In The News
Why Labor Press publishes final edition
There were some - still are -- who tolerated Walker's policies as an effort to cut the fat. He has now cut into the heart muscle. What used to be the lifeblood of democracy - the freedom to communicate and organize - has become a punctured artery.
On March 29, in home delivery to some 44,000 households and in boxes around Milwaukee County, readers received the final print edition of the AFL-CIO Milwaukee Labor Press, the monthly newspaper of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council.
Online the newspaper will continue as it can its portal. New stories will appear for a little while under the byline of long-time editor and veteran Milwaukee journalist Dominique Paul Noth, who previously served as senior editor and special assistant to the publisher of the Milwaukee Journal, then first online producer at the merged Journal Sentinel. He voluntarily left that company in the mid-1990s after nearly three decades. Noth, who served as drama and film critic for the Journal before becoming its acting managing editor for features, is weighing several offers and intends to write on a variety of topics after 10 years in charge of the Labor Press. Below is the parting “goodby” article he wrote for the final print edition:
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted April 2, 2013
It is a sad moment among many for the Wisconsin tradition of a proud independent working class -- the final issue of the Midwest's largest labor newspaper, which has lasted and grown in influence over 73 years.
There is a national pattern of changing technology that has affected print newspapers, but in this specific case change arrived prematurely because of circumstances unique to this state.
Many print newspapers that relied on advertising for profit suffered reversals or disappearance because of how consumers receive local and global information and opinion in a new media era. The majority found answers by merging or transporting into the online and digital world. Labor Press in contrast never sought profit, just enough advertisers to augment the commitment of its readers to collective voice in the public square.
But right now it is loss of money not of impact or reputation that is leading the newspaper to shutter its doors and end home delivery while continuing as best it can its influential portal, milwaukeelabor.org.
In this state public sector unions can no longer negotiate directly on behalf of their members' health and retirement care or other benefits and can only negotiate wages within a narrow cost of living index.
While the courts are still hung up on full implementation of these restrictions, leaving the window open for unions with contracts to seek extensions, it is a perilous crack that the courts or future elections need to resolve. Left behind or in limbo are the state's teachers, garbage collectors, water-main fixers, horticulturists and on and on - the labor community that represented the majority of our federation membership.
Gov. Scott Walker's related economic maneuvers since have also kept Wisconsin lagging in the national recovery. That's not a political statement but a statistical reality. There were some - still are -- who tolerated Walker's policies as an effort to cut the fat. He has now cut into the heart muscle. What used to be the lifeblood of democracy - the freedom to communicate and organize - has become a punctured artery.
It may not last. There is a strong streak of rugged individualism in the American character that works hand in hand with collective workplace action. Unions long provided a balancing wheel for these two American strains, encouraging individual freedom through the power to improve the work arena. But if you stifle the voice of one side, the other side gains power. At least for a while.
There is a special bargain between a union and its members - work together to better our working lives and earn respect. No one has yet figured out what will happen in the long run when unions are thwarted in carrying out that basic bargain. Will the workers rebel? Will the voters change the power structure? Or will the pressure for short-term salvation - putting food on the table - win over long-term strategic thinking? It's the same dilemma between short-term profits and long-term strategy that too many American businesses admit they succumbed to, choosing the wrong side. It remains to be seen if the working community will do so as well.
Some accuse unions of being old-fashioned in their beliefs. But it was a fashion that created paid vacations, the eight-hour day, the end of child labor, the end of employment discrimination. It was a fashion that created the federal safety at work agency (OSHA), employer paid health plans that remain the basis of the national system, the 5-day workweek, overtime rules, Social Security and on and on. Those much maligned dues pennies have raised up the standards for the nation and actually reflect what many think of when they talk about the exceptional rewards of United States democracy.
Organized labor can - and is -- modernizing its methods and tactics. But it cannot now refashion beliefs to fit where the money is -- unlike newspapers that can change the color of their principles to pursue any reader and any advertiser despite political winds.
