In three separate interviews, special issue coeditor Max Fraser discusses the past, present, and future of labor journalism with three of today’s most widely read labor writers: Steven Greenhouse, formerly of the New York Times; Labor Notes’s Jane Slaughter; and freelance writer Sarah Jaffe. Together, they offer a unique perspective on the evolving political and economic landscape of the labor beat during recent decades, as labor’s long decline and the deteriorating fortunes of “traditional media” news outlets have combined to refashion the way writers cover work, class, and social change in American life.
In this era of declining union density and newspaper readership, the labor press too has been forced to adapt. Who writes about labor today, and why? How has the shifting landscape of new organizing affected the kinds of stories that get covered? And is there a future for labor journalism beyond the traditional media outlets and unions to which its fortunes have historically been tied?
Three of today’s most widely read labor writers—Steven Greenhouse, Jane Slaughter, and Sarah Jaffe—offer their thoughts on these and other questions in a series of conversations about the present state of labor journalism. What emerges is a composite picture of a labor beat that is not so much “dead” as transformed, less bound by the editorial politics of corporate newsrooms (which have all but divested themselves from the business of labor reporting) or by the institutional loyalties that previous generations owed to the trade union movement (whose diminishing influence is a story many have gotten tired of telling).
Greenhouse offers a window into the way a national newspaper interprets and responds to the changing composition of the American workforce and to the new experiences of degradation and resistance it has produced. Slaughter narrates the development of an activist labor press, which sees its own reporting as having a role to play in the broader labor movement and whose allegiance to the rank-and-file makes no pretense of journalistic “objectivity.” And Jaffe sheds light on the challenges and opportunities created by today’s new media landscape, which has helped expand the boundaries of what qualifies as a labor story even while exposing a new generation of labor writers to the same conditions of insecurity that increasingly beset the larger workforce. Together, these three writers, whose careers span nearly four decades, describe the process (the work, even) that has gone into reinventing the labor beat for our current moment.
Max Fraser:When you took a buyout from the New York Times in December 2014, there was only one other labor reporter—the Wall Street Journal’s Melanie Trottman—at a major daily newspaper. How did the landscape of labor reporting change during your years on the beat?
Steven Greenhouse: Actually, when I took a voluntary buyout, there were two other full-time labor reporters at mainstream newspapers: Melanie, and Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post. But there was an earlier period—before the Journal named a full-time labor reporter—when I was the nation’s last full-time labor and workplace reporter. I used to say that I was a nearly extinct species, brontosaurus-like.
In 1996, when I covered my first AFL-CIO executive council winter meeting in Florida, there were two dozen reporters there, from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Associated Press, Reuters—I think even a few TV stations, not to mention some Socialist publications. My most recent trip to an AFL-CIO winter meeting was in 2014, in Houston; as far as I could tell, there were only four reporters from the mainstream media: me, along with reporters from the Houston Chronicle, NPR, and Bloomberg.
Over the past fifteen years, newspapers have been devastated by a loss of advertising revenues and readers, forcing many to cut the size of their newsrooms. Labor reporters were among the first eliminated—partly because labor wasn’t perceived to be as important as before; partly because it’s not the sexiest beat to begin with; and in at least one case that I won’t name, because a publisher was so antilabor that he had ideological problems with covering labor fairly. The editors there decided, “Hey, let’s just eliminate the position.”
But around 2008, we saw a rebound in labor and workplace coverage. The Great Recession hit, and a lot of reporters started writing about labor issues: the spike in unemployment, retraining, wage stagnation. Then, in 2011, when Scott Walker declared war on Wisconsin’s public-sector unions, the news media realized that organized labor wasn’t dead after all and was even worth covering. That continued as public-sector union and right-to-work battles erupted in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and other states. Then came the Fight for $15, which organized the biggest wave of strikes in years. During this time, the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune hired labor reporters, and so did many websites and alt-media outlets: the Huffington Post, Gawker, BuzzFeed, ThinkProgress, The Nation, not to mention the excellent ProPublica. More recently, with the recession over, unemployment low, and the big antilabor battles in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio behind us, there has been a decline again in labor coverage. DePillis left the Washington Post and was not replaced with a proper labor reporter; and the Chicago Tribune did not replace Alejandra Cancino when she left. Don Gonyea, NPR’s former labor reporter, now covers politics, and NPR no longer has a regular labor correspondent.
