THERE'S A RUMBLING IN THE AIR:
THE IMPORTANCE AND INFLUENCE OF THE LABOR PRESS IN CHICAGO

 

by Mitchell Newton-Matza

(Paper presented at Illinois History Symposium, December 1999)

On December 15, 1918, the Executive Board of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) submitted a supplementary report recommending "that a weekly paper can be started at once that will meet the needs of the Federation. . .This paper [is] to be the official organ of the Chicago Federation of Labor as well as the independent Labor Party. . .[T]he Executive Board [shall] be given full power to employ first-class newspaper men and managers in carrying out the establishment of this weekly newspaper for the benefit of organized labor." This recommendation became a reality, for on January 4, 1919, the CFL published its first newspaper the New Majority. This paper became more than just an organ for the CFL and the labor party movement; it became a voice for the struggles of labor, both in Chicago and worldwide. The New Majority hoped to reach out to all aspects of Chicago society to present the needs of labor in a manner that all would understand and, hopefully, appreciate. The paper eventually changed its name to Federation News in 1924, a title remaining to this very day, and carried on the work of informing the laboring class of the vital issues facing labor.

The impetus for the creation of a labor newspaper came when CFL president John Fitzpatrick took the initiative to begin creating a labor party in 1918. The CFL made three previous unsuccessful attempts at a labor party, but it was not until October 6, 1918, when the CFL asked the president of the State Federation to "call a convention in the immediate future for the purpose of considering the advisability of forming in Illinois an independent labor party. . . The CFL announced that "[T]he time has now come when in order to protect our vital interests and to return our self-respect we must take independent political action. . ." On January 12, 1919, the first nominating convention of the Labor Party of Cook County (LPCC) took place, creating a slate of candidates for all city offices.

But something more was needed to add to the movement for a political party. The issues so vital to the new party needed to be kept before both the labor movement and the general public. The solution was to create a labor newspaper. The CFL's Executive Board years before discouraged the idea of a labor newspaper for financial considerations, and it was still an issue in the 1918 resolution when it was recommended that such an action should not be taken "until such time as the organizations affiliated put up a sinking fund of $100,000 and a running fund of $50,000." However, the need for a paper to promote the labor party overrode other concerns. On January 4, 1919, just before the LPCC convention, the New Majority made its debut. Using the title New Majority as both the name of the paper as well as its first byline, the paper proudly declared that:

A new party and a new paper have been called into being by the Chicago Federation of Labor for the great mass of the workers. . .Here, as in every other community, the great majority is composed of the men and women who, with hand and brain perform the useful work of the world - skilled tradesmen, clerks, teachers, laborers, busy mothers, workers in the professions. These are entitled to control public affairs and in order that they may do so they are entitled also to free and fair interchange of information and opinions and to correct and unbiased reports of the news of current events. . .It is fitting, therefore, that in Chicago the toilers should have their own newspaper, upon which they can rely for the truth about things of interest to workers and in which they can find expression of their point of view. . .

Right from the start, the New Majority made it clear on which side of the road it was driving. Pulling no punches, the paper went after those whom it believed worked to destroy the labor movement, especially "the public utility corporations and other predatory financial interests, constituting the money power which fattens off special privilege, and by their host mercenaries including professional officer-holders, lobbyists and shrewd, unprincipled lawyers." Another target were the mainstream newspapers, which the New Majority referred to as the "propagandists in the interest of special privilege" who "color and distort the news of the day, dispense editorials devised in the interest of the powers that rob the workers and otherwise seek to keep the public in ignorance. . ." After the New Majority promoted its mission as the paper that would tackle the issues other papers pushed aside, subsequent articles described the formation of the LPCC, announced the upcoming nominating convention, and printed the full text of the LPCC constitution.

While the overall purpose of the New Majority was to serve as the official organ of the labor party, the paper also came to represent the interests of labor as a whole. One of the paper's responsibilities was to print the official minutes of CFL meetings and to address labor's concerns on a more personal level. As Elizabeth McKillen points out, the New Majority had a "dual role," for "on the one hand, they sought to chisel away at the public image of the Democratic and Republican parties until both had been discredited. On the other hand, they tried to sketch a favorable portrait of the Labor party that would win it an increasing number of votes every year."

