Pumpkins Carve Own Niche

Dry leaves skitter across a darkened street. A ghostly moon floats amid tattered clouds. A jack-o-lantern grins on a sagging porch.

For weeks, the carved candle-lit faces have peeked from windows and stoops throughout western Montana. Tonight, as they have for years, jack-o-lanterns will silently witness the spectacle of Halloween.

But how did we come to endure those chiseled gazes? Why does light flicker in those vacant eyes?

Hints of the jack-o-lantern appear in a number of cultural traditions that converged on American shores in the 1840s and gradually evolved into an embodiment of the modern Halloween by about 1940, said Museum of the Rockies curator and pumpkin researcher Cindy Ott of Bozeman.

Ott loves to study and think about pumpkins. She wrote her dissertation on the subject. It’s called “Squashed Myths: A Cultural History of the Pumpkin in North America.” She’s editing the comprehensive 429-page scholarly work into a more accessible length for a general audience and hopes it will be available within a few years.

Unlike many other plants, pumpkins play an active role in folklore and art, more like an animal than like produce, she said. Scholars have variously categorized pumpkins as either fruit or vegetable over the centuries. Ott holds pumpkins as vegetable.

Either way, they aren’t like normal produce.

“Pumpkins grow like mad. They create huge plants. Some farmers say you can hear them grow,” Ott said.

That strangeness is reflected in folk stories, drawings and paintings from a surprisingly wide geographic area and over hundreds of years.

In art from the Americas and Europe, pumpkins often moved with their own sinister volition or somehow played a role in diabolical doings. Some rode atop human-like bodies and came running out of the woods to chase children. In one American drawing, two children trample another to escape a pursuing pumpkin-man.

In a Dutch painting from the 1600s, a troupe of evil imps pour forth from a split pumpkin to battle humans in a chaotic scene under storm-torn skies.

An American folk tale from the early 1900s features a man who was attacked by a pumpkin vine. He fought it off as if it were a boa constrictor.

Plus, the pumpkin itself shares some general features with people. Pumpkins can look a bit like a head or a pregnant belly.

Pumpkins also had historic connotations when it came to social class. Poor farmers ate the cheap and easy-too-grow pumpkin, Ott said. The terms “pumpkin-roller” and “pumpkin-head” were insults that meant the recipient was poor, dim-witted or brutish, she said.

It was the brutish aspect of the pumpkin-head, perhaps, that made the leap to Halloween when Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine brought the holiday to America in the 1840s.

Based on the Celtic New Year’s Day, All Hallows Eve on Oct. 31 marked the day the Lord of the Dead judged the recently deceased. Called Samhain, he decided who would be reincarnated as animals or humans, Ott said.

On All Hallows Eve, family members of the deceased left food and other offerings for Sanhaim and placed glowing turnips or potatoes carved into lanterns and frightening faces in front of their homes. They also lit bonfires and masqueraded as ghosts and witches to confuse and frighten the wandering spirits, Ott said.

The jack-o-lantern itself had a slightly separate history before joining the Halloween cast. Another Celtic character, Jack, had tricked the Devil and so was forced to roam the Earth with a lantern.

It’s interesting that those traditions from the Irish, who were treated with loathing by many in America, became adopted by the broader culture as a parlor game for teens and young adults by about the 1860s, Ott said.

“It’s confusing,” she said. But its popularity may have been the result of an idealization of rural life and general anxiety about urbanization and industrialization, she said.

One twist in the Irish tradition as it became Americanized was the appearance of the pumpkin. American turnips and potatoes didn’t fit the jack-o-lantern bill, but the big field pumpkins did.

The earliest image of a pumpkin jack-o-lantern was in Harper’s Magazine in the 1860s, Ott said. Seed catalogs didn’t advertise seeds to grow jack-o-lantern pumpkins until the early 1900s.

In the United States after World War II, the baby boom generation and the growth of suburbia changed Halloween into a playful children’s holiday.

Then, for the first time, pumpkins developed a gentler side, Ott said. The jack-o-lantern lost its body and became a cartoon character. No longer roaming the night, Jack simply keeps watch. His grin is kind or goofy as often as it is evil.

Jack-o-lanterns, those most popular and recognizable forms of the pumpkin in popular culture, are more often molded from plastic than carved with a knife.

Yet the jack-o-lantern remains a totem to the mystical spirits of the dark and the dead, Ott said, those scary and spooky qualities that people can¹t control ­ on this night, or any other.

(This first ran on Oct. 31, 2005, back when I was business reporter at the Missoulian.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Airport Workers Say, “Poverty Doesn’t Fly!”

The cold wind bit my cheeks as I gratefully pulled on an SEIU purple stocking cap emblazoned with an image of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the words “Destination: JUSTICE.”

