken sketches some of the early workers” papers, suggesting research opportunities for the daily labor press as well as socialist, anarchist, and foreign-language papers. This article, along with its discussion of the lacunae in working-class journalism, details some holdings for newspapers, suggesting outside sources that might shed light on working-class papers: post office records, police and government records can provide circulation information as well as add to the understanding of working-class activism.
Labor Journalism”s High Tide, 1880-1940
Radical and labor publications proliferated during the last two decades of the 19th century. Foreign-language papers constituted a significant portion of this published material. As Jon Bekken points out, the first workers” newspapers printed in Chicago were German language papers, and as late as 1925, only six out of fifteen daily labor papers published in the United States were identified as English language papers.
Historians mainly have been interested in publications of the Knights of Labor, Socialist organizations, and the union newspapers that emerged with American Federation of Labor. These newspapers have provided source material for many recent books about these working-class movements. Yet, only a handful of articles and a few bibliographies contain essential reference and source material for future research on radical and foreign-language publications. Ample room exists for studies focusing on the newspapers themselves, and Anarchist publications have yet to receive serious attention.
Joseph R. Conlin”s compilation, The American Radical Press, 1880-1960, remains an important source for radical newspapers, although few of the essays focus on the content of the publications. David Brody”s essay on the Journal of United Labor (Chicago,1880-1889), and the Journal of the Knights of Labor (Chicago, 1889-1917) asserts that they provide crucial insight into the leadership of the Knights. He notes that the early editions contain data on finances, district organizers and leaders, as well as lists of local charters. Although the Journal is silent about the failed strikes of 1886, the internal conflicts, and the rival union organization, the American Federation of Labor, Brody suggests that there is much to gain from a comprehensive analysis of the Journal.
Several essays on socialist papers are included in Conlin”s anthology. Herbert Gutman”s research suggestions for Chicago”s International Socialist Review (1900-1918) point to a better understanding of the success and failures of American radicalism, tackling previous historiography of American socialism, rather than presenting the details of the magazine”s content. Gutman states that the Review contains unusual data useful to historians, but does not say what the data is. Joseph Conlin”s discussion of the Socialist Party Monthly Bulletin (1904-1913) and The Party Builder (1912-1914), argues that these internal newsletters should be consulted in any study of the Socialist Party because they provide administrative data and statistics instead of propaganda, but he cautions that consulting these newsletters alone would create a distorted picture of the Socialist party. The data in these publications include reports from foreign-language federations, financial information and correspondence from local chapters.
The Industrial Workers of World (IWW), founded in Chicago in 1905, also published numerous journals. Melvyn Dubofsky looks at the Industrial Union Bulletin (Chicago, 1907-1909), and Wobbly papers in brianowens.tv State, including the Industrial Worker published in Spokane and then Seattle (1909-1918). Dubofsky”s focus, like the other essays included in the Conlin volumes, is not about the papers themselves. Instead, Dubofsky gives a critical overview of the Wobblies, suggesting that IWW publications would help scholars answer questions about the work done to integrate black and white workers, unskilled labor, and the prominence of the Wobblies in the West. This leaves journalism historians with ample opportunities to explore the content of IWW newspapers.
Essays on American Communist papers also offer general overviews of the party”s history rather than presenting specific content from the communist press. Witold S. Sworakowski, speculates that the Communist International (New York, 1919-1940), the official organ of the Communist (Third) International, has failed to gain scholarly attention because no library in the world has a complete collection of the English editions. Nor do cumulative indexes exist for different language editions. Harvey A. Levenstein addresses the development of The Worker (Cleveland, Chicago, and New York, 1922-1924) and Daily Worker (Chicago and New York, 1924-1958). Levenstein sketches the history of these journals, providing circulation numbers. The Daily Worker”s readership increased throughout the 1930s, and the its content changed, replacing articles on strikes and jeremiads against capitalism with political cartoons and features that aligned communism with American ideals. Levenstein”s essay gives the reader more information about issues covered in these newspapers then do many of the other authors, providing some examples of what the papers contained, including advertising.
Anarchist publications have historically received short shrift as scholars have paid attention instead to Socialist journals. The essays on anarchism in the Conlin anthology, once again, offer a historical sketch of the anarchist movements rather than concentrating on the publications” content. Herbert Gutman states that the Liberty (Boston and New York, 1881-1908) and the Alarm (Chicago and New York, 1884-1889) both provide insight into the intellectual development of anarchism during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. He suggests that a better understanding of nonviolent working-class movements would include the role anarchism played in connecting the nonviolent periods of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The “Jeffersonian rhetoric” that Gutman says fills the pages of these anarchist publications appears to be uncharted territory for scholars, however.