The New Majority needed to present the issues of labor as those that were of concerns to all, regardless is one was affiliated with the movement or not. To Mary Tupper Jones, the New Majority stood for so much more:

Battle Hymn of the New Majority

There's a rumbling in the city,

There's a murmur in the air,

Like the sound of distant thunder,

You can hear it everywhere.

It's the trambr of human footstebrs,

Thousands and thousands strong,

They are moving as an army

With its joyous victory song

They have worked and working, waited

Down through all the ages track

But today the bugle's calling

And they'll never more turn back.

They are marching on to Victory

They who've hungered, webrt, and bled.

They who've toiled to build the cities

And to keebr the nation fed.

They are coming, coming, coming,

They have heard the mighty call.

All foundations rock and quiver

And the tyrants flee and fall.

Overseas a hideous monster

Has been driven from his throne

And the workers marching onward

Will drive out such powers at home.

The CFL proudly displayed its new creation, and bragged that "Fifty thousand copies were printed and distributed although one hundred thousand copies could have been disposed of if sufficient help was available, and that the work to be done now was to get subscribers." The paper was well received in many circles. Nellie Baldwin, a Socialist with whom Fitzpatrick shared much correspondence, wrote that "It was with the greatest pleasure I read the first copy of the New Majority. . .I truly like it very much." To Baldwin, the paper would help fuel the party's success, for "I find women who are waking up are more willing to join the new party. People like what they are permitted to help in doing." The New Majority was assisting in this "wake-up call."

With the New Majority now established, the next task was keeping the paper running. When the CFL's Executive Board proposed the paper, the idea was that it would "be owned and controlled by the [CFL] without much expense to the organizations if the delegates will take the matter up with their local unions and have their membership subscribe for it at the rate of $2.00 per year, and be made self-sustaining." The resolution also proposed that the paper "can be subscribed for in conjunction with the dues of the Labor Party at the rate of $1.00 a quarter, which will pay both for the dues and the weekly paper." However, the New Majority suffered financially at first because the CFL made it clear that in order to "spread information politically, industrially and otherwise," they would not solicit advertising. Ads would be accepted, but any persons wishing to advertise in the New Majority would have to "make arrangements for space in the paper at the office. . ."

Unfortunately, subscribers alone would not provide enough cash to keep the paper out of the red. The CFL once lamented "the failure of the organized men and women to subscribe for The New Majority, after manifesting a strong desire for many years to have a paper owned and controlled by Labor and published in the interest of organized labor." After seeing the New Majority lose approximately one thousand dollars a month, the CFL declared "either get the necessary subscribers to make the paper self-sustaining, accept advertisements, find ways and means that will not only maintain a weekly paper but bring about a daily press. . ." CFL Secretary Ed Nockels reported "that there were now about 2,000 individual subscribers to The New Majority," and believed the paper should receive more volunteer assistance in the matter of subscriptions and called attention to the need of a large circulation." Charles Dold, a delegate and one-time CFL president, argued that "this condition cannot continue," for if the lack of funds forced a cessation of publication, such an action "would be about the greatest disgrace we could face." The CFL voted on the matter, and eventually the New Majority gave way to its earliest principles, and began soliciting advertisements, along with increasing the per capita tax on union members by one cent to provide additional financial support.

Another problem facing the distribution of the New Majority in the early days was competition from other sources. The Federated Press was another paper resulting from the Chicago convention "as a cooperative non-profit-making association of workers' newspapers." Beginning its publication run on January 2, 1920, the Federated Press was printed in several languages "which represented the Socialist, Farmer-Labor, and Non-Partisan League interests. Its membership included twenty-two dailies with a circulation of 339,980, seventy-three weeklies, and fifteen other papers at the beginning of 1921, twelve dailies and fifty other sheets in 1930, and 100 newspapers in 1935." The Chicago Labor News and The Unionist were established long before the New Majority, although both papers suffered from the same financial problems that plagued the CFL's newspaper. In fact, it was the financial condition of the other two labor papers that originally influenced the CFL Executive Board to dissuade against establishing their own publication unless there was greater financial security. But to Fitzpatrick, any financial setbacks would be worth the risk, for "if it is going to cost $1,000 a month to speak truthfully and intelligently and in the spirit of the [CFL] the price is not to [sic] great, and while I have anything to say about it I am not going to balk at that kind of a price." This confidence continued even after receiving letters such as one from Phil Broderick, of the Local 115 Sheet Metal Workers, who wrote that "50% of the members who where (sic) Socialists said they did not want the Paper. . ." But support was still lacking from the rank and file, for attention was called "to the failure of the organized working men and women to subscribe" to the paper.