This was our way to commemorate Dr. King. My wife, daughter and I joined a rally for airport workers who want to form a union with 32BJ, an affiliate of SEIU. About 100 of us gathered under the bright sky near the King Memorial on the National Mall.

Yikes, it was cold! We stamped and hopped around for warmth while workers took turns speaking nervously at the microphone. We heard from sky cab drivers and the workers who push wheelchairs for passengers at DC National Airport. Neither of those jobs pay the federal minimum wage, because they’re classified as tipped workers. I was shocked to learn the minimum in Virginia for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour!

Every few minutes, chants broke out: “What do airport workers want? $15 and a union! What do airport workers want? $15 and a union!” and “If we don’t get it, SHUT… IT… DOWN! If we don’t get it, SHUT… IT… DOWN!”

IMG_0351Some workers work three full-time jobs, and don’t even have enough time to go home after work. They just sleep at the airport and wake up for the next shift!

“We’re busted and disgusted! We’re tired of working with no healthcare and no benefits!”

One of the speakers was a grandmother who spoke from cards so she wouldn’t get too much stage fright. She said she cleans airplane cabins for $8 an hour. Her pay barely covers her bus fare to work. She’s only able to get enough to eat with help from Food Stamps. She wishes she could provide for her kids and grandkids. That’s why she wants a union.

DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton told the crowd that Dr. King had gone to Memphis for the same reason we gathered today. The wind was cold. She declined a hat, joking that she was too vain to mess up her afro. The crowd loved it.

Then we all marched past the King Memorial, where we stopped and sang the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” led by Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ.

We marched to Independence Avenue, stopping occasionally to pray and chant, until we reached the corner on 14th Street SW.

“Everybody down!”the organizers hollered. We all sat down in the middle of the intersection. There was a long prayer. The 14th Street light turned green, but nobody moved. The traffic backed up. After a few minutes, we all rose together. Dozens of airport workers boarded busses to get to go back to work.


1 Comment

Filed under Family, News and Commentary, Unionism

Liberals Need to Stop Being Right for the Wrong Reasons

The most telling line in the celebrated and supposedly morally powerful novel and movie about race and justice, To Kill a Mockingbird, is when the dad, Atticus Finch, tells his daughter not to use the “n” word.

The line has been lauded more than 50 years, but his reasoning is wrong. “Don’t say [it]. It’s common,” he explains.

Our celebration of Atticus Finch is why the hosts of “Fox and Friends” can feign outrage about the movement to rid America of the Confederate flag. The subject on this Sunday’s show was a decision by a school district in Tennessee to ban banners, including the Confederate flag, from display at its schools. Confederate FlagThe schools will still fly the American flag on flag poles.

Here’s what co-host Tucker Carlson said, “This is a about a long-term trend where the people who run everything — the elites in Washington, New York, and L.A. — despise rural America and its culture, suspect anybody who doesn’t live in their cities of being a bigot, and they’re trying to crush that culture by banning its symbols.”

It’s a ridiculous argument, except for its grain of truth.

Quite a few people who hold liberal views do think the Confederate flag is a sign of ignorance or poor education or hillbilly culture. It’s not. Nor is it “common.” And it never was. Slavery was a product of educated elites, not country folk. Slavery paid major dividends to a few predatory families. Everyone else—the enslaved workers and anyone whose labor competed with them—lived in dirt-road  hand-to-mouth poverty.

The flag of the Confederacy is an ugly and violent symbol of a landed gentry in America. It’s the opposite of democracy and patriotism. That’s why it’s offensive. The same goes for the “n” word.


Filed under News and Commentary

Three Words Behind the Gawker Union: What About Us?

“What about us?” was what Gawker reporter Hamilton Nolan asked as he wrote about talk of Vice workers forming a union. Nolan’s beat is work and jobs, but the subject resonated with him at his job.

What followed came fast. Nolan spoke with Justin Molito of the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), who talked him through the nuts-and-bolts of organizing a union.

Nolan and others at Gawker didn’t wait for the full old-school process, though. The next thing Molito knew, Nolan and others had posted a meeting invitation on Facebook. Forty people came. The next morning a bunch of Gawker writers were posting about their desire for a union.

“This is something we waged publicly, because that’s how Gaw

From left to right at the table: Freddy Kunkle of the Washington Post talked about organizing among skeptical media workers while NewsGuild-CWA organizing director Tim Schick and Hamilton Nolan of Gawker look listen.

From left to right at the table: Freddy Kunkle of the Washington Post talked about organizing among skeptical media workers while NewsGuild-CWA organizing director Tim Schick and Hamilton Nolan of Gawker look listen.

ker operates,” Nolan said. Then something rare happened. Instead of resisting the idea, Gawker CEO Nick Denton agreed to a private ballot vote. On June 4, about 120 Gawker workers voted to unionize by a margin of 3-1.