MF:Do major media corporations like The New York Times Company have the same investment in covering labor issues today that they did when you started out?
SG: Back in the late 1940s and 1950s, the Times at times had four reporters covering labor at once. Now it has one—Noam Scheiber. I remember seeing a copy of the Times from the 1940s that had six labor stories on the front page. Amazing.
When I began at the Times in 1983, it still had two labor reporters: one for the National Desk and one for Metro. For many years, I covered labor for both National and Metro, but then the Times moved me to the Business section. The business editors were interested in labor coverage, but less so in stories about embattled, low-wage workers and immigrant workers. So other Times reporters—like Julia Preston, the immigration reporter; Reed Abelson, a health care reporter; and Patrick McGeehan, a Metro reporter—often stepped in on such stories.
MF:Your family is Jewish and has connections to the New York City garment industry, which, among other things, sustained a robust Yiddish-language ethnic and labor press for many years. How did you end up on the labor beat yourself?
SG: I started out at the Times as a business reporter. The business editor, John M. Lee, asked me what I would like to cover ultimately. I told him labor, and he acted as if I was out of my mind. He didn’t get why any bright young man would want to cover such a grungy beat.
I grew up on Long Island in a family sympathetic to labor. Both my grandfathers had worked in the garment district in the 1920s and 1930s. I grew up listening to Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, and Leadbelly—we even had an Almanac Singers album. My parents used to sing the praises of Walter Reuther and A. Philip Randolph and discuss the Flint sit-down strike. For a while, my father, who taught high school math and economics, was vice president of his teachers’ union local.
So when there was an opening for a labor reporter on the Metro desk, I grabbed it. That was in late 1995. Some colleagues cautioned me against taking it, but I thought labor could be made into a vibrant beat again—in part, by writing not only about labor unions but also about the plight of low-wage and immigrant workers, safety issues, child labor, continued union corruption, the effects of factory closings and globalization, workplace discrimination, overseas sweatshops. And that’s what I tried to do. As the labor reporter for a leading newspaper, I felt it was important to highlight emerging trends in the American workplace, like the increase in wage theft and the growing reliance on volatile, family-unfriendly schedules for millions of workers.
MF:Which writers most influenced how you covered working people and the labor movement?
SG: I grew up reading the Times’s great labor writer A. H. Raskin. I remember great pieces he wrote about Jimmy Hoffa and Victor Gotbaum, the dynamo who led District Council 37 [DC 37], New York City’s giant municipal-employees union. Raskin also wrote brilliant analyses of organized labor’s decline and the threat that automation posed to unions and factory workers.
Bill Serrin, who covered labor for the Times in the 1980s, underlined for me the importance of good, colorful writing in covering labor. I always aspired to write as well as Bill. Serrin and Frank Swoboda at the Washington Post were sympathetic to the workers, but didn’t hesitate to challenge and question union leaders. I also had great respect for my friends and competitors Steve Franklin of the Chicago Tribune, Nancy Cleeland of the Los Angeles Times, and Aaron Bernstein at Business-week. David Moberg of In These Times has for decades been one of the most insightful chroniclers of labor.
I was also inspired by Michael Harrington’s success, in The Other America, in highlighting the woes of America’s poor. I learned a lot from the way Studs Terkel told the down-to-earth tales of a wide range of American workers and from the way Barbara Ehrenreich, in Nickel and Dimed, detailed the travails and tribulations of low-wage workers. And Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School of Business has done some of the smartest analysis I’ve seen on American workers’ declining, more anxious position in society. So they each influenced my writing in important ways as well.
MF:Your beat at the Times began with the election of John Sweeney to the AFL-CIO’s presidency and culminated around the same time that Michigan became a right-to-work state. How did organized labor’s downward trajectory during these years affect your coverage?