The person chosen to head the paper was Robert Buck. Buck was an experienced newspaper man, once employed for ten years as a labor reporter for two mainstream Chicago newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily News. Buck was also experienced in Chicago politics, serving as an alderman from 1915 to 1917. Buck called "himself a progressive Republican," and "advocated reform of the public-school system and the right of Chicago's teachers to organize," and "always supported legislation favorable to labor." Buck not only provided competent leadership for the New Majority but he also served as an active delegate for the labor party. Although the paper started off with the intention of focusing on local issues, Buck made sure that the New Majority adopted a more universal stance, and the publication began reporting on labor concerns from around the world.

The New Majority reported on every step of the LPCC, and continued to produce detailed reports on all political activities while the CFL, working in conjunction with the Illinois State Federation of Labor, moved to create both a state and a national party. The New Majority did its best to make sure workers went to the polls. With Fitzpatrick as the candidate for mayor, the paper wondered "Will Labor stick on election day, April 1? That is the question old party leaders ask one another, in fear and trembling." On the eve of the election, the New Majority asked workers to contrast the LPCC with the "old parties," arguing that a vote for Fitzpatrick "is a vote for freedom from oppression of the workers of the world. . ." The election results were disappointing to the LPCC, although not disastrous. Fitzpatrick placed fourth in the race for mayor, grabbing 55,990 votes, roughly eight percent of the ballot. But the LPCC displaced the Socialist Party as the third place political party, knocking the Socialists down to fourth place overall. The CFL remained encouraged about the idea of a labor party, and the drive for the state and national party continued, with the New Majority still the official paper of the movement.

The dream of a labor party continued with the formation of both a state and a national party. The state convention met in Springfield on April 10, 1919, and the national convention, which eventually adopted the name Farmer-Labor Party, met in Chicago on November 22 of the same year. The national party platform "was much like that framed in Illinois, except that it covered an even broader range of subject in an attempt to garner in as many dissatisfied groups as possible." In each case the New Majority was chosen as the official organ of the party. The paper reminded its readers that it was the responsibility of "every member to do his or her share to bring about the ultimate victory." The year 1921 would not be good for the FLP, for "[T]he New Majority was in arrears, the radicals and old parties were working from within, the party lacked funds, and the unemployment situation was undermining labor organization."

With each passing month and year the dream of a labor party faded, and even the New Majority rarely carried any vital party news. In 1923, the Communist seized control of the Farmer-Labor Party. The CFL, appalled by this move, severed all ties to the political party, moved back in line with American Federation of Labor (AFL) political policies, and changed the name of the paper to Federation News on August 16, 1924. As the new paper stated, Federation News "is presented in logical sequence as a direct result of the return of the [CFL] to the non-partisan policy of the A.F. of L.," and "steps into the limelight as The New Majority discreetly recedes." The new paper's aim was to "be fair to all in its presentation of labor's problems. . . It will bring facts, oft distorted in the press, in their natural state."

But while the labor party faded, the activities of the New Majority did not. In fact, while party news was rarely printed, there were plenty of other issues important to labor. In the early 1920s, Illinois decided it was time to consider writing a new state constitution, for "the old constitutional machinery was creaking badly." The CFL strongly embraced the idea of a new constitution. An Executive Board resolution stated that the "Federation endorsed the "Constitutional Convention" and urges the membership to VOTE "YES" on this proposition." The New Majority took up the cause, printing a series of articles that called the convention "an event of supreme importance to every man and woman of our commonwealth." The New Majority extolled the virtues of seating proper delegates at the convention. In April, 1919, the paper argued that "[T]he workers must change the constitution so that big business's stuff is unconstitutional and not the worker's stuff." Just before the election to choose the convention delegates the New Majority again appealed to working class voters when it wrote "How many workers in the state of Illinois care who makes its laws?. . .If you fail to vote for men who will properly represent you - be man enough not to whimper later when boss-made laws beat you down in your demands for living wages and some of the good things in life."