This Wednesday afternoon, Nolan and Molito joined NewsGuild-CWA organizing director Tim Schick and Freddy Kunkle, co-chair of the Washington Post unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild for a discussion on at the AFL-CIO on organizing in digital media. The News Guild has been organizing in new media for 20 years and counts about 2,000 new media members.

Gawker workers wanted to publish at every step along the way, beginning with an early position piece on why workers there wanted to organize. That openness continued with a public discussion of how people planned to vote and why.

“It can almost be a tutorial for organizing,” Nolan said.

He’s not kidding. The discussion is frank, and even raw at times. The workers literally wrestle out issues in real time.

“If new media industry is going to grow up—and it is growing up—we need to do this,” he said.

If you’re interested in organizing at your workplace, please take this survey. Or you can simply email me. I’m a member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.

Leave a comment

Filed under News and Commentary, Unionism

The Problem With Atticus Finch

To Kill a Mockingbird

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch—small town lawyer, single dad and principled moral force—admonishes his first-grade daughter, “Don’t say [n-word], Scout. That’s common.”

That crucial line in one of America’s most beloved stories about racial justice has reinforced an elaborately wrong lesson about racism in America for more than 50 years.

The problem is simple: Epithets aren’t rude like bad manners that education and “good breeding” can fix. The words are tools for enforcing a social structure in which some people have and wield absolute, extra-judicial, life-and-death power over others.

Yet the appeal of a calm voice speaking against such an ugly word for any reason has proved to be incredibly enduring. The 1960 novel by Harper Lee, which is set in the fictional Alabama town of Maycomb during the sleepy years of the Great Depression, has consistently been described as “brilliant” and “full of useful truths.”

When it comes to works of fiction which tackle the thorny issue of race and equality in America, nothing else even approaches To Kill a Mockingbird for sheer popularity and reach. At one point in the 1980s it was estimated to be required reading for three-quarters of all American high school students. More than 30 million copies have been sold. The book has never gone out of print, and has been praised uniformly for its literary and social merit, beginning in 1961, when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

And yet for all the glory given this tale about a man taking a stand for justice, the story actually carries a gristly lesson in dehumanization all the way to its deadly conclusion. And when the death occurs, it’s treated as a triumph.

This is not a reference to the sad demise of Tom Robinson, the upstanding black man wrongly accused and convicted of raping a white woman and who later is shot by guards at a prison work farm. That death, in the book, is simply regrettable.

I’m talking about the death of Bob Ewell, the lazy lay-about town drunk who lives with his filthy family at the dump. He’s also the father of the woman who accused Tom of rape, even though, according to the narrator’s insinuation, everyone in town knows the old lecher had been raping his daughter himself.

Harper Lee’s portrayal of Bob Ewell follows the same kind of so-called logic that racists use. Racism always has twisted justification, you know. Bigots claim to be nothing more than honest, nothing worse than protective, nothing less than vigilant defenders of justice and time-honored values. And that’s the moral ground Harper Lee’s narrator claims for herself while the story maligns Bob Ewell as a low-down and dangerous animal. His bad breeding and other un-redeemable qualities are why it’s so important for him to die.

If you don’t remember the arc of the story, it gets going at the start of a school year. In the classroom, Scout explains the class structure of the town through the children. We first learn about the Ewell clan by meeting an over-sized lice-infested first-grader in Scout’s class named Burris Ewell. So right away we know the family is filthy.

The Ewells are mean, too. The disgusting kid makes his teacher cry by calling her a “snot-nosed slut.”

The narrator doesn’t mince words: “Every town the sized of Maycomb had families like the Ewells. No economic fluctuations changed their status—people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression. No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.”

It’s hard not to get caught up with Scout’s descriptions. Over and over, we read descriptions of a degenerate family that’s less than human. Indeed, in the courtroom scenes later, as Bob Ewell makes a mockery of justice, he’s described as strutting around like a “little bantam cock of a man.” The judge “looked at Ewell like he was a three-legged chicken or a square egg.”

One of the curious twists of hateful isms is the way the hated group is both reviled for being less than human but also resented for rigging systems in their own favor. The narrator has it both ways with Ewell, too. He’s ignorant and vile, yes, but Ewell somehow manipulates the courtroom like an idiot savant, goading and prodding the jury and the gallery with his folksy phrases and ignorant country ways.

The pillars of Maycomb society are powerless in the face of this piece of white trash who plays to the local townsfolk and farmers by shouting from the witness stand stuff like, “I seen that black [n-word] yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!”

It’s easy to hate Bob Ewell. The story demands it. We blame him for the miscarriage of justice when the jury convicts Tom Robinson. It’s especially galling after Tom loses his case on appeal. In despair, Robinson runs for the fence at the prison farm and a guard shoots him dead.

Still, like any truly detestable critter, Bob isn’t done. He can’t stand a black family that’s held in higher regard than his own, and so he harasses Tom’s widow until the shopkeeper she works for threatens him. Bob even plots to go after the judge and Atticus, who you recall is the lawyer who defended Tom.