SG: The Times’s editors urged me to write stories on Sweeney’s and the AFL-CIO’s efforts to revive and rebuild labor. Could that be done? For a year or two, I wrote stories about the many things that Sweeney and labor unions were doing—Union Summer, the Organizing Institute, the newly invigorated labor-religion coalition, the new coalition between labor and academics, the effort to organize California strawberry workers, among other things.
Yet despite these efforts, Sweeney and the AFL-CIO failed to reverse labor’s slide. After focusing so much on “institutional” labor stories, I found myself interested in an emerging issue: the huge influx of immigrant workers and how they often encountered extraordinary exploitation in the workplace. That in turn led to a vein of stories about low-wage workers in general, including a series of stories about Walmart, which was making its employees work off the clock, locking them in at night, shaving hours from workers’ time cards, and doing its utmost to fight unionization.
It’s not that I stopped covering organized labor. But the burst of excitement during Sweeney’s early years passed, and more of the energy could be found with immigrant workers, worker centers, and some innovative new groups, like Domestic Workers United. And I guess once I wrote about the successful unionization of seventy-four thousand homecare workers at one time in Los Angeles County in 1999, my editors became less interested in smaller, less captivating organizing drives.
MF:How did you think of your relationship to the organized labor movement?
SG: I didn’t think a lot about it, to be frank. I was a reporter, and I covered a beat, and my job was to write about important things involving labor and workers. At the Times, we were always urged to hold the people and institutions we covered accountable, and I felt that was part of my brief in covering organized labor. So I wrote a lot of stories about corruption at the Teamsters, LIUNA [Laborers’ International Union of North America], the Operating Engineers, DC 37—and some about corruption in the SEIU [Service Employees International Union].
Many union leaders put an overly positive spin on how well they were doing in reversing the union movement’s decline. I thought it was important to get past that spin and write about how the movement was falling far short of its own goals to organize more workers. In some cases that was because unions didn’t have their act together; in others it was because certain unions only gave lip service to increased organizing; and in others it was because it is so hard for unions to grow nowadays, as companies have become so expert at defeating organizing drives.
MF:In recent years, informally organized groups of workers have generated many of labor’s headlines. From a reporter’s perspective, how much do you see labor’s “story” unfolding outside the traditional trade union movement in the coming years?
SG: In 2013, the Times’s business editor, Dean Murphy, proposed that since traditional unions were growing weaker and weaker, I write a series of stories about who would represent and advocate for workers in the future. I had written previously about groups like Domestic Workers United and the Restaurant Opportunities Center, but I thought the series was a great idea. So I put together a set of stories about where a lot of the energy and imagination in the labor movement seemed to be coming from: organizations like the Freelancers Union, the Workers Defense Project, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, Our Walmart, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Somos un Pueblo Unido, the Model Alliance, and the Fight for $15.
I see a lot of stories about labor’s future unfolding outside traditional unions. But there are novel things happening in traditional unions as well—look at the burst of unionization activity among adjunct professors and in new media outlets like Huffington Post and Gawker Media; or the Teamsters’ impressive efforts to organize thousands of port drivers and bus drivers across the United States. And let’s not forget that a powerful, well-financed union, the SEIU, has done a ton to build and sustain the Fight for $15.
MF:What about the future of labor reporting? Will it remain tied to the fortunes of the newspaper industry, or will it also find ways to thrive in nontraditional outlets?
SG: The United States has 152 million workers, so I don’t doubt that newspapers will continue to cover workers and the workplace in some way, shape, or form. The question is, with unions declining and with many editors and reporters seeing unions as increasingly marginal and not innovative, will editors still assign stories about organized labor? To some degree, I imagine, newer websites will have to pick up the slack.
Don’t forget, editors and reporters like to write about what’s interesting and important. So if labor suddenly makes news, like the Fight for $15 has, editors will assign reporters to cover it.
Max Fraser: Labor Notes was formed in and around the movement for democratic unionism during the 1970s and 1980s. What about that moment made the need for a different kind of labor press feel particularly urgent?
