The recent surge in labor militancy has brought fresh focus to the workers’ struggle in media—but is labor’s big moment a passing fad in the content cycle, or can it be sustained? The answer lies in the capacity for labor journalism and media to rise to the occasion. What’s it really like being a labor reporter? What does it take to be a good one? What are the common misconceptions about unions and the labor struggle that reporters have to be cognizant of? TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez moderates “No Such Thing as a Union Boss: and other things the media gets wrong about labor”, a panel discussion with Sarah Jaffe, Kim Kelly, and Braden Campbell co-hosted by the Freelance Solidarity Project of the National Writers Union, Writers Guild of America East, and The NewsGuild.
Recording: Freelance Solidarity Project
Post-production: David Hebden
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Welcome everyone to No Such Thing as a Union Boss, and other things the media gets wrong about labor, a panel about labor journalism, the media workers who do it and how we can all do it better. My name is Abigail Higgins and I’m a freelance journalist in Washington DC and I am the co-chair of the Freelance Solidarity Project, the Digital Media Division of the National Writers Union. We’re a union fighting to end the exploitation of freelance media workers and helping to build a world where all workers can thrive. If you’re a freelance editor, photographer, writer, podcaster, fact-checker, or anyone else who makes modern media happen, get in touch, we would love to organize with you. Along with the National Writers Union, this panel is co-hosted by the Writers Guild of America, East, a labor union representing thousands of writers and media professionals who create what is seen, heard, and read across television, films, radio, in the internet, from big budget movies and independent films to television podcasts and digital first media platforms.
It’s also co-hosted by The NewsGuild, a labor union representing print and digital journalists, including reporters, columnists, copy editors, photojournalists, videographers, and others across the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico. The NewsGuild also represents workers and advertising circulation, business offices, as well as other communications employees. We also want to thank our comrades at Labor Notes for lending us their Zoom capacities and helping us plan this panel. If you’re a media worker who is not already in a union, get in touch with any of the organizations above, we would love to start organizing with you.
With that out of the way, I am thrilled to introduce our three brilliant panelists. Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist covering labor and social movements and is the author of Work Won’t Love You Back and Necessary Trouble. She is currently working on her third book and is a member of the Freelance Solidarity Project at the National Writers Union.
Kim Kelly is a Philadelphia-based independent journalist and the author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold Story of American Labor. She is a regular labor columnist for Teen Vogue, and her writing has appeared in The Nation, Rolling Stone, the New Republic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. She’s also worked as a video correspondent for More Perfect Union, the Real News Network and Memes TV. She was a founding member of the Vice Union and is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World’s Freelance Journalist Union, as well as a member and elected councilperson for the Writer’s Guild of America East. She’s currently at work on her second book.
Braden Campbell is an editor at large on the labor team at Law360, covering labor law and policy and all things NLRB. He is a steward in the Law360 union and a member of the bargaining committee in negotiations for the union second contract.
Our moderator today will be Maximilian Alvarez, the Editor-in-Chief of the Real News Network in Baltimore, and the host of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and the struggles of the working class today. He’s also the author of The Work of Living, a book of interviews with workers conducted after year one of COVID, and he hosts The Art of Class War segment on Breaking points.
Maximilian, before we dig into the panelist’s perspective on this topic, I would love for you to kick things off by telling us a little bit about how you think about your own work as a labor journalist and the media’s role in covering the struggles and stories of working people.
Oh, yeah. Well, thank you so much Abby. And thank you so much to our incredible hosting organizations for putting this really important and necessary event on. Thank you to the National Writers Union, The NewsGuild, the Writers Guild of America, East, Freelance Solidarity Project, Labor Notes, everyone who’s helped make this event a reality. We so appreciate your hard work. And of course, thank you to all of you who are tuning in to watch and really, really want to thank our incredible panelists, Sarah, Kim and Braden, three remarkable journalists whose work I deeply admire as I know all of you do as well. So I’m super, super excited to dig into the questions that y’all submitted for this panel. Super excited to learn as much as we can from our incredible panelists. So I’ll keep my introduction here, short and sweet.
As Abby mentioned, my name is Maximilian Alvarez. I’m the Editor-in-Chief here at the Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m calling in from our main recording space where you can catch great productions that we put out every week, including The Chris Hedges Report, the Police Accountability Report, Rattling The Bars, labor reporting from me, and much, much more.
I’m really honored to be moderating this panel. It speaks very deeply to issues that I’m deeply concerned with and that are deeply wrapped up with my own path to doing the work that I do now. When I was thinking about this event and meditating on the question of why labor reporting and good labor reporting is so necessary for working people to feel like they have a stake in the future of this country, of their jobs, of their communities, that they have it within themselves to be the agents of change in the world, I couldn’t help but go back to a memory that seared onto my brain from around 2010, 2011 when I was working as a temp in warehouses and factories in Southern California for 12, 13, 14 hours a day. We as a family were in the midst of losing everything, including eventually the house that I grew up in.
And I remember distinctly coming home from work just bone weary, tired, flopping down on the couch because I didn’t really have energy to do much else. And watching the news that we had on all the time, it was just this background noise in the house, because we didn’t want to sit and stew in the silence and feel our own failure senses of shame, but when I would watch the news, I would feel shame nonetheless because I was constantly being told by pundits and politicians that the economy was back, that the recovery was happening, and all of these narratives were being spun as if people in Washington, people on Wall Street, people above our heads were the ones making the decisions, and the rest of us were just there to experience whatever they gave to us.
And that really, really made me feel alienated from the society that I was in. It made me feel like whatever recovery they were talking about didn’t include families like ours, and whatever solutions they were coming up with also didn’t include us as part of that solution. It was really just pitched as a technocratic adjustment to a world historical market crash that we were suffering the effects of, but that we were not being asked to participate in the recovery from. And I think that 10 years, 11, 12 years later, I just think about how different the world and the country looks to me when I follow the work of the incredible journalists on this panel as well as so many other incredible labor journalists out there, writing for outlets like Labor Notes in these times, independent outlets, the Real News, so on and so forth.