In the summer of 1922, two years after the convention officially convened, the new constitution was presented to the public, with approval to take place in a special election on Tuesday, December 12, of that same year. Labor's attempt at an anti-injunction clause and a endorsement for the rights of labor were voted down by the convention, Chicago's attempt at home rule and greater representation in the state legislature was defeated, a terrible taxation system was created, and many felt that too much power was granted to the state supreme court. One of the first condemnations of the proposed constitution was reported by the New Majority in October when it printed a resolution of the Painters State Conference against approval. In taking this protest a step further, the CFL noted that "Labor's war on the proposed new Illinois state constitution has started off with a bang," and that an "effort is also made to dispel the impression the other side seeks to create that the new constitution, while imperfect, is slightly better than the old." The New Majority printed objections from not only the CFL and the Painters State Conference, but also the State Federation and the Public Ownership League, who had no less than eighteen separate objections.

An organized protest against the proposed constitution was called for December 10, two days before the election. The New Majority reported that "A mammoth gathering which will represent all branches of the labor movement in Chicago will voice its united protest against the proposed new Illinois state constitution. . ." On December 9, 1922, just three days before the vote, the CFL once again appealed to the better judgment of its members. In crying out to "Save Our Liberties!," the CFL printed what it considered to be the major objections to the proposed code. The proposed constitution was soundly rejected across the state, although the New Majority proudly proclaimed that "Organized labor alone deserves credit for the crushing defeat of the proposed Illinois constitution. . .It was labor that first scented danger in the document and labor gathered its forces and leaped at its new foe. . ."

The New Majority was certainly interested in legal and political issues other than the formation of a labor party or writing a new state constitution. The pages of the New Majority and Federation News are filled with articles describing a plethora of political activities. From protesting or supporting proposed legislation to endorsements of pro-labor candidates, the CFL, speaking through the labor press, was interested in keeping its finger on the pulse of as many issues as possible. One of the ways the paper stayed on top of important issues was to print articles or speeches by labor leaders across the country. One such instance was when the New Majority printed a speech by A.F.L. president Samuel Gompers that was supposedly in support of the labor party movement. Gompers related his frustrations with the "congress, elected on old party tickets," and that the "hour has arrived when those believe in the maintenance of democratic institutions must marshall their forces in defense of their rights and ideals." However, Gompers was merely calling for political action on behalf of labor. Nowhere was he providing support for a separate labor party."

At other times the paper sent out special reporters to cover current topics. In 1930, as the Great Depression was starting to set in, Federation News sent Martin Dillmon to St. Louis to report on the unemployment problem in that city. Posing as a job seeker, Dillmon investigated the "regiment of leeches disguised as 'labor agencies.'" Upon his return to Chicago, Dillmon, writing in the third person, said "The stunt was decidedly enlightening, but what he saw, heard and read he'll never forget as long as he lives!"

The paper was also a forum for the rank and file workers, allowing members of the movement to voice their own opinion in editorials, no matter how much these workers might disagree with CFL policies. It was well known that the CFL, under Fitzpatrick, encouraged active debate, and no matter how divergent an opinion, "delegates were never denied the opportunity to speak." Besides an editorial page, both the New Majority and Federation News carried a section entitled "What do YOU Say?" The period of the 1920s saw bitter struggles between the building trades and employers. Andrew Shirreffs, of the Painters' Union, wrote that although he was a regular reader, he felt the need "for taking you to task along with some of our undoubtedly spineless labor leaders for not "educating the workers" concerning effective remedies to the current labor crisis.

Both the New Majority and Federation News provided services to its readers far beyond labor issues. The paper often printed book, theatre and opera reviews, reported on happenings in Washington, D.C. and areas of the country, and even printing a short article condemning the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. But although additional services were offered to the readers, both papers never strayed from its main goal of representing the interests of labor.

Federation News began trumpeting another outlet for spreading the message of the labor movement in 1926 when the CFL established its radio station - Chicago's "Voice of Labor" - WCFL. Although their petition to the government for a clear channel station was denied, the CFL provided vital services to the working classes through this forum. Federation News proudly declared that "[T]he sole purpose of this venture is to advance the principles of trade unionism. . .and to tell of the true state of affairs with reference to present day issues, frequently clouded by the daily press." Federation News did not see the ever-growing radio industry as competition, but rather as a "comrade-in-arms." After all, the "station is financed by Chicago unions affiliated with the federation and by $10,000 donated by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, an unaffiliated union." While the petition for a clear channel was denied, in 1929 Federation News proudly declared that "WCFL, the pride of labor, goes on full time by authority of the Federal Radio Commission. . .Don't forget to put this down as you will miss the fine programs" offered by the station. As long as the message was of interest to labor, Federation News was glad to provide the outlet.