Jane Slaughter: That was a moment in which dissident groups were springing up in different unions—the Auto Workers, the Steelworkers, Miners for Democracy, Teamsters for a Democratic Union [TDU]—but they had no contact with each other. They couldn’t read about other workers’ movements in the dailies and certainly not in their union newspapers. We wanted these workers to see that they were not alone, to learn from each other and create a sense of a movement.
So it really was a different type of labor journalism. For one thing, we were aiming to cover rank-and-file workers, not their suited officers in Washington. Second, we were unabashedly prolabor—we made no pretense of “objectivity.” We never called up a struck employer and asked for his view. And we wanted our stories to lead to more organization. At the very beginning, in 1979, we had less sense of how that might happen, but by the time we had our first national conference in 1981, we could see how our publication could bring people into the same room.
MF:Were there historical models you were looking to in creating Labor Notes?
JS: I’ve heard references to the Trade Union Educational League that operated in the 1920s, but from my point of view Labor Notes was dreamed up in reaction to the times.
In the labor movement, for a long time the very worst sin was to oppose an incumbent. So support for dissident movements immediately branded Labor Notes, for certain union officials, as the enemy. And while some said we were overly preoccupied with the bad behavior of union officers, the truth of the matter was, their objection was that we mentioned that behavior—and the movements to unseat those officials—at all.
It was convenient for many labor leaders to blame the movement’s decline solely on the employers and the government—as in, it was all Reagan’s fault for firing the air traffic controllers. That way they could avoid their own failures and any discussion of what needed to change.
MF:The movement for union democracy is diminished today compared to the period around Labor Notes’s founding. Has the journal’s editorial focus had to evolve?
JS: It’s not really true that the movement for union democracy is diminished. No, we don’t see national movements within unions right now that directly challenge incumbents, with the exception of TDU. But we have seen many more victories for reformers on the local level, including in some very large local and regional bodies. For instance, the second- and third-largest locals in the Teachers Union, in Chicago and Los Angeles, are now run by reform slates with close ties to Labor Notes. Ditto for the New York State Nurses Association and the statewide teachers unions in Massachusetts and Hawaii. And there are many other such examples of union-democracy movements.
But if you compared our coverage today and at our founding, you would find a larger proportion of articles on dissident movements in the earlier period. Now when we cover the news, we put more emphasis on giving people practical help, focusing on what a group of workers did in a way that others can glean the lessons. It could be how to run for office, or how to recruit new members when your state goes open shop. Journalists rarely get into the “how” of organizing or talk about strategy. If they did that more, it could help workers to follow each other’s examples.
MF: Labor Notes’s focus on rank-and-file engagement has long been associated with its commitment to organizing, whether to resist concessionary bargaining or to bring unrepresented groups into the labor movement. What role is there for the labor press in the organizing campaigns of today?
JS: Even though movements today can make their own publicity through social media, they still thrive on coverage in other outlets. The Chicago Teachers Union [CTU] is the best example of a virtuous circle of coverage and organizing. Rank-and-file teachers there formed a caucus called CORE [Caucus of Rank and File Educators] in 2008 to fight school closings. They realized that in order to get their union to do anything, they would have to run for office and take it over. Labor Notes covered all that. In 2010, the CORE slate was elected and started trying to transform their union into one where the rank and file had a real stake and could resist the antistudent depredations of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. We covered the run-up to their famous 2012 strike and sent a staffer there to report from the scene.
Afterward, we wrote a book, How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers, which was not only a journalistic retelling but, in effect, a manual on how to form a caucus, run for office, rebuild the union internally, and win a strike. We made sure “how-they-did-it” was all spelled out. Teachers’ locals and caucuses around the country ordered the book for study groups; caucuses multiplied, as did teacher attendance at our 2014 and 2016 conferences, where CTU members gave speeches and we held practical workshops. So Labor Notes journalists not only covered the CTU, we also helped train others to follow their example.
MF:What advice would you give a young labor journalist today?
JS: Get some years of experience in a union workplace yourself before you start writing about union workplaces. That might help you remember to always ask about and write about work itself, about life on the job, about power in the workplace.
And don’t obsess about the “gig” economy. Many times more people are still working traditional jobs.
