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Labor Journals

The importance of labor papers was well understood by leaders as different as socialist Eugene Debs and AFL founder Samuel Gompers. For Debs, “educational propaganda” was the most vital thing about the international labor movement. Believing that “the progress of the press is a sure index of the progress of the movement,” he considered “The editor of a labor paper is of far more importance to the union and the movement than the president or any other officer of the union.” Gompers praised the services of the labor press “In the work of organizing, of giving correct information to union men during controversies with employers, of carrying on the discussions of questions arising in the course of the movement.” Both leaders exhorted union members to subscribe to and read critically the labor press of their union and their community.

It was well understood that while “the reactionary subsidized press pays attention to workers on Labor Day it ignores them the rest of the year.” Central labor council secretaries were “instructed to write daily papers and ask why they do not publish labor news given by labor.” In 1924 coverage of “labor and wages” averaged only 10 inches of space, dead last after “Sports and comic pictures (321); Fashions and cooking (135); Government, Federal, state and city (125); Business (115); Foreign affairs (104); Crime (60); Music and drama (44); Prohibition (27); [and] Society (14).”

This came as no surprise to those who understood that “the big newspapers of the country are owned and controlled by the same interests that are trying to crush organized labor,” and that unions needed their own publications. Rochester’s labor journals were generally owned by publishing entities incorporated by the labor council and overseen by a Board of Control appointed by the labor council president.

For years they were published on the basis of contracts negotiated by the editor with the Board of Control and ratified by the labor council in open meetings.

Labor Herald masthead

These contracts specified issues of policy, including whether or not the Board of Control had authority to censor editorials and news. Contracts might also specify whether the paper printed the proceedings of the council, published council financial information, took ads for political candidates, etc.

Published weekly until 1986, when Labor News went bi-weekly, these papers were funded from a variety of sources including subscriptions, sales, subsidies, ads, etc.

Subscriptions were the lifeblood of the papers. They signified the labor community’s commitment and provided the financial base. Readers were constantly exhorted to subscribe and to get members of their unions to subscribe. The circulation of earlier papers is unknown, but Labor News grew from 6400 subscribers in 1946 to 18,000 by 1979. The paper was affordable for most unions and individuals — in 1961 a one-year subscription cost $2 or a single issue could be purchased for 5 cents. By 2004, a one year subscription was a mere $12 for union members ($24 for all others).

Direct sales were another source of revenue and means of distribution. For example, copies of the Sunday Truth & Advocate & Mail could “be obtained, at an early hour every Sunday morning, for five cents, of all the Newsdealers in the city and in Byron, Bergen, Batavia, Brockport, Holly, Albion, Lockport, Fairport, Palmyra, Pittsford, Victor, Canandaigua, Seneca Falls, Oneida, and all surrounding towns.”

The most contentious funding issue was advertising. Debs despised ads, arguing that “capitalists do not as a rule, advertise in labor papers that are loyal to working class interests.” An editorial in a Rochester labor paper, “Shall a Labor Paper Accept Advertising?” argued that papers need real circulation which, contrary to “theoretical sentimentalists,” could only be paid for by advertisements. Rochester’s Labor Journal sometimes accepted ads but often tried to restrict them to customers who were either pro-labor or at least not anti-labor.

That there may have been direct union subsidies is evident from concern that Labor News might be investigated by the FBI under a Taft-Hartley prohibition on using union funds for federal politics, even though it was the official CTLC paper and “only a small part of its support comes from union funds.” A $2000 loan from the CTLC helped found Labor News in 1945. Another $1000 loan from the Council helped the paper get through a difficult time in 1985.

Another source of revenue was a contract through which the Monroe County Board of Supervisors designated the Labor Herald as an official paper in which to publish the “Session Laws and Concurrent Resolutions of New York State” — an arrangement that continued for many years.

Income was also generated by printing the labor council’s Constitution & By-Laws, delegate credentials, and other materials.

Positions at the labor newspapers included, at various times, a president, vice president, editor, assistant editor, women’s page editor, secretary, treasurer, secretary-treasurer, and advertising manager. At one point there was discussion within the AFL of organizing a federal labor union of the staff of labor papers throughout the country.

The sources for local labor news were, of course, the unions themselves — although the labor council never succeeded in coordinating a network of press committees within affiliates reporting to the council’s own press committee. Sources for national and international labor news came to include the Federated Press and the International Labor News Service — agencies created specifically to gather and disseminate such news. Other sources were characterized by the AFL as propaganda from employers, liberal organizations (such as the ACLU), and communists.