You get a very different sense of what’s going on in the country and who’s involved in the making of change when you actually report on worker struggles and when you report on them consistently and humanely, and you lift up the voices of people on the front lines of those struggles, which is what we try to do here at The Real News every week, whether we’re talking about labor or the fight against the military industrial complex, the police and prison industrial complexes, so on and so forth. And I think that that’s one of the many, many things that makes the reporting that Braden, Sarah, and Kim do, so vital for all of us. Is that they are out there every week lifting up these voices, paying attention to these struggles, giving people the nuance and context and firsthand commentary that they desperately need to understand that these struggles are happening, why they’re important, and what our role all of us is in advancing these struggles and being part of the struggle for better workplaces and ultimately a better world.
And so without further ado, let’s bring in our incredible panel and learn more from them and talk to them about the process of doing that work. And I’ve tried to incorporate as many of the questions that folks submitted into the panel discussion today, so we’re going to try to get to as many of them as we can. We got an hour down to the minute from now, so let’s get rolling.
So panel, with our first question, we’ve got a lot of folks watching this stream right now who are asking them themselves many of the same questions that you are going to respond to today. And many folks watching right now who are trying to find their own place in this changing media labor environment. And speaking for myself, I know that a lot of my own difficulties navigating this stuff early in my career stemmed from my own misconceptions about the industry itself and the working lives of the journalists that I looked up to. These are misconceptions that I develop largely by being an uninformed internet lurker, only really observing things from the outside, projecting all kinds of assumptions, expectations, and insecurities onto these seemingly larger than life figures with blue check marks next to their Twitter handles. This was before the days of Elon Musk taking over Twitter.
So I want to start there because I think before we can talk about how to improve and expand labor journalism, we need to demystify things a little bit and ground all of us here in a shared understanding of what this work actually is and to many readers, followers, and fellow journalists who know you three through your work, you all have that larger than life quality to some extent. So this is the icebreaker I wanted to start with. In your experience, what do people think labor journalism in general and your lives as labor journalists actually entails, and what do you most wish people understood about you, the work that you do and the industry that we’re doing this work in? So who wants to volunteer to go first?
I guess I can start. I guess I’ll just briefly describe my work. So I’m at Law360, which is a more niche publication than either than Sarah and Kim routinely work for, but I cover the law and courts for an audience primarily of lawyers, and my specific area is labor, and so that means a lot of reading court briefs and a lot of talking to lawyers and folks involved with the labor movement as well. I think the image I have of the labor reporter is definitely a person embedded out on the strike line and in the union halls and which frankly is my image of Sarah and Kim, I guess, and not so much matching the work I do. But yeah, I mean, I think, the question being, [inaudible 00:12:10] people most understood? Yeah, it’s tough. I mean, I guess just understand what goes in. I mean, I think you all work here, know what goes into a story, but a layperson, just as knowing the process of how a story is made and identifying sources and good sources and building up those sources I think is something that I wish… And I think generally this audience is going to know a lot more about that, but for a general audience think a better understanding of how the journalism sausage is made is helpful. But I think it’ll leave it at that, I guess.
I think the biggest misconception I can come up against is that I have a job, I don’t. I mad freelance. I’m lucky enough to do columns, regular columns at a couple places, but every piece that I publish, I had to hunter gather that shit. I think as Braden was saying, there’s just a widespread, outside of our little bubble, a widespread lack of understanding on what journalism is, what media is, how it happens, what’s going on. The biggest recent piece I’ve had come out was this investigation into the resurgence of black lung in Central Appalachia among younger coal miners. And the primary subject, John Moore, the person that I profiled in the piece, he was really reticent to talk to me at first because he heard, okay, a journalist is here, supposed to talk to, and he was like, “Oh man, my entire family doesn’t know my diagnosis yet. I’m not sure about that.” Because he thought I was going to show up with a camera and put him on the evening news. And I was like, “No, I’m just going to put my phone in your face and you can tell me whatever you want to tell me. And whatever you’re comfortable with, I am on your side. I’m here for you. This is your story.”
I think, and maybe not every single journalist approaches it that way, which we can talk about later, but I think the fact that people and workers and vulnerable people, they’re everything, they’re where the stories come from, what the stores are about, and they are in control or should be in control of how their stories are told. That’s not necessarily an experience that everyone has when they engage with the media. Not everyone sees it like that. And I think that’s something unique about labor journalism, about good labor journalism is that you know what side you’re on, you know how the story you’re telling might impact people, real people, and you use that as a means to guide the way you approach the story. Also, people seem to think that journalists make money, which is very funny, because I maybe if you’re like, one of the fancy neo-fascist mainstream publications, but we’re not out here like that.
Yeah, what everybody said there, I think it’s really funny still the idea that journalists are celebrities and we’re trapped in this terrible media ecosystem, especially as freelancers. Where you have to constantly hustle and promote yourself and scramble and hunter gather that shit, I’m stealing that one, Kim. That’s a great line. And so we have to simultaneously give the idea that we’re doing great and super successful and also that we need work at all times. And that living in that space is really weird, and it’s frankly not good for journalism to be that insecure constantly, but to have this projection onto you that you are doing great and that you’re not on the same level as the people you write about.
I write about working people. That means a lot of the people I write about make more money than I do. A union auto worker makes more than I do, by a good bit. And is a hell of a lot more secure and has much better health insurance than I do.
But the real thing that I think I want people to take away about labor journalism, particularly when I’m talking to an audience of journalists, is that this shit is hard. It’s not just talking to workers and absorbing their stories and carrying sometimes really difficult stories around with you, although it is that, and it’s not just memorizing 50 states different labor laws, although it is that. It’s fighting for respect in an industry that decided about 40 years ago that labor journalism didn’t matter anymore. And so constantly watching publications hire people to be their new labor correspondent who you’ve never heard of.
I had a New York Times reporter who her story was, I wasn’t going to do this, anyway, ask me after interviewing me for a story if I could give her tips on how to do the job. And I was just like, “Well, you have a job at the New York Times and I’m freelance, so it’s really not my job to teach you how to do your job. If you weren’t qualified for it. And I am, maybe they should have hired me in the first place.”
