Rebel Pens, “Pencil Hands,” and Labor Journalism

Against the Current, No. 105, July/August 2003

Steve Early

Writing The Wrongs:
Eva Valesh and the Rise of Labor Journalism
by Elizabeth Faue
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002, 249 pages, $25 hardcover.

Rebel Pen:
The Writings of Mary Heaton Vorse
edited by Dee Garrison
New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985, 345 pages, $26 paper.

Mary Heaton Vorse:
The Life of an American Insurgent
by Dee Garrison
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989, 377 pages, $21.95 paper.

by Mary Heaton Vorse
with an introduction by Dee Garrison
(Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991) 236 pages, paper.

IN THE MID-1970s, I once did a story for The United Mine Workers Journal about coal miners who’d been fired and blacklisted for union organizing in eastern Kentucky. One of the unemployed UMW supporters I visited, along with Journal photographer Earl Dotter, lived in a creek-side trailer, at the end of a small hollow, accessible only by a narrow, winding mountain road.

When Dotter and I arrived at this miner’s house, we introduced ourselves and explained our mission. He greeted us politely but with a hint of wariness. As we shook hands, he looked me in the eye and said, knowingly, “Ah, pencil hands.”

I was taken aback by his observation but had to admit it was accurate. Our host had the hands of an experienced coal digger, rough and callused from his years underground. My own, in contrast, were unmarked by hard physical labor of any kind — a sign that I was from an office in Washington, D.C., far removed from the blue-collar world of Appalachian mining.

To its credit, The UMW Journal of that era sought far greater connection to the membership than most union newspapers because it was the product of a rank-and-file reform movement, led by “Miners for Democracy.” The Journal even won a National Magazine Award in 1975 for its aggressive investigative reporting on workplace hazards and wide-ranging coverage of community issues in Appalachia — the only time that a labor publication has ever been so honored.

Yet as the Kentucky miner’s remark indicated to me, there’s still a big gap — even under the best of circumstances — between those who labor and those who write about labor.

It’s a cultural and political divide that has only widened in the intervening decades, as labor journalism has atrophied in the mass media, and union publications have abandoned the crusading role played by the labor press during the late 19th century and first half of the 20th — a tradition revived ever so briefly, in the 1970s, by The UMW Journal.

Missing Labor Journalism

As Washington Post staffer Frank Swoboda noted recently in his own union newspaper, The Guild Reporter, “the dwindling economic impact and shrinking membership of American trade unions has consigned the labor beat to the fringes of newspaper coverage.”

Fifty years ago, there were still scores of labor editors and reporters — many from working class backgrounds themselves — who specialized in the subject of unions, contract negotiations, strikes, and industrial relations generally.

Today, “labor news” — such as it is — tends to be buried in the “business pages” of major dailies. White collar workplace trends — as defined by newsroom Yuppies — receive far more ink than shop floor struggles by blue collar workers or even the activities of the institutional labor movement.

There are only a few remaining experienced labor reporters (like Tom Robbins at the Village Voice) and virtually no labor-oriented columnists — with the exception of Juan Gonzalez at the New York Daily News.

The dearth of labor coverage in the mainstream media leaves an informational and ideological void that should be filled by a vibrant union-backed or independent labor press. Unfortunately, official union publications — with a potential readership of millions — don’t offer much of an alternative.

Instead, most function merely as house organs — and, at their worst, as a “vanity press” for the union officialdom. Even when union newspapers today undergo glossy makeovers to improve their readability — or their contents get posted on a web site — such changes tend to be “more cosmetic than substantive” and a “triumph of public relations values over journalistic ones,” according to Andy Zipser, editor of The Guild Reporter and a leading critic of the labor press.

Says Zipser: “We should be writing about real people dealing with real conflicts, both inside our union and out, so that, when working people see one of our publications, they see themselves and understand that we are writing about them too.”

Instead, much “coverage of issues …remains safely anti-septic” and driven by the “leadership agenda.” Rarely does a union “actually want a crusading labor editor roiling the waters.”

Controversial topics and unfettered criticism have thus been relegated to outlets with limited circulation. These include most notably the Detroit-based-newsletter, Labor Notes; magazines with a largely academic or union staff readership such as Working USA, New Labor Forum or Labor Studies Journal; and those few left-wing journals of opinion — The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, Against the Current, or — which continue to publish labor journalism by modern practitioners like David Moberg, David Bacon, Jane Slaughter, or JoAnn Wypijewski.