Max Fraser:All right, you’re the only one of our three interview subjects to whom I’ll allow myself to put the question: is labor journalism dead?
Sarah Jaffe: I don’t think labor journalism is dead, but newspapers sure are dying. But the state of labor journalism is as dependent on the state of the labor movement as it is on the state of newspapers. People want to publish me writing about labor when there are visible protests and strikes. Before the Wisconsin state capitol protests erupted in 2011, I had to twist arms even at venerable progressive publications to write labor stories.
MF:People frequently do mourn the disappearance of the labor beat from daily newspapers. How has it affected your ability to make a living as a labor writer?
SJ: The question is, what and who are newspapers for these days? Daily newspapers are mostly disappearing, and the ones that are surviving have remade themselves as luxury products serving the people advertisers most want to reach. The New York Times doesn’t see its audience as the people who work at McDonald’s, so it doesn’t think about what would be meaningful to them.
My home is the progressive independent media, which is a hustle. I’ve turned down jobs because I wouldn’t get to do what I want to do, which is report on the struggles of everyday people. “Report” being an important operative word—I had a few chances to be a pretty well paid daily news commentator of sorts, but I really want to stay out of the “hot take” economy.
I’m one of the lucky ones, which means that I can pay my bills and afford my crappy Affordable Care Act health insurance. I don’t want to ride too hard on the whole “do what you love” thing, because I think that’s a scam (and the subject of what will hopefully become my second book). But I do think that when you pay attention to what’s being covered and go where other people are not, you can still find ways to cover important stories.
MF:You didn’t start out in journalism as a labor writer. What happened to make you take up a beat that your peers were abandoning in droves?
SJ: I started my career as a pop culture critic, writing about movies and music while working as a waitress to pay my bills. I went to journalism school in 2007 and was there when the economy collapsed. I wanted to figure out what the hell was going on out there, and I was annoyed at how badly even liberal outlets were covering labor issues.
So I tried to do better. I got a job with Laura Flanders, one of the other people who cares about working people, at GRITtv, and was there when the Wisconsin protests began. From then on, it got easier to convince editors that labor stories needed coverage.
MF:As you took up labor journalism, did you look to particular writers as models?
SJ: Laura was an amazing mentor, but I really felt the gap, the lack of people covering the beat at the time. So contemporaries were very helpful. There’s a little posse of us: Michelle Chen and Josh Eidelson and Micah Uetricht and Cole Stangler and Julia Carrie Wong. I think we helped each other figure out how to do the labor beat again.
MF:In your 2016 book, Necessary Trouble, you describe being hired as the labor editor at AlterNet but quickly finding that your beat was much broader, encompassing a range of movements—everything from the Tea Party to Occupy to Black Lives Matter—which you associate with “a new era of protest and activism.”1A reader might get the impression from that passage that you don’t see unions as the most important agents in today’s labor movement. Would they be right?
SJ: I like to say that there’s a difference between labor institutions and the labor movement. There’s not a lot of movement in certain parts of organized labor. But I also think that labor and class and work and money and power—all the issues at the heart of the labor movement—are caught up in these other movements. I still consider myself a labor journalist even when I’m writing about the movement for black lives, which most people don’t think of as being about work. I’ve written about police unions and the criminalization of black mothers like Shanesha Taylor and Debra Harrell, arrested for neglecting their children because they had to go find a job in Taylor’s case, or go to work in Harrell’s case. These are stories about work and who does it and whose work matters.
That said, I also think it’s important to write about the Verizon strike and the Chicago teachers and the Honeywell lockouts and the Trump Taj Mahal strike. I think many unions today are beginning to understand that there’s no compromise with the people who want unions gone and that there is going to be a fight whether they want one or not.
MF:Will labor journalism as we’ve known it change if the union movement as we’ve known it continues its descent into numerical insignificance?
SJ: Labor journalism is already different from when there was a beat reporter covering collective bargaining agreements and union elections and occasional strikes for every daily paper. We have to do more with less, like everyone else in journalism; but we also have to rely on something other than the press department at big unions in order to find the stories. Often there’s either no press outreach at all from unions, or there’s a very scripted, consultant-influenced press program, with a packaged, in-house narrative already prepared. It’s easy to just write the story you’re handed or assume there is no story beyond it. It’s my job both to know some of the story before the press release lands in my inbox and to know how to find the real story after it does.