The idea that labor journalism can be done very quickly and easily by anybody without a lot of practice or learning, but also that it’s somehow glamorous and rarefied. It’s a beat any other journalism beat. It requires specialized knowledge building sources and a lot of hard, frustrating work, like most of the people we cover.
Right. Well, and that’s one of the reasons I really wanted to start there because thank you all for those really candid and essential answers. But still, even though we can apply that perspective to the stories we’re reporting on, it’s very hard to do the same to the industry that we’re working in. And we still get so much of that rarefied celebrity worship, putting people on pedestals and associating visibility with financial success or personal success. And I just wanted to communicate to all the folks out there watching folks, freelancing folks just getting started in this world to just pump the brakes and don’t allow yourself to get swept into that high school-ish race for clout. And just approach everything with a humility and try to approach folks in this world as fellow human beings. Because I think that’s one of the undersides that a lot of people don’t see, and it can trickle out even to your personal relationship.
So the one thing I just wanted to add is, even friends and family will associate your public visibility with your ongoing success. They make assumptions about what your daily life looks like and they stop reaching out to you as much. And I’ve had a lot of families say, “Oh, well, we didn’t want to bother you.” And it’s like, well, I still miss my family. I still miss my friends, or I still like to talk to people about stuff that isn’t work. But you can become isolated when people associate that visibility with many other things. So I just wanted us to be real and frank there in the beginning that we’re all hustling as best we can in an industry that has not made it easy for any of us to do this work and do it in a sustained way.
You got some of the most incredible premier labor journalists in the country here who still have to hustle day in, day out to keep roofs over their heads, let alone get those stories published, so on and so forth. So thank you all for those answers.
I want to move into the title question for the description of this event. I know that we’re all dying to hear you three answer that question, which was written in the description of this event, and I quote, “Movie and television writers are sticking to their pickets. The Screen Actors Guild voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, and a strike may be on the horizon for more than 350,000 UPS workers, the largest potential work stoppage in US history.” So why is so much media coverage of strikes still so bad?
I mean, the short version is that newspapers, magazines and the like don’t actually hire people who are actually beat reporters and they slap people on the story when something exciting happens. So the Amazon Labor Union wins an election and suddenly everybody’s a labor journalist, but then two weeks later they’re not doing that, they’re not following up, they’re not still on that beat. The New York Times bought out Steve Greenhouse and replaced him with somebody with much less experience on the beat. That’s just the reality of the structure of the thing. And so people just don’t know basic stuff, and their boss has told them that they don’t have to know basic stuff in order to do the job.
And then Sarah is, I mean, she’s the expert on this. She’s been around longer than us. And has seen this shit over and over again. And it makes me so mad, I think there’s just less value placed on working people’s stories on working class and poor people’s stories. And that filters into the way that editors look at the work that we do and that other people are doing to do labor reporting. Like, oh, anybody can write about that. And that’s why we hear every other week that the AFL-CIO is a union, the most basic shit. And it’s insulting, to us, to people that pour in our time and knowledge and put everything into this to sit around and watch as major news publications that have a huge reach, that impact lots of people, that have a massive voice, that have massive potential to be helpful, they just assign away stories to people that don’t care that much or don’t know as much because they figure, well, this stuff isn’t that hard. That’s not complicated. Oh, somebody’s mad at their boss. Oh, that’s an easy story. There’s probably no context. I think there’s probably more than a little bit of classism and various other isms invested in the way that this is approached.
I mean, New York Times isn’t going to hire someone like me, even if I might know more about a certain subject, they’re going to hire some guy named Jeff who went to an Ivy League. That’s how the system is set up. Think I have a lot of simmering class rage about this in general, but I think that is the biggest crux of the matter. They don’t think these stores are worth investing in. And as a result, everybody else suffers, or at least served lower quality journalism, or has their stories twisted or has their dirty laundry aired in a way that is harmful to the movement and not helpful to anybody. You have to give a shit, and if you don’t give a shit, we can tell.
Yeah, and I think I’ll add to all that. I think another big piece of it is just union stature in our society today. I mean, I think the better you know a subject better, your coverage is going to be. And unions are just so diminished as an institution. Everybody’s got a nurse or a teacher in the family who’s a union member, but so few people in this work have been involved in the unions themselves. I think I’m fortunate that when I came to Law360 in 2016, right around the same time our organizing campaign was happening, I got this job at the same time and became involved in that. So I saw our union drive happen. They brought in the anti-union consultants, we had our two-year-long contract campaign. We’re now in the midst of our second contract negotiation. I’m on the committee, and I think it’s hard to substitute that experience with the institution to understand this area.
And yeah, there’s so little of that. I think it is really cool to see there’s been a resurgence of attention here in, and there are a lot of people who are non-experts parachuted in, but there have been an uptick in people who are staff or beat writers really like drilling in. I think you’ve seen some improvements to the coverage the last few years when there’s been more of that. And I think just hopefully this attention continues and these people who are new on the beat can continue building that experience and expertise. Because yeah, there’s really no substitute for doing it and seeing it as far as learning, so.
Hell yeah. And I think one other point that was implied in a lot of what y’all said is that when labor stories do make it into a more mainstream publication with a wide reach, all the standard problems that we have with a lot of those publications still apply. So the story of struggle for people struggling to afford to keep a roof over their heads, or to have proper PPE when they’re risking their lives and their family’s lives by going into a COVID hotspot to work, or people who are trying to exercise their democratic to organize in the workplace, that gets sucked into the same both sides belief that to have credibility, the reporter needs to just lay out the issue, talk to the boss, talk to a union rep. There you go. That’s an even-handed reporting report on this struggle.
But I think that like Kim said, we can tell if you don’t give a shit, because I think that what’s really starting to emerge out of this resurgence of interest in labor reporting is people who are less afraid to acknowledge that we take as a first principle that workers deserve better than what they’re currently getting. And we take as first principle that it is our right to organize in the workplace and people who are violating those rights are in the wrong. We don’t have to pretend otherwise in our reporting. We can still apply the tools of rigorous, honest, principled journalism to a cause that we believe in because we believe on that first principle level that working people have a right to better than what they’re currently getting.
