by Robert W. McChesney



© 1992 by Robert W. McChesney
Published in Journalism Monographs: 134 (August 1992)

In 1990 A major study of the treatment of labor issues in the U.S. mass media concluded that the amount of coverage was minuscule, particularly in comparison to the coverage of business, and that what little coverage there was tended to be unsympathetic and inaccurate. In short, the authors could not disagree with what they said was the "same complaint" they heard across the nation from workers and labor organizers, that the corporate-owned media are "anti-union and will not cover labor stories fairly or at all. " The study also concluded that as bad as the present situation is, the trajectory is for an even more abysmal amount and quality of labor coverage in the future given the dominant trends in media industries.[1]

This 1990 study did not contain any earthshaking revelations for those familiar with labor affairs. It merely highlighted a central problem facing the U. S. labor movement throughout its existence-namely that of communicating its message to its membership, both existing and potential, and to the general public. For the most part it has been axiomatic that this problem could not be resolved entirely through the for-profit, advertising-supported mainstream media. At best, these media would find labor issues and positions incidental to their overall purposes and activities. At worst, it was assumed that these capitalist media would have an innate hostility to the labor movement inasmuch as it constituted a threat to the status quo of private enterprise and the modus operandi of U. S. business. Accordingly, the history of the U.S. labor movement can be seen also as containing a parallel history of the U.S. labor press. At every point at which the labor movement began to enjoy any success, resources were expended to create and preserve an autonomous labor press in order to continue and augment the general aims of the movement. What success organized labor has enjoyed along these lines, however, has been restricted almost entirely to the print media. Radio broadcasting and television have proven far more resistant to the establishment of autonomous labor voices. Paradoxically, or tragically, depending upon one's perspective, this inability to establish a labor presence in broadcasting coincided with the emergence of the mass media to a far more prominent role in U. S. culture and politics than had been the case in the 1 9th century.

This deficiency of autonomous labor broadcasting was not due to any particular lack of effort along these lines. During the embryonic stage of radio broadcasting in the United States, between 1920 and 1935, before the network-dominated, advertising-supported system became entrenched, elements of organized labor endeavored to establish a national, non-profit, listener-supported, labor broadcasting network to provide a "working-class perspective" on public affairs and counteract what was regarded as the "antiunion" bias of the commercial broadcasters.[2] The primary agency for this campaign was the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) through the direction of its secretary, Edward N. Nockels, which established station WCFL in 1926 to serve precisely such a function. This monograph will chronicle the efforts of Nockels and WCFL to create a labor network and, in particular, it will review the uneven relationship between the CFL and the executive council of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was indifferent if not hostile to this campaign for autonomous labor broadcasting.

Moreover, this movement for a labor broadcasting channel occurred during the most tumultuous era in U.S. broadcasting history, preceding the period when it would be outside the boundaries of legitimate discourse to challenge the suitability of a network-dominated, advertising-supported broadcasting system for the communication requirements of a democratic society. In this "pre-modern" era, several elements of U.S. society challenged the legitimacy of commercial broadcasting and proposed a number of methods to establish a significant non-profit and non-commercial sector for U.S. broadcasting. Edward Nockels and organized labor would become leading players in this broadcast reform movement, when they recognized that the battle for a labor broadcasting station could not be separated from the broader issue of wresting control of the airwaves away from the commercial broadcasters. Accordingly, this monograph will also review the efforts of Nockels and organized labor to recast U.S. broadcasting in conjunction with other dissident elements of U.S. society.

In neither of these areas did the labor movement enjoy particular success. Although WCFL would survive this period to remain a labor-owned station, its fare became largely indistinguishable from that of the capitalist broadcasters. As for the broadcast reform movement, it lasted from 1930 until 1934 when, with the passage of the Communications Act of 1934,which remains the reigning statute for broadcasting and telecommunications in the united States, it became marginalized and collapsed. Nonetheless, this remains an important, albeit largely missing, chapter in labor history, not to mention U.S. communication history.[3] On the one hand, it reveals a sophisticated appreciation of mass communication for the establishment and maintenance of a democratic society, along with providing a striking critique of the limitations of a commercially based, oligopolistic system for those same purposes. To much of the labor movement, the dominant notion of a marketplace of ideas predicated upon a media system based on capitalist principles which somehow was expected to provide access for all significant elements of society was so much self-serving nonsense. On the other hand, this historical episode points to certain key problems facing the labor movement and other social movements of the dispossessed at the close of the twentieth century in the United States and elsewhere. At the very least the following discussion will reveal that contemporary concerns regarding the "mainstream bias" of the corporate media set-up are not new and, indeed, have been the source of considerable political activity in the labor movement.


[1] Jonathan Tasini, "Lost in the Margins: Labor and the Media," Extra! 3 (Summer 1990): 2-20 See Pat Aufderheide, "Study Finds Labor Reporting Needs Work," In These Times, September 26-October 2, 1990, p. 21.

[2] See Nathan Godfried, "The origins of Labor Radio: WCFL, the 'Voice of Labor,' 1925-1928," Historical Journal of Film. Radio and Television, 7 (1987): 145.

[3] See Robert W. McChesney, "The Battle for U.S. Airwaves, 1928-1935," Journal of Communication 40 (Autumn 1990): 29-57.

Last updated 2/3/97