In the closing chapters of the book, as Scout and her brother are coming home in the warm blackness of a Halloween night, the drunk and disgusting specter of Bob Ewell has become an evil presence, lurking in the novel’s shadows. It’s serious. He’s actually lurking, and armed with a razor sharp knife. He’s cowardly. And vicious.

Bob Ewell stabs at Scout and her brother, but his knife gets caught in her brother’s costume. A reclusive, rich and well-born neighbor named Boo Radley appears in the blackness. He’d been keeping a protective eye on the kids the whole time. Boo kills Bob with Bob’s own knife and then carries Scout’s brother into the Finch house to safety.

That’s when we see the true power of the depiction of Bob Ewell.

His death isn’t serious. It’s hardly notable at all, except as a good deed. It warrants no official action. As the doctor sets the boy’s broken arm, Atticus and the sheriff simply decide to cover up the circumstances. As the sheriff says, “‘There’s just some kind of men you have to shoot before you can say hidy to ‘em. Even then, they ain’t worth the bullet it takes to shoot ‘em.’”

In the world of To Kill a Mockingbird, those at the top of the local hierarchy bear no responsibility for society’s ills. Racism to them is a confounding thing that well-meaning folk like Atticus can only understand as a “local disease” afflicting poor but otherwise honest folk. Powerless against the disease are the sheriff, the newspaper publisher, the judge and, of course, Atticus.

Think of Judge Taylor, whose only vice, says Atticus, is chewing tobacco. The judge struggled to give Tom Robinson a fair trial, so much so that one night long after the trial and even after Tom’s death Bob Ewell tries to sneak into the judge’s house for revenge. The judge hears something and investigates, only to find his screen door swinging open and a fleeting shadow in the dark at the corner of the house. When the judge’s wife comes home later she finds the aging jurist snoozing in a chair with a shotgun on his lap. The judge seems to be a blunt but ineffective force of justice, but history tells us a different story. Local judges in the Jim Crow South played pivotal roles in maintaining the peculiar system that allowed for racist vigilante violence to coexist alongside law and order.

The sheriff in the novel is portrayed as just and good, basically the same as the judge. His only fault is that he’s too gullible, too harmless. For instance, after Tom Robinson was arrested on the bogus story of Bob Ewell, the sheriff never intended to leave the black man unguarded at the jailhouse. But he did. He was lured away by a trick of the racists, just as the white mob descends on the jail to lynch Tom. It’s just as well that the sheriff was gone, though. He was fairly useless in the story, unable even to kill a mad dog. He asked Atticus to do it, because Atticus has steadier hands.

In reality, though, far from being essentially well-intentioned but powerless against the scourge of prejudiced poor white farmers, it’s a clear matter of public record that law officers actively and routinely enforced the racist social order with guns, whips, chains, clubs and dogs.

Over the decades, thousands upon thousands of people have been tortured and killed by or in the presence of law officers, often in organized groups of whites-only councils made up of a town’s leading citizens.

In Florida, one typical sheriff was named Willis McCall. He was elected and re-elected for decades, as he carried out a reign of terror into the 1950s, often under the direction of the owners of the region’s orange groves. Near the end of McCall’s career, while transporting two black men for trumped-up charges of raping a white woman, the sheriff shot his two handcuffed prisoners. He claimed the two had attacked him. One of his victims miraculously lived, though, and later told of being ordered from the vehicle and riddled with bullets. Still, the survivor was later dragged from his jail cell and killed by a mob. Later, a coroner’s inquest of the shooting found McCall had acted in self-defense.

Such travesties of justice were considered normal for decades.

McCall wasn’t a rare example. He was part of the notorious normal. It’s no secret where the law stood when it came to America’s caste system. In 1916 in Texas, for example, a 17-year-old farmhand was castrated, mutilated and burned alive by a cheering mob that included the town’s mayor and chief of police. The lynching was memorialized in a postcard, which shows the well-dressed townsfolk merrily laughing and mugging for the camera, while a charred body dangles gruesomely above them. The presence of local bigwigs wasn’t outrageous but entirely ordinary.

And then there is Atticus Finch, himself, a lawyer by training and a legislator. The book is mute on his legislative service, but details in the story suggest he would have first won election sometime around or before 1920 and, if so, would have retired from the legislature about 15 years later in the mid-1930s.

Atticus, from a small town in Alabama serving in the 1920s, was without question a member of the Democratic Party. The party had an almost complete monopoly on Alabama politics at that time, especially in rural districts, and Jim Crow laws received unanimous approval from Democratic politicians. As a result, a legislator like Atticus Finch would have voted to segregate elementary and high schools. He would have helped pass the “one drop rule,” which said even one black ancestor made someone black, and he would have voted to make miscegenation a felony.