We’re going to dig into maybe some specific examples in a second, but I wanted to follow up on that question with one that was submitted in a number of forms, number of variations on the same question in the RSVPs, that I think is really important to hover on. Not many publications as y’all have acknowledged, invest in labor journalism, which means that it’s often done by freelancers and staffers at smaller publications. How did the precarious working conditions of labor journalists that we mentioned in the beginning, how did those impact coverage of strikes and unions and other stories involving workers struggle? And I guess conversely, how does being a union member or having experience organizing impact the way that you think about and report on labor?
When I started trying to be a labor reporter, there were even fewer people doing it than there are now, and it was a constant struggle to convince even the kinds of places that now regularly run pretty good labor coverage that it mattered. And what has happened in that time is I started trying to do this stuff full-time in 2009, and then since then there have been big exciting labor events that made publications go, “Oh, who do we get that knows about this shit?” Basically. “Call Sarah, she knows what a union is, right?” And that is how I managed to get somewhere. And through that time, I had a few full-time jobs at that point in time that I no longer have, and next year will be my 10-year anniversary of being full-time freelance. And it is really hard because the thing that I finally realized after 10 years of being freelance is that what I can do best with these working conditions is feature stories, that actually maybe pays me enough to eat and it has a long enough planning period that I can work on something, I can pitch it to an editor, work on it with that editor, whatever, in that frame. I mean, that and writing books.
Because trying to do a news story as a freelancer is basically impossible unless somebody commissions you to do it. I’ve had somebody like The Nation sent me to LA to do the teacher strike in 2019, but most of the time if you’re trying to pitch a news story and it’s breaking news and you’re freelance, you’re calling editors, you’re waiting for them to get back to you, they’re on their own schedule, they maybe don’t realize that the thing is as important as you do because it’s your beat and that’s why you’re the expert in it, and it has disastrous effects sometimes for the story.
So one of the things though that has been really, really, really helpful in addition to just labor becoming more of a prominent force in American politics, again, is also that reporters have been unionizing and reporters have been unionizing at publications that are not necessarily the ones that are commissioning labor stories. So when bustle unionize, suddenly you’ve got a whole bunch of people who work at mostly pop culture site targeting young women who know what right to work means because their boss tried to stick it in the contract.
And that level of basic knowledge through experience has actually changed some of the conditions that we work under, not only under people knowing what stories have value and understanding more when I say this is important because of X, but also that they’re more willing and more able as unionized employees to fight for the rights of freelancers too. Then the organizing that’s been going on among freelancers to set our own standards, it’s changed the structure of the thing and also I think had a really positive impact on the reporting. So that’s a really good feedback loop. So if anybody on here is a reporter and not yet unionized, we’d love to talk to you about that.
Sarah is so, I’m so glad that Sarah brought that up. I mean, that wave that kicked off in 2015, 2016 with Writer’s Guild of America, East, my union, and The NewsGuild started organizing the hell out of digital media. I was part of that wave when I was at Vice. That’s how I ended up here. That’s how I ended up here. I was a heavy metal editor forever and ever, which is why I look like this. And being involved in organizing, learning firsthand what it was like to organize and bargain and go to the bureau hall and argue over minutia in a contract and make friends with labor lawyers, just everything that comes with it that a lot of you folks know about now because you’ve been through the same process and you’ve probably also gotten laid off and gone to new publications and talked to your friends there about unionizing.
It’s like I think of it blowing like dandelion seeds, right? We get laid off all the fucking time, and then we land at new publications and we start organizing there, or we’re freelance and we start organizing in that capacity. They keep trying to chop us off at the head, but we still have those roots. And I think that is great, but in terms of the way that being freelance and the general precarity that comes with doing this work the way that we do it, I think one thing that makes me sad is that the lack of funding and support means that so many stories don’t get told because good journalism costs money, let alone paying someone a living wage to do the work, you have to often go somewhere and talk to people and stick around for a little while. You can just walk up to the picket line, talk to three people, write a quick blog and be done with it, they’re not going to get anything good.
Because my most potent experience with all that, which Max knows a lot about because he helps facilitate me, enable me, some might say, is spending the two years reporting on one strike in Alabama, a coal miner strike, it’s still like an ellipsis instead of a period, but in order to go down there, that was a story that most editors didn’t really care about because it was complicated. The characters weren’t necessarily as sympathetic as other characters could have been, but it was important. And so I pitched so many different angles, so many different places. I got little reporting grants. I worked with publications like The Real News that will actually give you a little bit of money to report on things, you should really pitch to them. I did everything I could to continue covering this story, and if I had been a staff writer, that could have been a beautiful sprawling magazine piece, one piece that I’ve spent six months on, and instead, I just hustled my ass off and I did what I could do.
And I think a lot of us are in that position where a lot of the work we do could be a beautiful cover story or a documentary or just a really good feature, but who has the time? Who has the money? What editor’s going to give you license to do that with something? It’s rare and it’s precious, and it shouldn’t be that rare. When you’re freelance, it’s so much harder to just get your claws into those resources. Because oh, if someone on staff, just send them instead they’re already on salary. It’s just the value proposition or whatever, the calculus they’re making, is the story worth it? Is this person worth it? I think that hurts us and that hurts the movement and the coverage we’re able to generate because people don’t spending money on things in general, especially not workers and especially not precarious workers. So that’s something that sticks with me a lot. I think I answered most of the question. I think this is Braden’s time now.
Sure. I can take this one. Yeah, I think you guys did a great job discussing the precarity and being a freelance reporter on this one. I’m staff. I’m not enough of a hustler too, as you said, Kim, hunter gather that shit. So I’m hanging on the staff here, so I can’t speak to that world. But I guess in terms of the question of how does being a union member impact the way I think about and report on labor, I mean, again, I think it’s that opportunity to really have the experience and have gone through all these things myself that I also report on, which, it’s hard to, you can’t really overstate how beneficial that is, but I think one of the things that enables to do is even more so the understanding is I can speak to sources from a place of having done the things they’re going through in whether that’s workers themselves or union reps and officials or lawyers who I talk to routinely talking through these things I’ve done.