But how did mainstream society take to the labor press? If the rank and file were not always enough to keep the papers moving strongly, then certainly the general public was not paying much attention as well, despite the fact that the CFL, speaking through both the New Majority and Federation News, did not wish to alienate the movement from society at large. It was vital to demonstrate that the issues of importance to labor would serve the best interests of society as a whole. However, the labor movement during the 1920s, especially the CFL, was often seen as too radical. Moreover, the period of reaction that grew in America in the years following the end of World War I cracked down harshly on dissidents and radicals, whether perceived or real. Fitzpatrick admired the IWW for its organizing work in the realm of industrial unionism, yet that organization met its final demise through government harassment. When the Communists overran the labor party movement, the CFL distanced itself entirely from the political party, knowing all too well that it was political and societal suicide to be affiliated with Communists. The CFL bitterly resented the Communist action for years and often printed anti-Communist articles in Federation News.

But this was not enough to please the mainstream, who could not separate the CFL's intentions for a more egalitarian society from their far more radical counterparts in the Socialist, Communist and Anarchist movements. Therefore, what impact and influence did the New Majority and Federation News have on the labor movement? Was it influential at all, especially when considering the many financial problems suffered by both papers? The answer is yes, it was influential to a point. It helped promote so many issues to labor in a manner that did earn a recognizable amount of attention. This is seen in the mere fact that the paper survived as long as it did. There was a readership, and the paper provided a vital service to the labor movement in Chicago.

But how much did the paper contribute to labor's campaigns? The labor party movement was a dismal failure, regardless of how much it grabbed the headlines of the New Majority. The proposed constitution convention was soundly defeated, for the New Majority took credit on behalf of labor due to its articles arguing for defeat and spreading the word of mass movements and parades. Unfortunately, there is no real way to measure how much either paper actually influenced the outcome of any labor issue, for if either paper reported a controversy, it was already well known through the labor community.

It is a difficult chore for any newspaper just starting out to grab and hold readers. For papers such as the New Majority and Federation News, the problem was further enhanced by the fact their mission appeared to be too narrow for society as whole to embrace. Nevertheless, these papers leave behind a wonderful legacy of what was of importance to the history of the labor movement, to the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois, and a fascinating forum for those who ideals - no matter how noble - appeared to go against the grain of mainstream society during the decade of the twenties. It is this very legacy that made the New Majority and Federation News a success.

Federation News eventually became a 12-page tabloid newspaper. In the December, 1996 issue, the CFL then announced that "it is no longer economically possible to continue the publication as a tabloid newspaper and directed the editor to redesign the publication into a newsletter." The newsletter is now no longer available to any subscriber, and is offered solely to CFL delegates, with a total circulation of two thousand. The very concerns voiced by the CFL Executive Board back in 1918 haunted the labor press into our own time.

Jeff Weiss, the current CFL Director of Communications, talks about the heritage and future of the labor press. Weiss describes how the focus of Federation News "is [now] strictly on Chicago labor," with "no more reliance on national news." In the "old days," according to Weiss, the reliance was on photos and showing the leadership in action. Now the philosophy is on the membership and to tell stories and not commentaries. As for the future of the labor press, more and more reliance is placed on the internet for the dissemination of information, and many locals are producing their own small newsletters. The volume of material being produced is simply too great, especially for the labor leaders, since many do not have the time to read entire publications. "The different media outlets provide much competition," and the challenge to reach both the leaders and the rank and file is resulting in a great deal of repetition in the messages being placed before the labor movement.

While the emphasis of Federation News is now on Chicago, and not national issues, many of the topics covered are those of nationwide concerns. Boycotts, strikes, pickets, and human interest stories on rising labor leaders provide a fascinating look into the direction the labor movement is heading. Major local events such as Marshall Field's firing the Frango mint workers in order to move its operations out of state, and into a non-union town, demonstrate the while the look and length of Federation News may have changed, its nature has not with its condemnation "that companies will do just about anything to place profits ahead of people."

As Jeff Weiss stresses, the point of Federation News is to "keep as an historical record, and to be used in the present." While the Chicago labor press may soon move into the paperless world of the internet, the legacy it leaves behind is impressive.

Copyright (c) Mitchell Newton-Matza