Recalling a Tradition

Dee Garrison’s multi-volume excavation of the life and work of Mary Heaton Vorse, and Elizabeth Faue’s new biography of Eva Valesh, remind us that labor writing once had a much higher profile in the popular press — in periods when working-class struggle commanded greater societal attention.

The now little known “rebel pens” of Valesh and Vorse were deployed to great effect, in overlapping fashion, beginning in the 1880s and continuing until the late 1930s, from the heyday of the Knights of Labor to the triumph of the CIO.

These four books by or about them provide a rich sampling of participatory labor journalism (or, in the case of Vorse’s novel Strike!, fiction closely based on it). Both writers were activists as well as observers, plying their trade as part of working-class organizations or political parties that mounted serious challenges to the status quo of their day.

Although Valesh was “the daughter of a workingman” and Vorse hailed from a wealthy New England family, they were — in their prime — equally “embedded” in the movements they wrote about.

Born Mary Eva McDonald in 1866, Valesh was the product of Minnesota labor radicalism, rooted in the Knights of Labor and, later, the Populists. After finishing high school, she apprenticed as a newspaper compositor and did her first writing for the Twin Cities’ then-flourishing labor press.

Like a 19th-century Barbara Ehrenreich, Valesh was soon hired by the daily St. Paul Globe to do undercover reporting on working women who were the Nickel and Dimed of her time. This whistle-blowing series, published under the pen name Eva Gay when she was only 22, “introduced readers to the lives of garment workers, laundresses, cigar-makers, seamstresses, domestics, operatives in woolen knitting mills and boot and shoe factories, telephone and telegraph operators, bookbinders, stenographers, and shop women.”

According to Faue, a professor of history at Wayne State, Valesh’s “ability to enter workplaces, accept positions, and conduct interviews depended on workers’ willingness to confide in her and keep her identity secret.” The resulting newspaper accounts “helped to spark the interest of both labor advocates and middle-class reformers in helping the working girl.”

Her articles also “stressed that the appalling conditions under which most women worked were amenable to change” — if the “working girls” themselves took action on their own behalf.

They did just that at Shotwell’s, one of the garment sweatshop’s that Valesh had infiltrated. When workers there struck in 1888, it was “the first of many labor conflicts in which she would play the role of instigator, organizer, and reporter.”

Valesh’s involvement in the struggle led to her becoming an organizer for the Knights and labor editor of The Globe. She also published A Tale of the Twin Cities, a popular novel about the street car motorman’s strike that convulsed all of Minneapolis and St. Paul in 1889.

Like Mary Heaton Vorse’s lightly fictionalized account of the labor war in Gastonia fifty years later, Tale was “the medium for a political message — about the necessity of class solidarity and the increasingly vicious conflict between the classes.”

The Road to Gompers

Valesh’s subsequent career not only overlapped with Vorse’s but diverged from it as well. Valesh rose to prominence “as an authentic working class voice,” but she ended up using her labor writing and local acclaim as a public speaker — on behalf of the Eight Hour League, the Farmers’ Alliance, and other causes — as a vehicle for upward social mobility, of the personal sort.

As a journalist, she soon left the Globe behind for “more lucrative endeavors” at the Minneapolis Tribune and, later, at William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Along the way, she acquired and subsequently shed a husband, cigar maker Frank Valesh — but not before both became “key players in the transition of Twin Cities labor to the more prudential and conservative trade unionism” espoused by Samuel Gompers as an alternative to the Knights in the 1890s.

In 1900, Valesh’s alliance with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) president resulted in her becoming an AFL general organizer. At federation headquarters in Washington, D.C. she served — in defiance of the gender conventions of her era — as what Faue calls his “right hand man.”

Working behind the scenes as the real editor of the American Federationist for the next decade — a role for which Gompers claimed public credit — Valesh experienced the frustration of union headquarters word smiths ever since. Her “assigned duties were almost always performed in the shadow of the great man” (who considered the Federationist to be his “personal organ”).

Valesh’s association with Gompers put her in the orbit of the National Civil Federation. The NCF was an early 20th century vehicle for labor-management cooperation that Eugene Debs once described as “a beast of prey, which tells its victims, `our interests are one,’ and then devours them.”

For Valesh, NCF opened doors to an “elite network” of “wealthy club women and patrons.” She quickly became a popular speaker in their social and political circles, acting as “an important link between the organized working class and upper-middle class activists” who wanted to improve factory conditions.