Atticus would also have voted for laws that expanded segregation to include movie theaters, restaurants and other public places. He would have voted for laws that criminalized non-crimes like vagrancy, which was one of many legal excuses used to terrorize black people and to sentence them to long terms at prison work camps in virtual slavery.

No Democratic state legislator in Alabama of that generation opposed the bill that segregated public buses, which had only just come into wide usage in public transportation. The character of Atticus would have helped pass the law that the famed civil rights activist Rosa Parks protested against in 1955 when she refused to move to the back of the bus.

It’s tempting to think of To Kill a Mockingbird as an aberration, that it must be the only story to so fully shift blame from those who created and enforced Jim Crow segregation to the poor white people who were only better off than blacks because, as Harper Lee said, “if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.”

But actually there’s a long history of exactly this type of thing. One of the most telling examples involves a photograph of a leading racist politician, which was doctored more than a century ago.

Fake Ben Tillman

This is the fake doctored photo of “Pitchfork” Sen. Ben Tillman of South Carolina.

The black-and-white photograph depicts an impassioned speaker in the back of a wagon, mid-speech, one finger raised in a jabbing gesture, while a crowd of slouching white farmers in country hats and overalls stand clustered around.

The politician is “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a Democratic governor and U.S. Senator from South Carolina, who launched his political career by leading wild white-supremacist brigades and lynch mobs and who engineered widespread election fraud in the 1870s and 1880s before becoming a state and national leader in public office, from 1890 to 1918.

The photo is one of the few images of Ben Tillman at work in his native element, rousing hardscrabble Southern whites to homicidal rage and legislative triumph, except for one thing.

The photo, accepted without question by historians for generations, is a fake.

The Staged Photo

This is the portrait of Sen. Tillman, which was trimmed and pasted onto the country scene above.

The fakery was discovered, almost by accident, by a historian named Stephen Kantrowitz in the mid-1990s, who spotted that distinctive jabbing finger of Pitchfork Ben in a staged portraitof the senator at the Library of Congress.

Kantrowitz took the original from the Library of Congress and compared it to the fake. It became instantly clear that Tillman’s image had been carefully trimmed out of the former and pasted onto the fake setting of the latter.

“That finger isn’t something you forget,” said Kantrowitz, explaining how he randomly spotted the original. Kantrowitz then searched until he found a real photo of an actual Tillman speech. In that one, the senator was surrounded not by shabby farmers but by well-dressed businessmen and bankers in the sharp attire of urban notables.

Major landowners like Tillman often portrayed white supremacy as arising instinctively from lower class white southerners. It was a handy justification for Jim Crow laws to skeptical Northerners because it recast elites as actually the protectors of African Americans, who would, without the protection of Jim Crow laws, suffer a worse fate from the seething mass of lower class whites of “staggering ignorance and almost primal viciousness,” writes Kantrowitz.

“Elites like… Tillman sought to appear gravely law-abiding while they arranged a lynching,” Katrowitz writes in his biography, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy.

In 1938, this same rationalization was invoked by U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi as he successfully filibustered federal anti-lynching legislation by saying such a law would fling open the “floodgates of hell.”

Lynch mobs, he argued, actually maintained peace in the South, by keeping blacks at bay, and preventing the outright slaughter of black men by whites who “will not tolerate” the violation of white women.

The centerpiece of Sen. Bilbo’s argument is that blacks naturally provoke the deadly hatred and violence of lower-class whites. It’s up to the “better class,” the lawyers and doctors and politicians to maintain the Southern caste system to protect black people.

That’s pretty much the picture painted by Harper Lee. The story’s appeal is easy to see. It may be comforting to think that America’s ugliest traditions are the fault of low-class hillbillies rather than the people in charge, the wealthy and educated, but it’s not true. And it’s a dangerous untruth.

The Real Tillman

Here’s Sen. Ben Tillman, possibly around a century ago, talking to a typical well-dressed South Carolina audience.

Like the rants of racists like Sen. Bilbo, the social lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird are meant to prove the uselessness of any effort to stop the injustices heaped on black people, or to lift poor whites from their permanent lower-class status.

The novel’s truth is a profoundly reactionary vision of the world, one of stratified layers of humanity and no possibility of economic or political justice or even any social mobility at all, nothing except the death for those deemed worthless. It’s also a world in which justice is defined not by principles but by the rich and powerful. It’s an insidious world, one in which words don’t mean what they seem to mean, like how the original U.S. Constitution could both say all men are created equal and some men are valued at three-fifths of a man. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch goes on and on about how everyone, even a black man, deserves equal access to justice, a principle that excludes Bob Ewell.


Leave a comment

Filed under News and Commentary

Want to be Like Gawker?

Over the past few weeks, workers at Gawker in New York City voted to form a union and now the staff of Salon seems set to follow suit.

By using our collective voice, staff members at media companies can negotiate with our employers for fair pay and benefits.