I can mention I’ve done that. It’s really helpful to establish that familiarity. But yeah, I think have any other aspects of how does being a union member impact the way I think, I mean think just really understanding labor and unions as institutions made up of workers, not some vague monolithic institution, but a bunch of people coming together to work towards their idea and work it out. And that understanding I think has been something I’ve gotten from being a member myself and seeing it happen.
Oh yeah. So I really, really appreciate all those answers because I think they give important tangible examples of the effects that the political economy of this industry such that it is directly impacts us and directly impacts the reporting that we do. And I know that folks watching and listening, y’all have felt this yourselves to many extents. And I would just say that it was very eyeopening to me coming to The Real News Network and getting to have a permanent staff position as now the editor-in-chief. And getting to see the labor reporting world from that side and just realize how much power other editors at other publications have to influence these kinds of things that they don’t fucking use, pardon my French, which drives me nuts.
So even just having this position instead of being a freelancer meant first and foremost, I have more power now to say, we’re going to keep following up on this story. We’re going to keep sending Kim down to Brookwood, Alabama because it’s important. And also it’s not just a one-off thing, even after the initial headlines about the strike fade into the collective memory hole, those folks are still on strike. They’re still there. They’re still holding the line, they’re still figuring out how they’re going to buy their kids Christmas presents come winner. They’re still trying to negotiate a fair contract. And so it’s important to keep that story in the collective memory. And I really want to give a shout-out to Kim, who’s as a freelancer, did more than any single journalist alive to lift up the Warrior Met Coal Strike over the past two years, and I saw how hard she worked on that, and I’m very grateful to her for that. And I know how hard all you freelancers work, and I’ve done it myself, and it would be great if we had more institutional support because we can do more and better and more extensive coverage. So even just doing those followups is really important.
The other thing I would say is that getting to be on this side of things, I remember very well how many times I got dicked over by publications with my payment. That impacts your reporting. If you have to wait until a publication publishes the damn thing before it starts processing your payment, then you’re going to put a premium on getting the story out, even if there are questions that you want to investigate more, even if there are more people you want to talk to, you’re going to become victim to that same news cycle. And the stories may inevitably suffer from that. And so I think that other publications do have the ability to at least get folks some of their money upfront or when a draft is submitted and approved, give people the ability to keep drilling down on this story and get it to where they want to be without worrying about how they’re going to pay rent. I think that’s one thing that other publications can do.
And last thing just to highlight what folks said is that union journalism is better journalism. I can say The Real News is a proud union shop, and it benefits just like you see the union logo on all the products, the Kellogg’s products that the union members make here in the states, they put it on there because proud of it. They want you to know that this has been made with the high level of union craftsmanship that you come to expect. The same applies to journalism. I can’t submit a labor story to my union staff and they’re going to call me on it if we’re not practicing our principles here at the Real News, or they’re going to be looking at the story from that angle and it makes the story better. And so I think that that’s a really, really important facet to all of this.
Oh, okay. Sorry, I thought my internet crapped out. I had an existential nightmare. Okay, next question. So we’re still here.
So I want to drill down on some examples here, stuff that folks watching and listening can learn from and adopt in their own reporting. I wanted to ask if we could go back around the table and talk about some general tropes or pitfalls, just some examples of bad labor reporting and the consequences of bad labor reporting that stick out in your heads, and what should the opposite look like? What are examples maybe in your own work that you feel is pushing against those bad trends that you see in other corners of the media ecosphere? And get as wonky about your own reporting as you’d like.
Sure. I guess I can lead this one-off. We’re have a relative rotation here. I guess I can take that invitation to get wonky and talk about the NLRB a little bit, which is like the bread and butter, what I cover. And Amazon and Starbucks and all these other big campaigns going on, they have run into the NLRB a lot. And a lot of the coverage gets the broad strokes, but misses some of the finer points at times. For example, I think the NLRB itself, it’s agency with two sides. You have the general counsel who acts as the prosecutor and investigates and bring cases, and then the board, which is the entity that actually decides cases, and a lot of people conflate the action of the general counsel as the prosecutor with the board as deciding things.
And you see these litigation against Amazon and Starbucks, and there actually hasn’t been a decision by the board really, at least regarding those campaigns. It’s all been things about the prosecutors and judges and preliminary stuff. And then I think another piece is putting in perspective where these legal milestones fit in the bigger picture. I think as long as both the Starbucks and Amazon and all these other public campaigns have been going on for two, three years now, as long as they would seem to be on, they’re still in their infancy as far as the legal aspects go. And so there’s going to be a judge’s decision, there’s going to be the board’s going to rule, and then it’s only going to go to an appeals court, and it’s only after an appeals court rules on a case that it’s a final thing and has impact.
And then I think one thing I’d say on that point is these steps should be framed as preliminary rather than the end of themselves when the board or a judge rules or even a prosecutor brings a case viewing the long picture. And then when it comes to actually negotiating a contract, and this is something that I think a lot of the coverage gets well, but what the NLRB says and does, the NLRB calls balls and strikes, but organizing, negotiating contracts, that happens in the actual workplace. So don’t overstate the importance of the structure to that, but as well as keeping it in perspective that again, this is a long-term thing and it’s one thing for Starbucks and Amazon, those are the big examples going on. It’s one thing for them to form a union. That’s a big achievement in itself, but that’s so far from getting to a contract, which is really what is the focal point of organizing. That’s what confers the benefits. And I think keeping that whole thing in perspective, these individual events and where they fit in the broader picture, I think is really important to good reporting, contextualizing that. So I’ll give it to the other panelists now.
I want to hear what Sarah has to say first because I know Sarah has a lot to say.
Whatever do you mean? Yeah, I was just writing in my notebook. I’ve been threatening a lot lately to get tell no lies, claim no easy victories tattooed across my chest, and I’m probably not actually going to do that. But I think about it a lot because I think one of the things that’s happened a lot lately is I find myself, and I’m biting one of the questions that we may not get to that I know is on the list, rather than being an excited cheerleader for everything, I’m often the one who’s trying to tell people to slow their roll a little bit, because now things are really exciting. And as Braden was just saying, people win an NLRB election, which is stunning achievement on its own considering how stacked that process is against workers right now. And then it’s like, woo, woohoo, everything’s done now. This is great. This is amazing. And everything’s going to be magical and ponies now, right? No, no, it’s not. No, it’s really not. There’s a whole bunch of other hell that you’re going to go through over the next two to three years. The average union contract takes around two years to achieve.