The contradictions between Valesh’s labor movement roots and what Faue calls her “new class identity” became painfully clear during a massive left-led strike by female garment workers in New York City.

Offering her services to the reform-minded Women’s Trade Union League, Valesh “was put in charge of pickets and later served on the legal and publicity committees.” She also helped organize “the Mink Brigade,” a group of affluent female “picket-watchers” that was formed to stave off police brutality and “unwarranted arrests.”

However, when the AFL brokered a settlement of the 1909 walkout, immigrant shirt waist makers rejected the deal. Valesh condemned their decision, threatening to launch a “campaign against socialism” because it made “ignorant foreigners discontented, set them against the government, [and made] them want to tear it down.”

As Faue notes, her public denunciation of the strikers was “seen as a fundamental betrayal,” and her labor career never recovered. On the rebound, she married Captain Benjamin Franklin Cross, “a broker on the cotton exchange and the playboy son of a wealthy Rhode Island family.”

Together, they retired to a farm in upstate New York and lived, for the next fifteen years, off his mother’s money, while Valesh edited the American Club Woman, a journal for Progressive-era women’s club members.

Steadfast Radical

Despite her more privileged background, Mary Heaton Vorse – in contrast — maintained her commitment to labor radicalism, a cause she did not embrace until she was already thirty-eight, the single-mother of two children, and a well-known writer of “light romantic fiction.”

Vorse was a former art student, who had been disinherited by her family for her bohemian tendencies. By 1912, she had become a leading denizen of Greenwich Village — an activist in the suffrage and women’s peace movements, a founding editor of the Masses, and part of the avant-garde group that started the Provincetown Players.

What transformed her career that year was her involvement in the “Bread and Roses” strike — a largely spontaneous uprising of 25,000 immigrant textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, aided by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

When the walkout began, Vorse reported, only a few millhands belonged to any union, radical or conservative; it was “not their strike . . . but the indignant expression of people who considered their wages had been cut below the living point.”

Out-of-town IWW organizers, including Big Bill Haywood, immediately “began to organize all of the textile workers into one great industrial union.”

“Arrayed against the strikers, along with the mill owners, the militia, and the police, were the officials of the Textile Union of New England and the Central Labor Union of Lawrence. The American Federation of Labor in Washington was also hostile, seeing in the ideal of labor solidarity that was being preached at Lawrence an attack on craft unionism. But it was a message which appealed strongly to the diverse mass of men and women who made up the strikers, and it held them.”

After Lawrence, Vorse managed to be at the scene of every major union dispute for the next quarter of a century.

On the labor beat, she freelanced for mainstream dailies, mass circulation magazines, left-wing journals, and labor publications — once even covering the same strike for the New York Globe and Blast, an anarchist paper. (It’s hard to imagine any leftist today — with the possible exception of Ehrenreich — simultaneously writing for periodicals as diverse as Cosmo, McCalls, Good Housekeeping, Harpers, Atlantic Monthly, New Republic and The Nation!)

Thanks to the editorial work of Dee Garrison, a history professor at Rutgers, Rebel Pen contains a vivid collection of Vorse’s front line dispatches from around the country, many of which in the 1930s were distributed by the labor news service, Federated Press.

Vorse’s association with the IWW continued prior to World War I, when she worked with its leading female organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn during an iron ore miners’ strike in the Mesabi range of Minnesota.

In 1919, she served in Pittsburgh as a volunteer publicist for the nationwide work-stoppage by 350,000 steelworkers led by William Z. Foster. As an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in 1920, she rallied workers and exposed conditions in shirt factories in eastern Pennsylvania.

Chronicler of Upheaval

Throughout the 1920s, Vorse covered the rank-and-file insurgencies of coal miners attempting to overthrow the autocratic regime of UMW President John L. Lewis. In 1926, she wrote about the “War in Passaic” — a Communist-led textile workers strike in New Jersey that featured the same police beatings, restrictions on free speech and public assembly, and virulent red-baiting that Vorse had witnessed in Lawrence.

In 1929, she followed the southern wave of textile mill walkouts to the piedmont region of North Carolina, scene of the doomed uprising against “industrial feudalism” so vividly described in “Strike!”

In both her novel about Gastonia and the reportage in Rebel Pen, Vorse captures the behind-the-scenes tensions among radical organizers sent from the North to support strikers faced with mass evictions from company housing, vigilante attacks on their tent colony, murder and conspiracy indictments, and the hostile intervention of the National Guard.

