After 500 Issues, A Look at Labor Notes Then and Now

A photo of an addressograph machine

The November 2020 edition of Labor Notes marks 500 issues. When we first started publishing in 1979, new subscriptions were entered on Addressograph machines (invented in 1892). Photo: Vin Crosbie, CC BY-ND 2.0.

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.

TIDBITS

Two items from issue #1, one horrifying and one gratifying:

The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers are organizing a Coalition for Reproductive Rights of Workers because chemical companies are telling women they have to get sterilized to keep their jobs. Five women at American Cyanamid in West Virginia have done so.

From NewsWatch: “Sharp-eyed auto workers at a Flint, Michigan GM plant found last month what almost every factory worker suspects his boss has—a secret speedup switch. The plant superintendent could flip the switch and speed up the assembly line, bypassing the locked control mechanism. Faced with the threat of a strike, GM agreed to pay compensation for the extra production.”

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.

FAR MORE

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?

Our recent books have focused on organizing and action tactics, and we’ve incorporated attorney Robert Schwartz’s lineup of books for stewards—plus his great webinars.

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.

UNION DISSIDENTS

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.

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“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.

MORE LABOR NOTES HISTORY

Forty Years of Troublemaking by Jane Slaughter
Assessing 40 Years of Labor Notes by Nelson Lichtenstein
The Rank-and-File's Paper of Record by Kim Moody

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!

TECHNOLOGY 1979

There were no computers. We had typewriters (mine was a manual Underwood) for writing articles. Double-spaced, please, to allow the editor to cross out or replace words or phrases. To “cut and paste,” we used scissors and a stapler.

To set finished articles in type, we used a Compugraphic phototypesetter—an amazing advance over hot-metal typesetting machines. We would type the edited article into this machine that used a spinning filmstrip to project images of the letters onto photo paper.

We corrected mistakes by retyping a line or a word, cutting out the error with a razor blade, and pasting the new version in, hunched over a hot light table.

Then we would wax the corrected galley and paste the text onto the page. We created headlines separately, one letter at a time, using press type.

To get an article from an author quickly (meaning the next day), we used Express Mail. You had to run to the post office to pick it up. Sometimes authors dictated their articles to us over the phone as we typed. The fax machine, when we got one, was a big improvement.

INDEX CARDS

We kept our subscription records on handwritten index cards, looking through each month to see who was expiring. To enter a new sub, you would take the index card down a dark hallway into a room called the dungeon.

There lived two Addressograph machines (invented in 1892)—one for slowly punching the subscriber’s address into a metal plate, the other for using those plates to imprint addresses—one by one—onto each issue of Labor Notes, hand-fed.

This data was all backed up on... Well, there was no backup. There were no huge disasters, but it’s scary to think about now.

—Jim West

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 500. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
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 Ev...