So details like that, just the sense of the thing born from watching it happen a lot. The context that these things fit into in the historical space that they’re in, we’re in an interesting place in political history now. I’m sitting here and I’m talking to you from London, and in the US and in England, we both had these left-wing moonshots with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. These people who come out of nowhere and are talking about, I mean, not out of nowhere, they’ve both been in parliament and Congress for a very long time, but suddenly they’re national figures and they’re running to possibly leave the country and they’re talking about class and oh my God, this is really exciting. And we’ve got a lot of people who are excited about the idea of class, and therefore they’re excited about the idea of unions. But it’s not the reality of unions, and it’s not the already existing things that are both actually existing collections of collectives of working people working together, and also bureaucratic structures that have long histories, finances, property, ownership over all sorts of things, corruption, scandals, leadership fights, all of this stuff going on in there.
And so there’s a lot of woohoo out there that I am as excited as anybody in the world when there is a new union win in a field that hasn’t been there, but I want to tell people we need to get to the 100th Amazon warehouse, not the first. We are at the 200 and something Starbucks, which is great, but none of them have a contract yet. So I find myself a lot of the time saying, okay guys, but we have to have some understanding of the real context that we’re fighting in, which is still stacked against us, even though in a lot of ways it looks brighter than it ever has in my lifetime, and I’m 43 years old.
I really should never follow Sarah in anything, but I will just say, obviously everything they said is their right. Something that I suppose personally sticks in my [inaudible 00:49:06]. I alluded to it earlier, and there’s a recent piece that I’m sure a bunch of people read, and I’m sure there’s more tempered criticisms we made, but I don’t like seeing dirty laundry aired just because some unflattering things or uninspiring things about a union leader or a union campaign. I think it is important to sit with that for a minute and think, okay, I have this information. What good will it do if I put it out in the world? Will this harm the movement? Will this harm this person’s credibility? What impact will this have? And is it worth it?
And obviously, yeah, if someone’s being awful, that should be called out. But when it comes to internal union politics and internal union machinations, some of it, I don’t know, man. Some of it isn’t necessarily the rest of the world’s business if they don’t understand the context or what is happening or how everything fits together.
I’ve been on a lot of picket lines, I’ve talked to a lot of workers. I’ve reported on a lot of strikes and conflicts, and not everyone is a little angel all the time. I’ve seen some things. I know some things. Is it helpful to put those things out in the world? No. Am I taking some stuff to my grave? Yeah. If I had reported it at the time, would that have helped anybody but the boss? No. And I mean, those are some of the calculations I make. I’m being a little vague. And thankfully I’m like a reported op-ed kind of gal, so I don’t have to pretend to be objective. But that is something that always sticks out to me when I see big labor stores that seem mean or dismissive or classes or racist or homophobic. Just think about what you’re trying to do and who it’s for and who it helps and who it hurts the most. That is just a little piece of advice I put out there for my other extremely biased reporters.
So we got a little time left, and I want to keep this conversation going. As Sarah mentioned, this does bleed over into the next question, which was, what folks who are RSVP’d really wanted some advice on. And I think y’all have started to give exceedingly helpful advice in this regard. And yeah, I think we can’t be naive. Not that anyone here is being that, but I mean, I’m addressing this to everyone watching and listening. We can’t be naive in thinking that what we write, what we publish, what we put out there in the world, as Kim was saying, doesn’t have an impact on the story that we’re reporting on. I think that we all understand that to some extent, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that role.
And I think that, as Sarah said, I also see a lot of the progressive energy that really rose up through and expressed itself through the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Jeremy Corbyn campaigns, and when those political movements were more or less crushed, the hope that I think a lot of us had for that progressive change got dumped into things like the labor movement. And I think you’ve seen a lot of great results coming from that. A lot of rank and file energy, a lot of younger folks getting involved, public favorability for unions higher than ever, great. Like we said, that’s all well and good. But I think if people don’t have, as our panel here is saying, a realistic understanding of what this world looks like, what its issues are, what the realities of labor law are, the realities of an organizing campaign. They can have very inflated expectations of what the labor struggle looks like, and then they’re going to quickly recede or come to quick unfair conclusions about that movement, if they don’t see what they want to see from it.
As everyone here is saying, it’s not that unions don’t have problems, don’t have corruption scandals, don’t have undemocratic practices, don’t have histories of concessionary bargaining, yada, yada, yada. But I think about something that in Sarah’s neck of the woods, Clayton Clive, a member of the RMT Union up in Manchester, told me in a recent interview, he said, unions aren’t perfect, but my union is the most democratic thing that I engage with in my life. If I have problems with it, I can run for office. I can be part of the change to make the union what it’s supposed to be. I can’t really do that with my political MPs or the party, the Democratic Party. They don’t listen to me. I can’t really do that with the companies that are screwing me over from Netflix to BP, they don’t listen to me. Unions are still at least more of a democratic arena of engagement that regular working people can participate in and be part of fixing. And I think that that’s an important thing to hold onto.
But still, for folks who are reporting on this, there are a lot of hairy questions that y’all have already started to address. And I wanted to just throw some more at you in the time that we have left, because folks were asking us, how do you balance investment in wanting to see the labor movement succeed and wanting working people to win their struggles? How do you balance that with being realistic about the labor movement’s weaknesses and challenges as a journalist. And how should say new labor journalists, how should they navigate and understand their relationship to unions? And another question, you guys can take whichever one of these you’re most interested in, please don’t feel like you have to answer all of them. But the last one was, what role, if any, can labor journalism play in that labor movement politics y’all were talking about, of trying to push unions in more progressive, less conservative, more inclusive directions? What role do you feel that you play in those internal movement politics? So again, take whatever’s useful there, leave whatever’s not.
So I’m the one who has to leap off in exactly 10 minutes, so I’m going to jump in here first, if that’s okay.
