After 500 Issues, A Look at Labor Notes Then and Now
How was Labor Notes #1, from February 1979, different from Labor Notes #500, the issue we just sent to the printer? There’s the obvious:
- Eight pages instead of 16
- Yellow paper instead of white
- A subscription price of $5 a year instead of $30
- No photos, no bylines
- A staff of two, cheek by jowl in a tiny Detroit cubbyhole, rather than a staff of seven full-timers spread across four states
- Every single article in issue #1 is about blue-collar workers: miners, steelworkers, auto workers, Teamsters, telephone workers, chemical workers, shipbuilders. Not a public employee to be found.
Issue #500 wouldn’t be a fair comparison, since we have more “big picture” and history than usual this month, to celebrate the anniversary, plus a films feature and a crossword. But issue #499 featured six articles about the fights of K-12 or university staff and one each on public health care workers, auto workers, construction workers, and postal workers.
Public sector workers today are nearly half of all union members, while union manufacturing workers plummeted from 7.5 million back then to 1.3 million today.
And there’s what might not be obvious in the pages themselves: Labor Notes is far more than a monthly publication now. Besides the zillions more articles we run online, there’s our network of local Troublemakers Schools, our biennial conference (which was set to draw 4,000 people last spring), and the many, many workshops we do for local unions and local caucuses.
Not to mention our thriving merch (get your long-sleeve T!) and book sales today. Issue #1 advertised just Battle Line: The Coal Strike of 1978, by Labor Notes founders Kim Moody and Jim West, and Wage Guidelines: The Road to Austerity. I reread Battle Line recently and it’s still good. Wage Guidelines was not a big seller—who knew?
But looking just at the monthly mag: Some things have stayed the same. We still have a NewsWatch column of short items—always popular for that reason. Over the years we added two columns with staying power: Steward’s Corner, with practical advice, sometimes in a “how we did it” format, and Slingshot, where staffers sound off on topics near to their hearts.
We only occasionally run the Resources column now—though there are so many more resources! You can help make that column appear more regularly by e-mailing us your ideas: editors[at]labornotes[dot]org.
In both years, we looked at bigger political questions, not the shop floor and the union hall only. In issue #1 it was affirmative action. This year it’s been Black Lives Matter and Medicare for All.
There’s more news of union dissidents in issue #1 than today: in the Teamsters, Auto Workers (UAW), Communications Workers (CWA), Mine Workers. Employers had not yet begun the fierce attacks on unions that changed everything in the 1980s, so, interestingly, the first issue has less class struggle of that sort—fighting concessions through strikes or contract campaigns.
Instead, a CWA steward is fighting for his right to criticize union policies and not get removed. Coal miners are trying to keep their president—former reformer Arnold Miller—from consolidating total control. UAW members are forming Autoworkers for a Better Contract ahead of September expirations; write to a Detroit P.O. box.
“Teamster Dissidents Doing Well in Local Union Elections” is the cover story, with victories in Oklahoma City, Flint, St. Louis, Roanoke, and many more. In Massachusetts, we learn, a Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) member was elected local president and all incumbents were defeated. The election victory was “a repayment of sorts for the beating he suffered earlier for opposing the incumbents.”
Readers, that does not mean an earlier election loss. It means they beat the guy up.
Of the national reform movements that existed in 1979, only TDU remains today, and still shares a building with Labor Notes in Detroit. Now we share office space in Brooklyn, too.
Though national movements have languished, local ones have sprung up with a vengeance and won office. UCORE, the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators, is one embodiment of that. Over the years Labor Notes covered how reformers were organizing in teacher locals in Chicago and Los Angeles—and how eventually they got elected (in L.A. it took 22 years) and went on to lead and win big strikes.
So that is one more consistency between issue #1 and issue #500, Labor Notes 1979 and Labor Notes 2020: the playbook remains the same. Organize your fellow workers around issues they care about, including contracts and the day-to-day of their work lives. If your union isn’t interested, organize to replace your officers. Once in office, keep up the deep organizing that can lead to victory against the boss.
When Labor Notes was founded, we didn’t foresee what we came to call the “employers’ offensive” of the 1980s: contract concessions, lean production, labor-management cooperation programs. We saw a lumbering, complacent, out-of-touch union bureaucracy—but also rank-and-file rebellion in many unions. That was the rationale for Labor Notes. The different movements needed something to connect them.
Then, less than a year later, a recession started, followed by hundreds of plant closings, and the Auto Workers said “Sure!” to concessions. Thank heaven Labor Notes was around.
I don’t recall thinking ahead, in 1979, when we and the world were young, about how many issues of Labor Notes might be needed before members retook their unions and used them to fight their bosses. Turns out: more than 500. Glad you’re all here doing it!