Mari Jo Buhle briefly discusses early twentieth-century women”s Socialist papers that sought a wider audience than contemporary socialist newspapers. The Socialist Woman, (Chicago and Girard, Kansas, 1907-1909) became the Progressive Woman in 1909. These papers published letters from women throughout the Midwest, which offer insight into the thoughts of Socialists and the appeal of the movement for rural and urban women. The editor of these publications, Josephine Conger-Kaneko, finally launched the Coming Nation in 1912, attempting to recapture the social popularity of the 1890s Socialist newspaper of the same name. The Coming Nation survived for just one year, ultimately falling victim to the hostile factionalization within the left. Although the shortcomings of the women”s Socialist movement are documented through these publications, there is also the story of successful organization, and the ability of these papers to reach women inside and outside of the Socialist movement who were attracted to political and social activism. The inclusion of letters from readers in these publications presents excellent source material for scholars to examine Midwestern women”s contributions to these newspapers.
Recent developments of gender and whiteness studies enable historians and journalism scholars to take fresh approaches to working-class publications. These analytical frameworks promise to enrich the understanding of working-class movements, the development of class-consciousness, the construction of gender-identity, and proscriptions for proper gender roles within labor unions and radical organizations. Few scholars have grappled with women or gender analysis in the labor press. Holly Allen”s “Gender, the Movement Press, and the Cultural Politics of the Knights of Labor,” argues that ethnicity and kin presented barriers to the cohesiveness of “Universal Brotherhood” espoused by the Order. In 1882, the Journal changed the phrase to “Universal Organization,” but stood uneasily positioned alongside the masculine rhetoric that the Knights deployed to make connections across lines of race and ethnicity. The inclusion of wage-earning women in the Knights” organization and their newspapers are linked to broader social trends that emphasized companionate marriages and heterosocial activities.
Another important contribution to women in the labor press is Ann Schofield”s Sealskin and Shoddy, a collection of labor press fiction representing working women from 1870-1920. While only a couple of the stories included in this book were written by working women, contributions by reformers, union officials, and popular fiction writers offer substantial material for cultural representations of proper sex roles as traditional familial roles transformed to make room for young wage-earning women. Schofield argues that the projected fantasies of this fiction offer insight into solutions for the upheaval caused by a restructuring of the labor market in addition to understanding how gender roles were conceptualized. The dissertation that led to Schofield”s book, “The Rise of the Pig-Headed Girl” provides more information on working women, and offers analyses of the discussion of women in the labor press in addition to including fictional accounts of working women in labor publications. Further research is required to better understand working-class journalism”s content regarding gender roles.
The most successful radical newspaper was the Appeal to Reason, a socialist publication that survived from 1895-1922. The Appeal reached its greatest circulation in 1913, boasting more than 750,000 subscribers. Much has been written about the Appeal and its dynamic founder, J.A. Wayland. Elliott Shore”s Talkin” Socialism is an insightful look at the controversial Wayland, but John Graham”s Yours For the Revolution: The Appeal to Reason, 1895-1922 provides excerpts from the newspaper as well as introductory essays to chapters that address the Appeal”s political philosophy, poetry and fiction, and World War I, among other topics.
The most extensive bibliography for the working-class press is Dirk Hoerder”s, The Immigrant Labor Press in North America, 1840s-1970s. An annotated bibliography, these three volumes include introductory essays as well as detailed information on publication dates, frequency of publication, language, circulation (when available), and the affiliation of the periodicals. This impressive bibliography contains a wealth of information for anyone examining immigrant working-class publications.
In his recent paper, “There”s a Rumbling in the Air” (click to read it) Mitchell Newton-Matza argues that the New Majority, the official organ of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) was influential despite its financial struggles. First published in 1919, the New Majority changed to the Federation News in 1924 and is still published today, although it now exists as a newsletter available only to delegates of the CFL. The paper”s longevity, Newton-Matza asserts, demonstrates the paper”s significance to workers in Chicago. Financial problems are the historical hallmark of most of the labor and radical journals, and remain a concern today, although the internet is changing the nature of publishing for labor unions, which will be discussed below.
While historians have developed a literature on the radical press, far less attention has been been paid to the newspapers produced by American Federation of Labor unions or their affiliated Central Labor Councils. In addition to these publications, the Federated Press has also been ignored in the historiography. A news-gathering cooperative, the Federated Press, which began in 1920, was the first news service that provided affiliated papers with international reports of interest to the working class. Jon Bekken states that the Federated Press survived into the early 1950s as the only independent news service that supplied information to 150 papers including newspapers in Germany, Russia and Australia. Labor, socialist, and other newspapers utilized the Federated Press. To date, only one unpublished master”s thesis discusses Carl Haessler, one of the founders of the Federated Press wire service, and the Federated Press.
Uncharted Territory: The Labor Press Since 1940
Plenty of research opportunities await labor journalism historians. The AFL-CIO”s The American Federationist, along with thousands of local labor newspapers published across the country offer substantial material to examine. Comparisons between AFL and CIO papers with the AFL-CIO publications after they reunited in 1955 could tell us a great deal about changes in labor journalism. The changes during the last quarter of the twentieth century also await historians” attention.
