Love of Labor

Nobody who knows the Chicago Tribune only by its reputation will be shocked to learn that the Tribune’s labor reporting was recently judged antiunion. According to a new study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Tribune’s “anti-working class bias hampers the newspaper’s reporters and editors’ efforts to more accurately describe unionized worker activity.”

The study was produced by Robert Bruno, associate professor of labor and industrial relations at UIC. It says that a “set of assumptions” governs most labor reporting at the Tribune, which holds to the belief “that hierarchical structures controlled by the middle class are the only appropriate tools for ‘managing’ workers.

“In unintentionally revealing its own assumptions,” the study continues, “the Tribune’s reporting suggests that worker-based resistance emerges out of greed and laziness; that democratic dissent within the ranks indicates disorder and division; and that organizations run by leaders with working-class characteristics are ineffective at best, and criminal at worst.”

That’s a lot to extract from a content analysis–not only what the Tribune reports but why (its “set of assumptions”). When Bruno and his team of graduate students sifted through Tribune stories from 1991 to 2001, they had a hunch what they’d find: “The Chicago Tribune was selected…because its editorializing on labor relations has routinely communicated a conservative point of view and its assaults on organized labor have a long pedigree.”

Somewhere in the Tribune Tower might be executives who’d embrace Bruno’s censure as the highest praise. But that wasn’t the reaction of the Tribune’s labor reporter through most of the 90s. “I was quite surprised and personally hurt by the report,” Stephen Franklin E-mailed me. “Two problems stand out with the study. One, it confuses Tribune Co. labor policy with Chicago Tribune editorials with the newspaper’s coverage of workers and unions. They are not related. The company and the editorial page may not be labor’s best friend, but the Tribune is one of only a few newspapers that has kept the labor beat alive.

“Two. The study makes the point that the coverage emphasizes negativity. It does say however that the negativity declined after John Sweeney’s election as head of the AFL-CIO in 1995….When labor was in a truly terrible crisis in the 1990s, the situation was turned around by union leaders who said time had run out for hiding from the truth.”

The distinction Franklin insists on between the Tribune and the Tribune Company was perfectly encapsulated by a story he and Tim Jones wrote for the November 12, 1994, issue of the paper. Though cut in half by editors and buried inside a Saturday business section, the article nonetheless reported that the Tribune Company (as well as newspaper publishers in other cities) was sending workers to San Francisco to help two strikebound dailies there keep publishing. Four Tribune production workers were already on the scene and “newsroom volunteers” were being solicited.

The article was Franklin’s idea, and he persuaded Tribune editors to put it in the paper. “I went to them,” he told me at the time. “They thought about it an hour. I said, ‘We have to write about it.'”

For whatever reason, this article didn’t make it into UIC’s calculations. Apparently a lot of others didn’t either. Bruno’s team wound up drawing its conclusions from 386 articles culled from the Tribune over the decade, 74 of them under Franklin’s byline. He guesses he averaged about 200 articles a year.

“I never intended this to be a report card on Steve Franklin,” says Bruno. “Steve’s one of the last few people who actually care about covering organized labor, and he’s highly regarded by most of the people who do PR for organized labor. The report isn’t about Steve.”

But of course Franklin thinks it is.

“That’s why he probably doesn’t call me anymore for quotes,” says Bruno.

Because most newspapers no longer even have a labor beat, it flatters Franklin less than it should to call him one of the best labor reporters anywhere. Defending himself against the Bruno study, he reminds me that in 1992 he and two other Tribune reporters, Colin McMahon and Peter Kendall, lived in Peoria for three months in order to write a series of articles on the Caterpillar strike “that told the tale from the soul outwards.” When Chicago’s Fruit of the Loom closed its domestic plants, “I went to Louisiana where I found a laid off worker, and then went to Honduras to find another woman who was making a tiny fraction of the Louisiana worker’s wages to make the same T-shirt….I also explained the company’s strategy of shifting its assets offshore–in this case to the Cayman Islands–so it could pay as little U.S. taxes as possible.”