What I’m trying to say is this: You work hard. You produce value. That’s true, whatever your particular job happens to be. Together, we can win some of that value and transform jobs into careers. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen without some effort. But it’s doable, and it’s worth it.

With this blog post, I want to begin to gauge interest among media workers in the greater-DC area for organizing.

If “media worker in the greater-DC area” describes you (more or less), please take this short survey. If you’re interested in reading sample contracts, click this link. If you want to interact with someone, feel free to email me.

I’m a member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, and my union wants to help you organize. Workers at the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, Bloomberg’s Bureau of National Affairs and quite a few smaller organizations are part of this union local. We’d love to talk to you about joining us.

Please take the survey. I’ll leave the survey open for several weeks, and then I’ll post the results. Check back at this URL, if you’d like more information.

1 Comment

Filed under Unionism

Rally at the Washington Post for Career-Quality Jobs

Well, it’s been some time since I’ve posted. You know how things go. You get busy. Time flies. And yet here we are again.

Another unit within my local union is made up of the staff of the Washington Post. For years, I’ve been a low-key activist in my local who volunteered time here and there, but lately I’ve taken things up a notch.

One place where I’ve done more is with the Washington Post. You can read about it below….

WAPO Rally: Workers Defend Career-Quality Jobs at Top-Tier Newspaper

Oct28Post ActionScores of workers at the Washington Post rallied with a boisterous crowd of supporters including a small marching band on the sidewalk in front of the Post building on 15th Street NW during the noon hour today.

The message was clear: The workers at the Post will defend the legacy and the future of this newspaper, no matter the odds.

At stake are career-quality jobs at one of the nation’s cornerstone media institutions.

Post owner Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest individuals and the founder of Amazon.com, bought the Washington Post Company last year. He has asked the workers at the Post for wage cuts of up to 17%, and those cuts would grow over time.

On the picket line, Post newsroom and business-side staff alike spoke of the pride they have in their work.

“We serve a bigger mission than just ourselves, and we want to be treated with respect. We don’t want the world. We just want what’s in our contract,” said reporter Matt Schudel.

“We want this paper to thrive! I love the Post!” said Lori Aratani, who’s a reporter on the paper’s metro desk.

“We help hold institutions accountable, and that’s important. We give a voice to people who maybe don’t have a voice. It’s important for us to be accurate and fair, and that takes a lot of experience and education both in school and on the job,” Aratani said.

Most galling to the workers is the fact that the proposed cuts seem ideological, not business-driven.

“These cuts are absolutely unnecessary!” said Fredrick Kunkle, who co-leads the Post unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.

Nobody goes into journalism to get rich, Post workers said, but neither do they want to work at jobs without good health care, good pay or retirement benefits.


Filed under News and Commentary, Uncategorized, Unionism

The Erosion of the Franchise

Get any group of journalists together, and you’re likely to hear a lot of belly-aching about the end of news.

Newspapers, we so often tell each other, are an endangered species with a shrinking habitat and no good source of protein. I mean, what about the aging readers? What about the… gulp… Internet? Clearly, newspapers are finished.

That’s bull.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that newspapers are in financial trouble, but news corporations are stuck in a whirlwind of their own making. Newspapers and media companies haven’t been swept up by some freakish storm. News isn’t the victim of some unrelenting force of nature.

Every day, good journalists all across this great country—and I would contend that almost no field in America has such a depth of talent and professionalism as journalism—witness the slow erosion of the quality and integrity of the news organization that employs them. Each ding is small. Each new affront seems minor. Maybe the coverage of your state legislature gets cut back, or two old jobs get combined into one. Or what was once a flagship beat gets rolled into the beat of an already over-worked reporter.

Does this sound familiar?

And as the staff has shrunk, so the quality has always… sometimes slightly… declined. Fewer copy editors. Fewer designers. Oh, you’ve heard your editor, defensive, insisting that the paper will always be committed to the highest quality of… whatever kind of reporting has just been hamstrung.

That… and nothing else… pushes news organizations toward the brink. When I was a journalism student, one of the best young reporters in my class said, “We trade in our word,” and I knew when I heard it that, as a journalist, “my word” was my franchise. If I respected it. Grew it. Protected it. Developed it. Then I’d be all right.

And the same is true of the entire world of media. We trade in our word. When we erode our word, we erode our value. And without our value, well, we’re worthless.

And no amount of cost-cutting can prop up the value of a product in consistent decline. That’s just common sense. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a study about how fewer people trust news organizations.

Check this out. Here’s a story on “This American Life” about the outsourcing of local reporting.

Here’s another study about how advertising dollars continue to rise, but the short-sighted knuckleheads who run newspapers aren’t capturing much of that revenue.

And here’s a story about how Gannett cut costs aggressively to make its papers more “competitive,” and then turned around and gave those millions in savings to its top executives in bonuses.