The thing that I always end up saying whenever I’m on any panel about journalism is that every decision that you make as a journalist is political. Every story that you choose to cover or choose not to cover, everyone that you choose to interview in that story, everything that you put out there in the world, those are political choices. They have repercussions, they have ramifications, sometimes big, sometimes not big. It depends on what it is. You often don’t know what will be the thing that you write that blows up. And so yeah, that means that we take seriously the responsibility, or we should anyway, take seriously the responsibility that you’re putting in our hands, if you were trusting me with your story.
A thing I learned in journalism school, which a lot of journalists don’t seem to take seriously, but I did, is that there are two sets of rules in the media for your average person and then for public figures, that means that your average working person who is in their shop trying to organize a union or a member of a union deserves to be treated like they didn’t ask for a damn reporter to show up on their doorstep, because they didn’t. And that’s a different set of questions and different ways you treat them, different responsibility that you take with what they told you, than somebody who is in a position of power, which is to say, either the boss, or in some cases union leadership. Union leadership does have a responsibility to answer questions from reporters. They do. I’m sorry. They have that responsibility to their members, but they also do have a responsibility to take my calls. And if they don’t, I’m going to have questions.
That’s a different way to understand things than just like I am on the side of everybody who’s fighting for the working class, which is true. But when people are screwing up… The UAW has a new leadership now after a really ugly corruption scandal. And there is nothing to be gained by pretending that corruption scandal didn’t happen. Because what actually happened is as a result of that, people within the union organized, they made the union more democratic, they instituted a one member, one vote structure, and now they’ve put in a new leadership that has a different approach to organizing and a different approach to running the thing. And we’ll see how that works. Alex Press had a really good piece about that, actually, the new leadership of the UAW that everyone should read.
And she did that thing really well that I was talking about before, of grappling with the reality of this thing, the structural challenges that the people are up against, trying to organize in factories when companies want to close the factory down and move it somewhere else where the workers are more exploitable, that kind of thing. Again, I think being really honest about the conditions that you’re in is not the same as airing dirty laundry or doing a gotcha story or undermining people because you can, the kind of thing that you see sometimes in political stories, in electoral politics stories, you can do the same thing to union leadership, you can do that same thing to your average worker.
And I think it’s really important to tell the truth. That’s a really corny thing to say, but I wouldn’t be a journalist if I didn’t believe it. But that only one part of the question of the decisions that you make when you decide what you’re going to put out there, and always why, right?
So, I would be lying if I said I could give you an easy set of rules. These are calculations that I make every time I write something. What is the point of this? Do I know what I’m talking about here? Did I talk to the right people? Did I talk to enough people? And where is this being published? Who’s going to read it? This is like this math that lives in my brain, and I think that that’s true of probably most reporters and on most subjects, is that you’re making a series of calculations based on what, not even as a political practice, but just as a general point of whatever. We only publish a tiny, tiny fraction of what we know.
I’m working on an outline for a book chapter right now, and the outline for the chapter is now 100-pages long. That book chapter is not going to be 100-pages long, but that’s just like the thing, and then you carve it into the shape of a story. So while doing the carving, this is where all of those questions get answered and they change from story to story. And I think that’s natural. And to make this very, very short and shut up now. It’s hard and it should be hard to do that well.
I guess I can hop in here. So I’ll say about Law360, our audience is both union and management side lawyers. So our coverage is neutral. And we could talk for days about what neutrality means in the context of reporting. I guess from where I come from, I guess what that means is I’m a union member, I have reaped significant benefits from that and our contract and the contract we’re negotiating now has made Law360 in a measurably better place to work. And so I’d have to also keep a detachment though from my own experience and the broader labor movement. And to think critical, I think there’s an instinct to see unions like a David to management to Goliath. And ask the good guys, we have to keep in mind that these are human institutions and have their flaws and failures while also recognizing that they are worker advocacy institutions at bottom.
But I think we have to really strive to cover them accurately and fairly and truthfully. And I think one of the animating principles that I try and keep in mind when I’m doing anything is to focus, whatever I’m covering, a court decision or a new lawsuit or whatever is focus on the implications to an individual worker, in a union or organizing a worker of what that is that’s happening. And I think that’s really helpful for cutting through any of these layers here is to really drill down into what is the actual impact on a person who is organizing union, who’s in a union, negotiating their contract? I think that’s really helpful for doing good coverage of this stuff. And I think, again, for covering movement issues and the like, it being very focused and elevating the individual, I think, is really important.
Yeah, I’ve just been over here chewing on what everyone else is saying and trying to figure out what I have to add. I’m feral when it comes to these things. I don’t have any formal training on these things. I’ve picked it up as I’ve gone along and learned from people like Sarah and from Steven and just other people have done this work for a long time on how you should approach it, what to do, what not to do. And I do have a tendency to be a big Pollyanna about these things and be very protective of the stories and the people that I’m covering and I care about. But yeah, unions are messy, union members are messy. They’re not a monolith. You’re going to come across stuff that’s ugly, that does need to be made public, that is part of the store, that’s part of the context, you just have to make those decisions. Like Sarah said, you have to do that calculus and do that math and try and hope you come out with the right answer.
And when it comes to the role that labor journalism can play in pushing some of these more conservative unions or their leaders in any way, I mean, Lord knows you could try, you can piss them off real bad by talking about cops, about how they shouldn’t be in the labor movement. Will they pay attention to you? Maybe. Will they ignore you and blacklist you? Maybe, I guess I’ll find out. But I mean labor journalism has a lot of power though, even if in that specific case we’re still figuring out how to really get those nudges to land. I think there is so much power in the work that we do just by bringing these stories out into the public eye and empowering those workers and making them feel like, yeah, your struggle matters, your experience, your life fucking matters. Maybe I’m just being a Pollyanna again.
My role or my experience as a labor journalist has been a little unorthodox. I went from just being a heavy metal editor writer person forever and then fell into the labor world and fell in love with it. And I’ve tried to learn as much as I can and do as good a job as I can, but I think a lot of journalists who cover this beat, I still have a lot to learn, right? I am still trying to do the best I can with what I have and to pull in as many new skills, as much new knowledge as I possibly can, because I think this is a sacred burden in a way. If you have the privilege to be able to have a platform and opportunity to tell these worker stories, you cannot afford to fuck it up because it matters. And I think that’s just something to keep in mind when you’re looking at these stores, looking at how you want to approach them like, these are people’s lives in a way that’s very intimate and very personal.