The different philosophies that have always existed about how to create jobs, organize for growth and raise workers were welcome to discussion in the Labor Press and welcome at the Milwaukee Area Labor Council. It is open not just to AFL-CIO unions but to groups and individuals moving in the same direction, such as retirees, fair trade advocates and others. The open door succeeded as did the newspaper for a long time.
The newspaper entered 2010 with nearly 50,000 households receiving the home-delivered monthly newspaper as an automatic part of their council dues (signed up through their own locals and unions), second in the state only to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is also losing home delivery.
While unions continue to be derided as peas in a pod, Labor Press readers knew better. The newspaper devoted a lot of stories to exploring freely the debates among unions and the different paths and policies under sometimes volatile discussion. It championed the goal behind the different methods -- a healthier working class and middle class economy, the value of education, of community charity, of how best to create family supporting jobs, improve workplace safety and fair treatment across races, personal beliefs and genders.
At different times, some union leaders weren't happy with the research or with the political tilt, but they respected the direction of Labor Press' concerns. And they appreciated how our commentaries allowed their views to change.
There is considerable irony in removing the newspaper from the public arena, as labor leaders will be the first to tell you. It's an economic necessity not a matter of influence. Labor Press has actually grown in national reputation.
In its earliest decades as a large weekly (1940s-1960s) it was like other successful newspapers -- full of recipes, female cheesecake, press releases, social gatherings - a veritable collage of attractions. Until the exodus of manufacturing jobs in Milwaukee, its weekly home delivery stood at 150,000 even into the 1950s. What still made its coverage unique from those decades as scholars keep discovering was solid in-depth reporting of union negotiations, delegate events, candidate biographies, and topical rallies, protests and strikes often neglected in other media. Even today these old bound archives provide fascinating reading.
As a monthly from the 1970s forward and particularly in the last decade, Labor Press tightened its focus and broadened coverage beyond the typical union issues of wages, hours and working conditions, reflecting the complicated changes in social policies affecting workers.
Trade, race relations, immigration, economic analysis and even issues like classroom sizes were suddenly part of the agenda that had to be dealt with by the current editor back in 2002.
So Labor Press converted to full color, provided diverse and harder news topics, in-depth examination of working families issues and detailed political commentary. While acknowledging its more conservative members and unions with full coverage, the paper made no bones that the times called for a liberal tilt and it would fulfill a full-bore journalistic mission of robust discussion.
Under the fifth editor in its long history, it became internationally recognized as a progressive leader, every year winning first-place honors in national and Midwest contests.
The Labor Press' journey into the online world, while not headline spectacular, has been quite successful in the last six years, currently adding some 4,000 real visitors a month.
Most new readers are not even union members, the analytics reveal. To the tune of several hundred a weekday, they have been taking advantage of professional updated news reports between print editions. These print issues are now archived online. There is also an active events calendar and the hefty Take Action section of state and national publications on current issues. National news sites regularly reproduce the work while people curious about membership check out basic information pages.
This portal won the national award as the most excellent online labor news outlet among hundreds, an award honored in the Congressional Record. That was 2010, the same year the print newspaper won the national award for overall general excellence in a competition of all the large labor federations.
The archive at the portal has also proven vital to historical research since they cover a particularly fomenting era in state and local politics. While our online presence will continue, some aspects will be difficult to maintain without professional help.
Terrific as these added eyeballs are, they do not translate into revenue, which is what the newspaper needed to survive.
Labor federations face some harsh realities. They will have to examine whether they should seek fresh ways to raise money (something other than dues), work principally with coalitions to get the message out and heal the rifts the opposition constantly concocts to turn worker against worker. The discussions of how to best advance core principles are ongoing. Bur for now financial realities prevent Labor Press from being part of that journey.
Once we were nationally famous for the Wisconsin Idea - progressive social policies and pioneering in labor laws, worker rights, public union organizing. It will take years to restore such values. The focus on “profit at all cost” has thrown the Wisconsin tradition of values out of whack. In the fight back to common sense, there will be losses before there are gains.
One of those losses lands today - the finale of the publication once hailed as the voice of Milwaukee labor.