Smart, huh?

Leave a comment

Filed under News and Commentary

On Strike! The Montana Newspaper Guild in 1974

“We managed to get a pension…. What’s the pension situation like at newspapers now?”

Carla Beck, a former president of the Montana Newspaper Guild and a reporter at the Great Falls Tribune in the 1960s and 70s, posed the question to me about halfway through our telephone conversation, and it put the divide between past expectations and modern reality into sharp relief.

I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing!

“What? No daily reporters in Montana have pensions! Lee Enterprises doesn’t even contribute matching dollars to 401Ks!” I said, adding, “I don’t know about Gannett.”

Gannett owns the Great Falls Tribune, where employees had been members of the Local 81 of the National Newspaper Guild from the mid-1930s to 1993. Lee Enterprises owns all but one of Montana’s daily newspapers—the Billings Gazette, the Montana Standard in Butte, the Helena Independent Record, the Missoulian and the Ravalli Republic south of Missoula. I worked at both the Gazette and the Missoulian over the years as a reporter. I also delivered the Gazette as a teenager, and I helped my mom deliver the Missoulian sometimes back when I was in grade school.

Here’s something you have to understand: Lee Enterprises, based in Iowa, is an anti-union media company, by which I mean that the company’s policies include instructing managers to break the law by intimidating or firing any employees who try to form a union. Maybe that’s not surprising, but it should be.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I called Beck after I got a letter from Ralph Pomnichowski (another past president of Local 81) with her phone number. He had read this blog about union talk among some Montana journalists and thought I should talk to her. (It turns out that she doesn’t live far from me in Maryland. It’s a small world….)

I wanted to talk to her about the unsuccessful 1974 strike at the Great Falls Tribune.

By way of background, you should know that the Great Falls Tribune, like most newspapers, produced (and continues to produce) tremendous profits. It was the largest newspaper in Montana and was available everywhere in the state. The employees wanted fair compensation for the people who made the company so profitably, especially the workers in the classified advertising department.

“Those little ads made, oh my… you wouldn’t believe how profitable those ads were,” Beck said. “We wanted more for those people who pulled in so much money for the newspaper.”

At that time, Local 81 felt strong, partly because it represented workers throughout the newspaper, except the typesetters and the press workers. Plus, the teachers’ union in Great Falls had recently won a tough strike, and the solidarity within the Great Falls labor movement was complete. People would flock to picket lines in support of other unions. So when the Guild went to the table to bargain a contract with the Tribune’s owners, and the owners refused to even talk about decent raises, the members voted to strike.

“Here’s what I’ve thought about a lot since that strike. All of us should have been a little scared,” Beck said. “We didn’t know what all that would be required. We should have known, because we were all basically researchers. I’m not apologizing, but when you go into a strike situation you need to educate your members so that they know what it’s really about.”

Carla Beck in 1971, photo courtesy of the Newspaper Guild.

Beck explained that the workers at the paper figured that a short-term loss of a paycheck would be made up by good increases, and that the newspaper company would be anxious to keep making money.

You see, when Local 81 went on strike, the Great Falls Tribune couldn’t put out a paper. Instead, the employees wrote, laid out and printed a weekly strike paper called the Great Falls Pennant from the strike headquarters, which were on the second floor of a bar across the street from the Tribune’s offices.

But the company that owned the Tribune, which also owned the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, replaced the old hot-lead typesetting machinery in the printing plant with new technology that needed a fraction of the workers. Plus, the company had plenty of cash from its other holdings, but the employees—especially the lower-paid workers in the classified department—felt tremendous pressure from the lack of that paycheck.

The enthusiasm that marked the early weeks of the strike began to wane. After a few months, some members began to cross the picket line and return to work.

Truck drivers, teachers, heavy-equipment operators, electricians and others marched on the picket line alongside striking newspaper workers at the Great Falls Newspapers Strike in 1974. Photo courtesy of the Newspaper Guild.

“Management knew what they wanted to accomplish, and they had the money to do it,” she said. “They wanted to break the Guild.”

It’s easy to understand why the corporate owners of Montana’s newspapers wanted to undermine the workers. Union workers in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s had negotiated good benefits and pay, and non-union companies like Lee had been obliged to offer comparably decent packages to forestall organizing drives.

In retrospect, the 1974 strike was the beginning of the end of the Montana Newspaper Guild, Beck told me, and that was especially true after Gannett bought the paper, “because they’re a union-buster all around,” she said.

The Guild continued to represent employees at the paper until 1993, when workers voted to disband as a union. Yet the Guild continued to have a strong positive effect on wages and benefits of journalists in Montana until 1993, and even for a few years afterwards.

By then, Carla Beck had long since moved on. She came to the DC area to work for Montana Sen. John Melcher in the 1980s, and now she’s retired in Maryland, living with her husband, who worked for decades as an Episcopal minister.