As I think Sarah, a lot of people said, every story is a labor story. There’s always that angle and it’s always important to keep that in mind. This is someone’s life. You’re having an impact on their day-to-day in a way that other types of reporting don’t always have. And you owe it to them. You owe it to them, not to any union leader, to any union, you owe to the people themselves to do a good job. And since Sarah has to leave in four seconds and given the title of this, I would ask Sarah, why don’t we say union boss?
Because the union, the leadership of the union is no more your boss than your member of Congress is your boss. They’re elected leadership, and they are very different things than the boss, and union boss is a term that actual bosses have put out there because they really, really, really like to make it sound like the union is trying to do the same thing to you that the boss is, but that’s not true. Even the worst union elected leadership is as your [inaudible 01:06:11] to the RMT said, elected leadership. Even the most undemocratic union, you still have ways to get rid of them. And now you have to get rid of me. Goodbye guys. I got to go.
Thanks so much, Sarah.
What an exit.
What an exit. Yeah.
Incredible. It’s like she’s the OG.
Beautifully put by all of you. And I would just, one thing that I was thinking of that I would want to also add for any folks out there who again are watching because you want to get into doing this work or maybe you’re starting to do this work and you want to grow your ability to do it more consistently, you’re trying to find your place in this media ecosystem. The other thing I would just add, and I think that this is really just picking up on what Kim, Braden and Sarah have already put down, is please do not mistake your public visibility as a journalist for your role as a speaker for these movements, or leader of these movements. This is a very tantalizing, seductive incentive that you get in a media ecosystem that puts such a high premium on public visibility.
You can start to convince yourself because people are hitting you up to talk about these stories and to do interviews about them, you can start to convince yourself that you yourself are among the leaders of this movement. And I would say you have to be very honest with yourself about what you want your role to be. Do you want to be a journalist? Or do you want to be a propagandist? Do you want to be, I guess, a public speaker about labor or? You can’t have it all. I think that a lot of people can kid themselves into having it all and then their work starts to suffer. They start to overstep. But I think if you keep yourself honest about what that role is, it’s really, really important as you continue to do this work, because for me, there are plenty of times where people ask me about my opinion on, say I was reporting on the railroads all last year, and then people were asking me what I thought the leaderships of the 12 different craft unions on the freight rail system should have done at this point in the timeline.
And I had to say this, I got a lot of opinions about it, but it’s not my fucking place to be out here and telling these unions what to do. I’m not a member of these unions. And also, it’s not my job to, as Kim said, just use my publication to air dirty laundry in a way that is not productive in helping the union solve its own problems. There are plenty of times where you got to pass on a story because it’s a conversation that needs to be had internally with members of that union or members of that organizing committee. Not everything needs to be blasted out on Twitter and fought over in public. We need to have spaces where people can work their shit out in less high stakes, high visibility circumstances. So that again, is just being honest about the role that media play in the politics of the movement that we cover.
And last thing, just like rapid fire, Sarah had to leave, but I guess are there any 30 second messages that Kim or Braden that you had about the importance of journalists, photographers, editors, videographers, folks in this industry, any final messages you wanted to share with them about the importance of organizing themselves as workers?
Yeah, I guess I can go ahead. I think obviously it’s important to advocate for yourselves and get yourself the best lot you can, and this offers a great way to do that for sure. I guess one thing I wanted to, take this as a catchall thing just to close up my piece. I wanted to mention that I forgot to earlier that I talked about the wonky legal stuff. If anybody here who’s watching this ever runs into that stuff and has questions, I’m happy to help another reporter understand a very wonky area of coverage. And my DMs are open if you want to find me on Twitter. But yeah, I guess that’s my piece here. But I think we’re all doing important work and the first step is starting, and you guys being here and listening to us speak, I think is going to be helpful to informing your own reporting as you all on your crews.
And I’m going to completely ignore Max’s question. Though obviously you should organize. Organize fucking everything. Organize your block, Organize your workplace, organize your family, figure it out. But what I want to say is because I realized that we’ve said a lot about what not to do and what fucking up looks like and why this is so important and life-threatening, you can’t blow it, but I don’t want to scare you off from doing it because you can do it. We need more labor reporters. We need more good people with experience, with organizing, with experience with labor, with experience as working class people than grow up all fancy to do this work, because that’s what we’ve been talking about this whole time. We need to get these worker stories out there. We need to get our stories out there because journalism is just another fucking job. And as we know, a lot of time it sucks. That’s why we’re organizing, that’s why we’re here.
I just want to be a little bit of a cheer cheerleader right now and really encourage people who are interested in doing these stories to do them, to write them. Maybe take a little extra time to reach out to experts, people that know a little bit more about it or can handle the wonky stuff or can help you figure out how to not be just a total op-ed monster like I am, but you should do it. Everybody who was interested should try and work on being a labor reporter or writing labor stories. There’s no barrier to entry. I spent my entire life in tour vans writing about heavy metal bands, and then I helped organize my workplace, and now I am a labor reporter that people ask to come onto panels and to talk to other reporters. So it worked out. I’m just some fucking guy. So if I can figure this out, you can totally do it. And we want you to, and we welcome you. And we love you for trying. Even if you mess up a little bit, we’ll figure it out together because that’s who we are as journalists, as freelancers, organizers, as working class people. It’s us against them. And if we have the opportunity to tell our own stories, we got to make sure we take it. Because fuck them.
Beautiful, perfect spot for us to end on. Couldn’t have said it better myself. I want to thank the incredible Kim Kelly, Braden Campbell, and Sarah Jaffe for being so generous with their time and expertise over the past hour. I want to thank again everyone who tuned in to watch this live stream, and of course, a huge, huge thank you to the National Writers Union, The NewsGuild, the Writer’s Guild of America, East, the Freelance Solidarity Project, Labor Notes, and everyone involved in making this event a reality. Thank you so, so much for watching. Thank you for caring. This is Maximilian Alvarez from The Real News Network, signing off. As Kim said, let’s go get them. We got a lot of work to do.