The 1992 book The New Labor Press: Journalism for a Changing Union Movement discusses contemporary union newspapers, speculating on the possibilities of a national labor paper and what it might accomplish for the labor movement. Most compelling are two essays about labor and community. One of these essays, “An Isolated Survivor: Racine Labor” by Richard W. Olson, discusses the survival of a small-city labor newspaper in Wisconsin. Olson points up the importance of an alternative community paper which competes with a mainstream daily, in this case, the Journal Times. Racine Labor, first published in 1941, survives to this day, attesting to its significance for working-class people of Racine, as well as the strength of the Racine labor movement. Prior to the Racine Labor, the Racine community supported two successive labor weeklies titled, the New Day and the Racine Day. The success of Racine Labor, according to Olson is attributable to its leftist, but not too radical political position as well as its commitment to the Racine labor community. In turn, the labor community has supported the paper, bailing it out of trouble in the 1980s by holding fund raisers for the struggling weekly. Olson also credits strong editors who are dedicated to labor interests for the longevity of the paper. Although its future is not secure, and rising postal rates exacerbate economic strains, this labor paper demonstrates that the combination of being both a labor and a community paper, as Olson emphasizes, seems to be the key to the Racine Labor”s survival.
Local labor newspapers offer a necessary forum for laborers and their communities. The future of the labor press is a work in progress. As Newton-Matza”s paper suggests, the internet will likely be the primary forum through which an increasing number of locals publish newsletters. Saturation as well as repetition of information will certainly challenge the ways that unions reach rank and file members. While the new labor movement gains energy, and new technologies change the means of communication, both contemporary publications and the historical record of working-class and radical publications have much to teach us about labor journalism.
Allen, Holly, “Gender, the Movement Press, and the Cultural Politics of the Knights of Labor,” in William S. Solomon and Robert W. McChesney, eds., Ruthless Criticism: New Perspectives in U.S. Communication History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 122-150.
Bekken, Jon. “A Paper for Those Who Toil: The Chicago Labor Press in Transition” Journalism History 32:1 (Spring 1997).
” “No Weapon so Powerful”: Working-Class Press at the Turn of the Century,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 12 (Summer 1988): 104-19.
“The Working-Class Press at the Turn of the Century,” in William S. Solomon and Robert W. McChesney, eds., Ruthless Criticism: New Perspectives in U.S. Communication History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 151-175.
Holz, Alice. “Memories of the Milwaukee Leader” Milwaukee History 13 (1990).
McFarland, C. K., and Robert L. Thistlewaite. “Labor press Demands Equal Education in the Age of Jackson” Journalism Quarterly 65:3 (Fall 1988).
Newton-Matza, Mitchell. “There’s a Rumbling in the Air,” paper
Streitmatter, Rodger. “Origins of the American Labor Press” Journalism History 25:3 (Autumn 1999).
Beechert, Alice M. and Edward D., eds., From Kona to Yenan : the political memoirs of Koji Ariyoshi.
Chapin, Helen G. Shaping History: The Role of Newspapers in Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.
Conlin, Joseph R., ed. The American Radical Press, 1880-1960, vols. 1 and 2. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1974.
Fink, Leon. Workingmen”s Democracy: the Knights of Labor and American Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Graham, John, ed. “Yours for the Revolution”: The Appeal to Reason, 1895-1922. LincolN: University of Nebraska, 1990.
Hoerder, Dirk. The Immigrant Labor Press in North America, 1840s-1970s. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987, vols. 1-3.
, ed. Essays on the Scandinavian-North American Radical Press, 1880s-1930s. Bremen: Labor Newspaper Preservation Project, Universitat Bremen, 1984.
Pizzigati, Sam and Fred J. Solowey eds. The New Labor Press: Journalism for a Changing Union Movement. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1992.
Schofield, Ann. Sealskin and Shoddy: Working Women in American Labor Press Fiction, 1870-1920. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Shore, Elliott. Talkin” Socialism: J. A. Wayland and the Role of the Press in American Radicalism, 1890-1912. Lawrence: University of Kansa Press, 1988.
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Strouthous, Andrew. U.S. labor and political action, 1918-24: a comparison of independent political action in New York, Chicago, and Seattle. New York : St. Martin”s Press, 2000
Bekken, Jon, “Working-Class Newspapers, Community and Consciousness in Chicago, 1880-1930,” University of Illinois, 1992.
Haessler, Stephen J. “Carl Haessler and the federated press: Essays on the history of American labor journalism,” M.A. thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1977.
Myers, Donald. “Birth and Establishment of the Labor Press in the United States,” M.A. thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1950.
O”Connell, Mary J. “The Seattle Union Record, 1918-1928,” M.A. thesis, University of brianowens.tv, 1964.
Schofield, Ann. “The rise of the pig-headed girl: an analysis of the American labor press for their attitudes toward women, 1877-1920,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of New York, Binghamton, 1980.