When the Depression started, she covered militant protests by the Unemployed Councils and their national “Hunger March” on Washington, DC in 1932. That same year, she was part of a delegation of New York authors and intellectuals that was run out of Harlan County, Kentucky by sheriffs’ deputies trying to block supplies from reaching embattled members of the National Miner’s Union.

Vorse returned to the Steel Valley in 1936 to cover the successful organizing drives of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), and was injured during the shooting of union pickets at Republic Steel in Youngstown.

In February, 1937, she was in Flint, Michigan where her dispatches on the sit-downers struggle against General Motors highlighted the crucial role played by the UAW’s “women’s auxiliary,” with its “babies and banners.”

Rebel Pen also describes the terrifying mob violence unleashed against Victor Reuther and local UAW supporters during an organizing skirmish in Anderson, Indiana right after the union’s victory in Flint. In that gun battle, Vorse almost lost her son, Heaton, a Federated Press stringer who was badly wounded yet ended up being charged with trespassing and riot.

Despite her personal involvement in many of these fights, Vorse’s writing was notably “free of political dogma and strident rhetoric” — in contrast to what Garrison calls “the crude Daily Worker style of harangues and exaggerations.”

She let the facts — and the workers — speak for themselves in her work, particularly in the pieces written for non-labor audiences. Despite considerable qualms about the behavior of the Communist Party in some of the struggles she covered, Vorse, to her credit, “refused to publicly bait the Communist rank and file in the union trenches.” According to Garrison:

“She never confused the embattled labor activist, many of whom were women, with the Communist office functionary, or the carping by-stander, most of whom were men. She cared little for abstraction. She judged people by what they did, not by what they said, by their action, not their theory. She always understood the distinction between the immense club of official power and the tiny barb of the radical few.

Unfortunately, labor journalism — the field in which Vorse made her name – “effectively expired with the end of the great labor wars” and the onset of McCarthyism.

End of an Era

In the 1950s, Vorse was forced into “semi-retirement.” Rebel Pen contains only three articles from that decade and, reflecting the changing times, one of them deals with union corruption. Entitled “The Pirates’ Nest of New York,” this 1952 piece from Harpers’ was her last “big story to achieve national Attention” — an account of wildcat strikes that challenged “mob rule” and labor-management collusion on the waterfront.

In her final years, Vorse slipped into penurious obscurity while living in Provincetown, on Cape Cod. There, she opposed the Vietnam War and supported local environmental causes until her death at age 91 in 1965.

Eva Valesh’s period of withdrawal from public life was even more protracted before she died at 90 in 1956. After divorcing her debt-ridden second husband in the mid-1920s, she was unable or unwilling to resume a career in journalism. At age 58, she renewed her Typographical Union card and spent the remainder of her working life correcting galley proofs at the New York Times.

A modern reader who revisits the life and work of both women is struck by the richness of the material available to them as fiction and non-fiction writers. The American labor scene of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was far more lively, dramatic, and political than it is today — albeit more chaotic and dangerous as well.

Working-class struggles not only proved inspirational for workers themselves. They also raised the “artistic consciousness” and fired the imagination of journalists and novelists. Between 1930 and 1934, the Gastonia strike alone was the subject of five other novels in addition to Vorse’s (including one by Sherwood Anderson) — a literary trend not much in evidence today amid a steady decline in strike activity.

That’s not to say, however, that modern labor relations is so lacking in confrontation and color that it’s no longer of interest or concern to any serious writer outside of academic circles.

At least one such author — novelist (and former journalist) Barbara Kingsolver — has proved otherwise with her 1983 book, Holding The Line: The Great Arizona Mine Strike, about the role of women in the Phelps-Dodge walk-out.

For those still trying to bring workers’ sacrifices and struggles, victories and defeats, to life on the printed page, the challenge of labor journalism remains what it was in Valesh and Vorse’s day. Labor-oriented writers should, in Garrison’s words, seek to “faithfully render the messy complexities of human ideals and behavior” within the working class, “while also imparting a vision of a better, more democratic and egalitarian future.”

The pallid institutional propaganda put out by most unions today — plus their skimpy mainstream media coverage<197>usually does neither. So there’s plenty of room for experimentation and improvement by new literary or journalistic voices.

Whether they arise on the left or, better yet, from within the ranks of labor, let’s hope they can soon revive the proud tradition of writing with a “rebel pen.”

ATC 105, July-August 2003