The audience of these papers was both internal (members of the central labor body affiliates and subsets of them such as the Building Trades Council) and external, including organized labor (at the regional, state and national levels), as well as unorganized workers and non-union readers including progressives, politicians, business people, and the general community.

The content of these labor journals included a wide range of topics:

Council business

Labor Council information such as directories of affiliates listing unions, meeting place and dates, secretary and address); CLC Proceedings; CLC and affiliate union elections; articles on trade union management (e.g., How to Run a Union Meeting and Labor and the Law); biographical stories on local labor personalities (including a series on Who is Who! Rochester’s Labor Celebrities and another, Among Rochester Labor Leaders).

Labor Journal masthead

Local labor news

In 1946 this included such local industrial struggles as the milk strike, the city workers’ dispute leading to the General Strike, the Construction Laborers’ walkout, the Coal & Coke Drivers’ shutdown, the Upholsterers’ strike and the battle between the printing trades and the Gannett Publishing Company.

News of affiliates

In addition to the actual reporting of local labor news there developed feature columns, e.g., Bright Dips (Metal Trades Council), Chapel Chatter (Printers and Typesetters), Shop Talk (Laborers), Gimmick (Teamsters), 13 Club Blow Torch (Plumbers), Pi Box (Typographers), Powerline (Electricians), Mortarboard (Bricklayers), Tar Pot (Roofers), etc.

State, national and international labor news

Coverage of workers’ struggles outside Rochester; news of the New York State Federation and the national AFL; reports of labor conventions; reports on international unions and labor federations such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), etc.

Local labor economy

“Do Buy” lists identified providers of union goods and services such as union bakeries, meat markets, carpenter contractors, printing offices, milk and dairy, commercial photo engraving, electrical contractors, mills, cigar factories, floor laying companies, store fixtures and furniture, sausage manufacturers, glaziers, custom made clothes, movie theaters, barbers, etc.; “Do Not Patronize” lists of those employers deemed unfair to unions; Union Card & Label League campaigns encouraged workers to support union labels, shop cards, and service buttons.

Labor politics

Electoral politics (including candidate endorsements, Non-Partisan League activities, political platforms and campaigns) and labor legislation (issues, bills, lobbying, etc.)

In addition, the papers announced public and social events (picnics, dances, demonstrations, rallies) and published opinion pieces ranging from editorials and cartoons to regular columns on labor issues, health topics and, later on, sports and women’s matters. Special features included serialized fiction, movie reviews, etc. When ads were permitted they, too, filled the columns of Rochester’s labor journals.

Labor News was published weekly at 53 East Main Street (Printers Hall) until 1965 when they moved to the Powers Building at 16 West Main Street, where they stayed until 1983. From 1983 until 1999 they were housed at Painters Hall, 509 North Goodman Street, after which they moved to the Ironworkers Hall on Humboldt Street.

For over 30 years Alex Gaby served as Managing Editor while Sam Cenname assisted as Advertising Manager. They were overseen by a ten-member Control Board dominated by representatives of the printing and building trades, who bought subscriptions for their members. The paper’s circulation grew from 15,000 copies in 1963 to 21,500 in 1969.

Labor Journal masthead

Labor News featured several regular columns, including:

  • At Deadline — a summary of the latest news in local negotiations, strikes, organizing efforts, political action
  • Council Actions — synopses of proceedings of Executive Board and delegate meetings
  • Short Shots — state, national and world news in very brief review
  • The Washington Merry-Go-Round — an inside look at the nation’s capitol by Drew Pearson
  • Live a Little Longer — Dr. William Sawyer’s health-related information
  • Your Social Security — informative articles by the Social Security Administration

In addition, readers could count on seeing Gaby’s editorials, a schedule of local union meetings, a We Don’t Patronize list and, among others, ads for Star Market (whose employees were represented by the Retail Clerks). The Union Label Award of Merit was granted to Labor News at the 1982 Union Label Week ceremonies.

During his thirty-one year career as editor and sole reporter for Labor News Gaby never missed a publication date. This kind of dedicated effort earned Gaby and Cenname an annual two-week shut-down beginning in July 1964 with another two weeks off starting in February 1974.

After 1979 Labor News gradually reduced the amount of space devoted to accounts of activities and personalities in the local and national labor movement, relying more heavily on wire stories and columns by and for the building trades unions. By 1982, eight of the nine members of the paper’s Control Board were representatives from construction unions and the content of the paper, while still containing reports about Rochester Labor Council affiliates, more closely reflected building trades concerns. Although the Control Board was diversified in 1985 to include members of industrial and public sector unions, the building trades were the more loyal and numerous subscribers and unions’ interest in the paper continued to wane until, in 1996, the Allied Building Trades Council took over ownership of the paper.