Category Archives: News and Commentary

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.

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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.

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The Problem With Atticus Finch

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 elaborate and 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. Rather, 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 is incredible. 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 been called “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 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 always 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 how Harper Lee’s narrator paints for herself while the story maligns Bob Ewell as a low-down and dangerous animal. That’s why it’s so important for him to die.

We first learn about the Ewell clan by meeting an oversized lice-infested first-grader in Scout’s class named Burris Ewell. So right away we know they’re filthy. And then the disgusting kid makes his teacher cry by calling her a “snot-nosed slut.” The Ewells are mean, too.

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.”

Later, in the courtroom Bob Ewell makes a mockery of justice. He’s lies like a dog, 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.”

Yet for being so ignorant and vile, Bob Ewell 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, he lunges 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.

By 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. He’s armed with a razor sharp knife. He’s cowardly. And mean.

When Bob Ewell stabs at Scout and her brother, his knife gets caught in her brother’s costume. Then a reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley appears in the blackness. He’d been keeping an eye on the kids the whole time. Boo kills Bob with his 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 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. In fact, well-meaning folk like Atticus can only understand it as “local disease” afflicting otherwise poor but 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 struggles to give Tom Robinson a fair trial, so much so that one night 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 of that era 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 just as good as the judge. His only fault is that he’s too gullible, too harmless. For instance, the sheriff never intended to leave Tom Robinson unguarded at the jailhouse the night the white mob attempted unsuccessfully to lynch him. He was lured away by some clever farmers. The sheriff isn’t even able to kill a mad dog. He asks Atticus to do it, because he has steadier hands.

But 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 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, while 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 the charred body dangles 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 could well 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 also would have voted for laws that expanded segregation to include movie theaters, restaurants and other public places. He may 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 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 doctored photograph from likely more than a century ago.

The black-and-white photograph depicts an impassioned politician 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 nearly a century, is a fake.

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 portrait 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 first 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, both to justify the need for Jim Crow laws to skeptical Northerners by saying the laws actually protected African Americans from a 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.”

Later, this same rationalization was invoked by U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi in 1938 when 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 low-class hillbillies rather than the wealthy and educated people are responsible for the horrors our society is capable of, but it’s not true.

Like the rants of racists like Sen. Bilbo, To Kill a Mockingbird renders ineffective any real effort to stop the injustices heaped on black people but it also justifies something like lower-class status for poor whites. It’s a profoundly reactionary vision of the world, one which holds no possibility of justice, nothing except maybe the death of those who deserve it.

What a horrible story to hold us as a source of useful truths.

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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.

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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?

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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.”

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The Return of the Montana Newspaper Guild

Steve Schnall in Great Falls in1983 pedaling to raise money for a Montana Newspaper Guild college scholarship, which happens to be named after my grandfather, also Robert Struckman. Steve is now assistant athletic director at San Diego State University in California.

It’s an uncertain and insecure time for journalists in Montana these days, what with unrelenting layoffs and buyouts at the state’s newspapers coupled with more than a decade of below-inflation raises, when the staff received any pay increases at all. There have been furloughs at the Great Falls Tribune, and staff at the state’s five newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises have had significant benefit cutbacks, estimated by one staff member to equate to a 7 percent pay cut.

But here’s the funny part. Montana’s journalists have consistently produced top-quality news, year after year. The papers themselves have been beautifully profitable, earning dependable millions every year.

I can actually remember when pay stalled for Montana’s reporters. I was a bumbling and excited new police reporter at the Billings Gazette in 1998. As I got my first raise, my supervising editor explained that the paper’s corporate headquarters had clamped down on raises, just the previous year. Instead of good raises—I’m thinking maybe 5 percent or so—I would receive a fraction over 1 percent. It wasn’t me, my editor explained. It was company-wide.

It’s interesting to look back at that time.

Five years earlier, in 1993, the members of the Montana Newspaper Guild at the Great Falls Tribune—scattered among pretty much the entire staff outside the press room and the drivers—had voted out to disband. The Tribune had been an open shop for about 15 years, which means that employees could get the good wages and benefits that the dues-paying union members had bargained for, but without contributing a dime. Still, the members of the Montana Guild were skilled negotiators who won decent raises when the paper made solid profits.

Decades of research has shown that union wages raise standards at non-union workplaces. It’s easy to understand why. The Billings Gazette and other Lee Enterprises papers in Montana offered pay and benefits roughly comparable to the Great Falls Tribune, owned by the Gannett Company. Why? To retain and dissuade the staff from forming unions to gain the full benefits of collective bargaining.

If you don’t believe that Lee Enterprises fears the combined clout of its employees, consider this: Anti-union training is a centerpiece for all company managers, and anti-union videos are routine for new employees. I sat through an anti-union spiel at the Gazette in the summer of 1998. I remember it well. And, as I mentioned before, my editor didn’t hesitate when it came to breaking the law when he threatened to fire me just for talking about forming a union with my coworkers.

And here’s why Lee hates unions. It’s not rocket science. The company’s leadership doesn’t want any pressure to share any of the amazing profits it reaps. After the Tribune‘s union disbanded, Lee’s managers no longer even had to keep pace with the Tribune.

It’s abundantly clear to me now that while collective bargaining offers a rising tide, the reverse is also true. Without collective bargaining, employees experience a relentless race-to-the-bottom. It’s not a fun race, like that tricycle escapade above, but you don’t need me to tell you that.

And yet there is hope. As I’ve noted many times, Montana’s media corporations are profitable. News will also be important in Montana and across the country far into the future. In fact, media spending has been on the rise, even though the share spent on newspapers has been declining.

My point is simple. Newspaper employees—all media employees—from the press room to the advertising floor to the newsroom can still form unions. It’s possible. Membership in the Newspaper Guild doesn’t mean anything more than that each paper’s employees will be able to collectively bargain with management about pay, benefits and working conditions.

There are a lot of people in Montana who remember the Guild. I’ve been talking to quite a few of them. I’ll write soon about the 1974 strike in Great Falls, in which Teamsters, teachers, postal workers and even the young newspaper carriers helped Guild members in a long struggle with that paper’s management.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could form a union without taking an enormous personal and professional risk? Wouldn’t it be an amazing show of solidarity if those same truck drivers, mail carriers, teachers, electricians and public workers came together to help start a race back up from the bottom? The time is right.

And, actually, if anyone could identify the people in this photo, or share their stories, I’d sure appreciate it. More photos soon.

Both of these photos come from the files of the Newspaper Guild here in Washington. I’d appreciate any news about the photographs or the people in them. Feel free to email.

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