“Unions are a lot like churches. A lot of the work is done by volunteers, who all have jobs and busy lives with all sorts of time constraints. Just think of what the world is operating under today! Good Lord!” she said.

I asked her if she had any advice for people who were interested in organizing media workers in Montana these days.

“I’d stress the care and feeding of members,” she said. “You can’t have a successful union without a strong community of members. We shut down that paper for weeks, for a couple months, and yet we still lost. The members lost heart. The other unions lost heart.”

Still, the Guild managed to establish a pension and upped the health care coverage.

“That was a real winner,” Beck said. That’s when she asked about journalists’ pensions today. It was a subject on which we lingered for a moment, because neither of us have a doubt that Montana’s newspapers still produce incredible profits and could easily afford defined benefit pensions for retired employees.

Finally, Beck, who was a general assignment reporter, told me about some of her most memorable stories, one of which was a series in 1968 about how Alabama Gov. George Wallace had campaigned across Montana extensively as part of his presidential campaign.

“Oh, I tell you, he was up around the northeastern and north central part of the state. I interviewed all these people who told me the darnedest things, like what he can do and what he has done so well in Alabama, and, yes, quite frankly the racism would come out. The racism was there,” she said.

Then we talked about how Montana seems to have so many interesting political extremes, from socialist counties to right-wing separatists.

“That’s what makes the state such a wonderful place,” she said. “But maybe Montana’s not so different from anywhere else. I suspect that’s true all across the country.”

1 Comment

Filed under News and Commentary, Unionism

A Reprint: America was Shamed Into Giving Indians Citizenship

This article first appeared in the Billings Gazette on June 2, 1999. I had been in the newsroom for about a year as a police reporter, but there was a lot of room for an enterprising and curious reporter who wasn’t afraid of screwing up from time to time, which I certainly did.  And yet… I’m sure glad I had fun reporting stories like this, which I turned up while searching for another story about an effort by one school district in northern Montana to keep Indians from voting. I’ll keep looking for the other story. In the meantime, here’s this:

Joseph Oklahombi, right. Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

It wasn’t marches in the streets or boycotts that won U.S. citizenship for Native Americans 75 years ago.

It was national embarrassment, sparked by one man’s act of heroism in World War I, that pushed the United States to grant citizenship to Native Americans, said MSU-Billings Native American studies professor Jeffrey Sanders.

The story goes like this: Joseph Oklahombi, a full-blooded Choctaw from Bismarck, N.D., and a soldier in the U.S. Army, was one of a large number of Native Americans who volunteered for World War I.

Before 1924, Native Americans could become citizens in some instances if they were honorably discharged from the military, or if they sold their allotted reservation land.

In 1917 Oklahombi went through the German lines in France, dodged barbed-wire and overpowered a machine gun nest, Sanders said. He then single-handedly captured 171 German soldiers.

For that and for other acts of bravery, France awarded him the nation’s highest military honor.

“You see, he had not yet been discharged, so he was not yet a citizen. When that fact got out, it was extremely embarrassing to the United States,” Sanders said.

Over the next seven years, a small group of politicians on the East Coast lobbied for citizenship for the nation’s Native Americans. In 1924, the time was right, and a bill came through Congress and the Senate on the coattails of another, more controversial bill. The other bill would limit immigration from Asian countries.

In the Billings Gazette on June 2, 1924 – the day President Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act – there was no mention of the act. Instead, the headlines were dominated by the trial of Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb.Two days earlier, the two sons of Chicago millionaires had confessed to murdering a 13-year-old boy.

Farm aid was also a big issue in June, 75 years ago, but nowhere in the paper, or in the next week’s worth of papers, was there a mention of the act that gave citizenship to “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States.”

The 75th anniversary of the citizenship act has also received little attention, both on Montana’s reservations and off, said Gail Small, the founder and director of Native Action, a nonprofit organization trying to increase Native American voter participation across the northern Great Plains.

On the reservations, the date is sensitive because it brings up feelings of anger and frustration.

“Why Indians were not automatically citizens is still questioned by many,” Small said, adding that discrimination against Native Americans is still a very real thing.

“Indian people and their tribal governments remain an anomaly in the political system in this country. We don’t really fit in very well as dual citizens or as tribal government.”

Small said Native Americans are still in political limbo.

“Indian tribes and our homelands are not considered countries, states or truly sovereign nations,” she said.

So although Native Americans received the legal right to vote from the federal government 75 years ago, Small said the fight is still on for equal representation.

Sanders agreed but said in the last 10 years, partly as a result of work by Small’s organization, Native Americans have become an important swing vote in statewide elections.

“When Pat Williams won his last election, he won by the number of Indian voters in the state,” Sanders said. “You can’t exactly say it’s a direct correlation, but I think it would be fair to say the Indian vote can win elections and its influence will continue to grow.”


Filed under Uncategorized