I understand why unions feel they have to massage stories, but it does the story a disservice. It also can come at the expense of building real relationships with the local journalists who cover labor day in, day out, who don’t need to be massaged and cajoled into valuing labor stories and yet who often, ironically, find ourselves discarded when there’s a story big enough that the major papers suddenly care.
A good beat reporter doesn’t know everything, but she has to know who to call when she doesn’t know something. I think that’s more important than ever now because context is so important, just in terms of being able to get labor stories published. You don’t have a regular labor page in most outlets, so you have to convince an editor that your story has national resonance or manifest local significance.
MF:For many years, a familiar criticism of the labor movement—that it has been and remains too “male, pale, and stale”—could surely have been made of the field of labor journalism as well. How do issues of gender and race figure into the kinds of stories you choose to cover?
SJ: The criticism still applies, frankly. I’ve watched union press staffers disregard me and hand stories I’d been chasing to male colleagues. I’m not saying this to garner pity—it actually affects which stories get told and how they get told. And the problems intersect; what gets covered in turn affects what organizing gets done and which workers are ignored, until the labor movement is really up against it and desperately looking around for space to win.
So I write stories about sexual harassment, child care, gender discrimination, emotional labor—because those are things (except child care) that I’ve experienced and that I know are problems specifically for women. I write about racism as part of the story of the Fight for $15, because it is. I did a long investigation in 2016 into employment discrimination against transgender people of color for ColorLines, because that’s a story that has been deeply under-covered. It drives me berserk every election cycle when pundits who haven’t left the Beltway in a decade pontificate about what the working class wants, because the working class they are talking about is always—always—presumed to be white and male.
MF:In addition to your regular reporting work for magazines and the web, you’ve spent the last few years cohosting the Belabored podcast. What does the format of the podcast allow you to do that more traditional print reporting does not?
SJ: I love the podcast because we get to give you the voices of people actually involved in struggles. I get antsy if we’ve gone too long without hearing from the workers rather than just the experts on workers. The podcast also allows for quick hits on stories that we might not otherwise be able to cover in full: a union victory or a strike that we can follow up on week after week.
And radio is such an accessible medium. You can listen to podcasts while you work or clean or drive, if you don’t have the kind of job where sitting in front of the computer all day reading things is expected.
MF:Who do you see as your audience? Is it different from the labor beat’s historical audience?
SJ: As a freelancer I have to think about multiple audiences. The readership of Dissent is different from that of The Nation or Salon or New Labor Forum. I started off every labor story at AlterNet trying to assume that my reader knew nothing—which is different from assuming your reader is stupid. I think a lot of reporters do the latter, which can result in some mind-numbing garbage.
Most of all, I try to see the people I’m writing about as my audience. Mainstream media stories about low-wage workers annoy me so much because each story is the same: here is this worker, and here is her sad story, and don’t you take pity on her and want to help? Who is that story for? It’s not for the worker. It’s for the nice upper-middle-class liberal assumed to be the readership of the New York Times because of advertising and money. It’s also framed that way by media consultants who are paid by unions to tell them how to pitch the story to the Times—which I can’t entirely fault them for, except it often seems to me to show a lack of faith in the workers they represent.
So instead I think: what does this worker want? How does she see herself?
MF:What will labor journalism look like in fifteen years?
SJ: I think it depends equally on what labor looks like and what journalism looks like. If labor is strong and we’ve won the six-hour day or a basic income or a new WPA, but journalism is weak and underfunded, then labor journalism will consist of press releases and fluff. If organized labor is crushed and unions are nonexistent, but journalism has experienced a renaissance and we’re all making hundreds of thousands a year, labor journalism will be nonexistent because journalists will just be writing about the rich. Labor journalism will be at its best if we have a fighting labor movement and fighting radical social movements and a press that is funded and supported and read by the workers it’s covering, not just a tiny elite in big coastal cities.