Two years ago Franklin published the book Three Strikes, a study of the labor turmoil in the 90s at the Caterpillar, A.E. Staley, and Bridgestone/Firestone plants in Decatur. “I offer it,” he says angrily, “as a witness’s account of what happens when workplace rules are broken, when unions no longer make workers strong, and when the fruits of progress are no longer meant to be shared, but rather worshiped by most of us from afar.” Studs Terkel’s quoted on the jacket calling the book “labor reportage at its best.”

I asked Tom Geoghegan, a progressive labor attorney and author, what he thought of Franklin’s work. Geoghegan couldn’t praise him highly enough. Geoghegan told me he’d recently heard from a friend in Washington who wanted to talk about an important new development in organized labor. “He was saying it would be great if we got some reporter to write about this story,” Geoghegan said, “but he said if we go to the press they wouldn’t understand it. I said, ‘What about Steve Franklin?’ and he said, ‘Franklin is the one guy you could go to with this story’–and he’s talking about the entire United States journalistic community. And I agreed. You wouldn’t have to explain the story, he’d know where we were coming from, and he’d be sympathetic.”

This reputation is no small accomplishment. “Because of the image over the years that the Tribune’s had in the labor community, I carry it as a badge that I’ve gotten people to talk to me,” says Franklin. “At the beginning at the AFL-CIO it was very difficult. I’d say, ‘I’m from the Tribune,’ and they’d walk away from me. I went up to Ed Sadlowski at a conference and said how much I admired him and the role he’s played [in the steelworkers union], and he looked at me and said, ‘How unusual. You never see prostitutes in the daylight.’ But you know, two years ago I did a series on union democracy and reform, and he was a major source.”

Franklin argues that a good labor writer writes about work, not simply unions. “When you’re writing about pensions and the collapse of pensions and jobs going to Mexico and ergonomics, those are union issues,” he says. Geoghegan made the same point. “Labor has shrunk to nothing, and what you’ve got are people inside labor trying to advocate even for people who aren’t in labor,” Geoghegan said. He recalled the two-part story the Tribune ran last November on illegal immigrants from Mexico and Honduras found dead inside a locked hopper car sitting in a freight yard in Iowa. Printed too late for the UIC study, it wouldn’t have shown up in it anyway because it didn’t contain key phrases such as “labor organization” and “labor union” the UIC search engine was looking for. Yet “organized labor is full of people who are screaming about the treatment of immigrant workers,” says Geoghegan. “And its focus is immigrant workers, and it’s trying to organize immigrant workers.”

Shawn Taylor writes on workplace issues for the Tribune business section, and Franklin complains that the UIC study entirely overlooked her stories. Does Bruno concede that articles fell through the cracks? “I take Steve at his word that there were labor stories that weren’t about unions,” he says, “but frankly, if that’s the case, then they really shouldn’t be in our study. It wasn’t on how the Tribune covered the issues of health and safety, job growth, and the minimum wage. One of the things I want to make clear by the Tribune’s absence of union identification when in fact it talks about labor issues is that it’s making the labor unions invisible.

“When the Tribune writes about what Steve would call ‘working’ issues–job stress, hours of work, etc–and they don’t make the reference somewhere in the piece that there’s a difference between union work and nonunion work, it seems to me a conscious choice to not tell the reader that while stress is a problem at work, it’s handled differently in a union shop than a nonunion shop. When Steve says elegantly we should write about what’s important to workers, I agree, but we should say in the union workplace things work differently….For all of Shawn’s writing about the workplace, I don’t believe her byline came up once. How is it these union workers are made invisible when there are nonunion workplaces and there are union workplaces? If the Tribune did a story flushing out the injustices of sweatshop labor, but nowhere did it say that the unions are fighting sweatshops, then readers are left to think that the answer to sweatshops is government policy and nice employers. But the institution that’s done most to fight sweatshops is labor unions.”

“He didn’t even know Shawn Taylor was there,” Franklin replies. “She writes about unions, and he’d never heard of her.”

Double Duty

“Steve isn’t even a labor reporter anymore,” Bob Bruno says about Steve Franklin. “He’s off and doing other things. And for the most part, I’d consider that, and the labor press would consider that, a bad thing, because Steve Franklin has written very effectively, very accurately about the problems in the labor movement, and he’s done some superb columns.”

