Agitate, Educate, Mobilize, and Confront
“Advocacy Journalism, Labor Feminism, and the Timber Worker, 1936-1940” (Journalism History, March 2022) analyzes labor journalist Julia Bertram’s combination of union activism and advocacy journalism during a formative point in labor history. In the mid-1930s, the progressive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) challenged the older and more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) for members, organizing entire industries rather than only skilled, white, male workers. When the CIO began to organize Pacific Northwest lumber camps, Julia Bertram, the wife of an Oregon lumberman, reported on the strike for the Timber Worker, the newspaper of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA). Her visibility as an outspoken journalist led to her election as president of IWA Auxiliary No. 1 in March 1937. For three years, Bertram simultaneously headed the women’s auxiliary and wrote for the union newspaper. In these two roles, Bertram made women’s work visible as essential union work. Her journalism challenged traditional labor reporting and traditional roles for union women by representing the voices of working-class women within the CIO’s new progressive labor agenda.
In a male-dominated industry and union that seemingly allowed little space for women, Bertram reminded the Timber Worker’s readers that women were unionists and vital members of the labor struggle. Although she covered traditional labor topics such as IWA strikes and union politics, Bertram significantly broadened what was considered newsworthy through her investigative journalism, auxiliary news reporting, and political writing. Not only did she transform the auxiliary into a militant and overtly political organization, but she also wrote about the women’s activities in the Timber Worker, along with strike news, stories of workers and union persecution, and exposés of political corruption.
Bertram’s combination of activism and journalism was not unique, but it has been overlooked in discussions about the rise of labor feminism, which tend to focus on female-dominated industries and unions rather than on the actions of female journalists and the labor press. Bertram, through her auxiliary leadership, journalism, and physical presence in the newsroom, insisted on the importance of women in the labor movement. In short, this article attempts to pay due attention to the role of female labor journalists and auxiliaries in the rise of labor feminism, as women carved out space in the fledgling CIO and its unions in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Relevance of Unions and Labor Journalism
Although labor journalism might seem irrelevant today, as Starbucks and Amazon workers vote to unionize amid massive upheavals in the labor market, the time seems ripe to bring labor history back into the curriculum. In my years of teaching, I’ve found labor history sorely lacking in U.S. history textbooks, and when it is addressed, workers and strikers are stereotyped as wild-eyed radicals that exist only in the distant industrializing past. Not only do they appear irrelevant, a mere footnote in the grand narrative of U.S. history, but they seemingly lost in their battle against big business. It probably need not be said that women workers are doubly absent from this narrative, as labor history is almost exclusively presented as the domain of white men. This article complicates all of those assumptions and could be used as a supplementary reading in history classes to focus on labor, the union movement, the working class, the Great Depression, or women’s history. Journalism classes might use this article to discuss advocacy journalism, citizen journalists, the vibrant history of labor journalism, and women journalists.
Although labor history is in the news and making a comeback among scholars, students learn little about it in their classes. Gen Z is unionizing, and Gen Z gets its news from a bewildering variety of sources on the internet. They have very different ideas about work than previous generations. In this context, the history of labor journalism could prove not only interesting but also instructive to students. My students are often shocked to see the differences in reporting between labor or communist newspapers on the one hand and mainstream papers on the other. These differences highlight for students the long history of class conflict in the United States, as well as the importance of the press in presenting different viewpoints. Advocacy journalism and “fake news” have become inescapable realities of today’s political and cultural landscape, and our students should be able to differentiate between biased journalism and advocacy journalism. This article provides a historical example of how a labor reporter advocated for particular perspectives without misrepresenting the facts.
One positive outcome of the pandemic was the increased push to digitize archival sources, including newspapers. These sources can be marvelous classroom resources. Using digitized newspapers, students can engage in a variety of lessons and activities that incorporate the themes raised in the article. For example, students could compare news coverage of any event, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Strike or the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, in The New York Times and a labor or leftist newspaper. How does the news coverage differ? What if labor newspapers were the first rough draft of history? How might U.S. history be understood differently today?
Ask students to read a labor newspaper, historical or contemporary, for any given week and to report on what major issues were covered and how. Were they the same issues they would expect to see in a mainstream paper? Is the news biased or balanced? Who is the intended audience? What is the editorial perspective? Who are the journalists?
Ask students to identify the main elements of journalism in a labor newspaper story, including the author’s point of view, the response to or incorporation of conflicting evidence or different viewpoints, the use of rhetoric, the use of style and word choice to impact meaning, the impact of the story, and the intended audience.
Ask students to identify and research a historical labor journalist like Julia Bertram or Eva Valesh. What is their background? Did they go to college? What paper(s) did they write for? Can you explain their politics? What sort of career did this person have? What events and issues did they cover?
For a gendered perspective, students might compare coverage of a particular event written by male and female journalists. Or they might be asked to analyze what kind of stories male and female journalists wrote – hard vs. soft news – and where they were published – front page vs. society page. They might compare the professional standing of past and contemporary female journalists.
Finally, ask students to locate and compare examples of advocacy journalism and fake news. What are the similarities and differences? How can readers distinguish between them? Students could be assigned to write their own advocacy or fake news stories, and their classmates could vote on which is true, along the lines of the game “two truths and a lie.”
A general familiarity with labor history will help students understand the more specific points made in the article. Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013) is a good place to start.
If students are curious to learn more about Bertram herself, historian Sandy Polishuk collaborated with Bertram (then remarried and using the last name Ruuttila) to write an oral history called Sticking to the Union: The Life and Times of Julia Ruuttila.
Several recent biographies of female journalists may be of interest, including Elizabeth Faue’s Writing the Wrongs: Eva Valesh and the Rise of Labor Journalism (2002) and Michael Dennis’s article “Women in Defense of Workers: Ella Winter, the Literary Left, and Labor Journalism in California,” Women’s History Review 26, no. 6 (Dec. 2017): 857-879.