Franklin concedes that Bruno’s right: he’s off the beat. But he prefers to think of himself as a labor reporter who at the moment isn’t writing about labor. For the better part of a year he’s been assigned to a special project, and if he’s yanked from this team effort, chances are it’ll be to go overseas and cover a war in Iraq. Franklin’s other specialty is the Middle East, and that’s where today’s headlines are.

In 1967 Franklin and his wife Suzanne joined the Peace Corps and were sent to a remote village in Turkey to teach English. But after a year they left the village and took over a private orphanage in Istanbul. “We argued it was a more essential job,” says Franklin. “There were 40 Turkish boys. Seven days a week we fed them and dressed them and sent them off to school. We turned over our salaries to ourselves to feed them.” On the side he began writing occasional articles for a Turkish magazine under the pen name Rashed Kahraman, meaning “the defender who has come of age.”

John K. Cooley, a Christian Science Monitor correspondent, came to Istanbul to do a story on the orphanage. Cooley, who Franklin says became his mentor, gave him the name of a friend who was deputy editor of the most important newspaper in Cairo. In Cairo on vacation Franklin called, introducing himself as an American working for the Turkish press. “He says, ‘Great, I’m having the cabinet over tonight,'” and Franklin found himself spending the evening with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s cabinet and several of the most important journalists in Cairo. “Intoxicating,” says Franklin.

Years later–after stops at papers in Pittsburgh, Miami, and Philadelphia–Franklin found himself reporting for the Free Press in Detroit, a union city with a large Arab population. The Free Press sent him to Lebanon in 1982 to cover the war there, and when he got back he spent a year visiting a General Motors plant for a series of feature stories called “Life on the Line.” One of his stories was about daydreams. He won a fellowship to the University of Michigan and spent a year studying Arabic and sociology. When he rejoined the Free Press he wrote a series of articles on changes in Israel and another on the closing of factories in the midwest.

The Tribune hired Franklin in 1986 to open a Detroit bureau. After a year he was sent to Jerusalem for three years. “I came back as a feature writer for the business section, the only job open, and when the labor beat came up I started covering labor. At the same time, whenever the Jerusalem correspondent would go on summer break, 80 percent of the time I was the one who went back. About two years ago I urged them to move the labor beat out of business into the city desk. My argument was that when you cover work issues from the business section, you tend to have the mind-set of, how does it affect business? And a lot of people I thought would care about what’s happening [in labor] wouldn’t read the business pages. So they moved the beat over to the city desk. Unfortunately, that’s when the second intifada began, and I went right over to help out. I was the first Tribune correspondent into Afghanistan. I was there before the Americans really showed up. Myself and Pete Souza, the photographer, we were living with the fighters in the Northern Alliance. I felt I was back in the Peace Corps village–no water, no electricity, almost nothing to eat.”

Franklin leads about the most bifurcated journalistic career I know of. The UIC study describes him as “also a Middle East reporter [who] seems to spend more time covering Israeli-Palestinian stories from Israel than he does reporting from Chicago on domestic labor events.” Franklin was “ticked off” when he read that, though it isn’t wrong. “I don’t work for the foreign desk,” he says. “I’ve sort of been drafted to help out in the Middle East, but I’m not there.”

A couple of years ago, when Franklin was there, he flew back to honor a commitment he’d made to speak at an AFL-CIO meeting in Las Vegas. The labor leaders there had a question for him: What, if anything, do labor and the Middle East have in common? When I ask the same question, he replies, “Intransigence…frustration….Both the Middle East and the unions suffer from misunderstandings and stereotypes and oftentimes a sense of being defeated by others. In the case of the unions, so much has gone wrong, and so much has been a result of the loss of political power. There’s a deep frustration–and the same thing in the Middle East, a deep frustration.”

Among the Arabs?

“Among the Arabs, but currently the same thing is true of the Israelis. So much has gone wrong. It’s brought Israelis back to something they thought they’d buried a while ago, and that’s existential angst.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.