Newsletter #82: The Union Forever, Part 2 | Listeners' Maibag with Alex Press

Earlier this month, organizer and academic Eric Blanc joined Alex Press and Micah Uetricht to discuss the new green shoots in the American labor movement. Next week, the newsletter will feature Alex Press’s reflections on the place of journalists and intellectuals in the labor movement. But this week, we continue to pilot a new feature of the Dig newsletter: here, supporters of the podcast on Patreon can follow up with the subject of the interview and ask questions that came to mind as they listened to the episode.

This week, Alex reflects on a question from Sean R., who asks about the place and role of labor movement intellectuals and organizers: “Both guests in this episode are, in their own ways, remarkable examples of a vocation we had thought had disappeared: part journalist, part organizer, full-time labor movement intellectual. Who are your models for doing that work and what are the unique challenges that this work has that other types of journalism or intellectual production might not? What’s the place of these sorts of writers in the movement as a whole?” Below is Alex’s answer.

The short answer to the question of challenges is that in the bourgeois press, my allegiance to the working class is seen as a bias, while, of course, other writers’ allegiance to (or instinctive sympathy with) capitalist logic is not. A different type of writer might not have this problem — though I imagine, say, a climate reporter who comes out of the climate movement or is publicly on that movement’s side might have similar issues. I often joke about how when I write for the mainstream media, no matter how much my piece is reporting rather than commentary, it always runs as “opinion.”

A challenge from a very different direction is that it takes some time to get workers to trust me. The concept of a competent journalist who is also firmly a socialist and on their side is understandably foreign to most of them. Why would they trust a journalist? I certainly never did when I was solely an activist, and most journalists in fact shouldn’t be trusted to fairly and accurately tell workers’ stories; they are not writing for workers’ benefit, or with the working class in mind as their intended audience. But that’s fine — it just means I have to prove myself over time! With so few examples of the vocation in question, it takes the power of demonstration through my work to prove that such a thing is possible. However, I don’t want to leave unsaid that this is also a strength: when workers know they can trust you, your work quickly becomes better sourced and more accurate than that of just about anyone else.

On the question of models for this work: obviously there are big ones like Heywood Broun or even John Reed. But my personal inspiration as of late is, maybe unexpectedly, Jimmy Breslin. A legendary New York columnist, Breslin wasn’t involved with the Left or labor in any real way. Indeed, so far as I can tell, he was little help to his fellow journalists when it came to labor disputes in the newsroom, instead proving to be one of the many writers who, when asked to choose between a byline and solidarity, reached for his own name. Though to give him his due, Jimmy’s instincts, borne of the working-class Queens milieu out of which he came and with whom he continued to spend much of his life, put him ahead of his fellow columnists on a few issues, particularly in opposing racism and police brutality.

One story I love is that when the Crown Heights riots broke out in 1991, Jimmy immediately got in a cab — a true New Yorker, he never learned to drive — and went there. Upon his arrival, the cab was attacked by rioters while he was still inside; I believe he ended up with a black eye. The New York Police Department, not fans of Jimmy’s, were delighted, expecting him to file a police report and admit that he had been too soft on black New Yorkers, maybe even finally coming around to the force’s racist views. Instead, Jimmy refused to file a report and went on with his coverage. One of his most famous columns, “It’s an Honor,” is also a jaw-dropping example of beautifully written labor reporting, though I doubt he’d have called it that.

Anyway, the reason I’m fond of him is that despite his cantankerous personality —he published an annual list of people he was not speaking to and once said that he defined his enemies as “Everybody who doesn’t like me, and that’s an awful lot of people” — he was at ease around just about everyone. His beat was New York City, and so from first thing in the morning until late into the night, he talked to everyone, everywhere, consorting with crooks and cops, workers and bosses, celebrities and the pseudonymous (mobsters, mostly). That’s what made him so well-sourced and so in touch with seemingly everything transpiring in the city. For anyone who wants to actually know what is happening on their beat, be it on labor or anything else, that’s a model to emulate. (For more on Jimmy, the HBO documentary is a lot of fun, but you should also just get your hands on a collection of his columns and start reading.)

As for the place of writers like myself in the movement, I’d hope we are just a part of it, playing our role in strengthening it. Not to be too predictable here, but Gramsci’s writing on intellectuals is worth keeping in mind, as a tension, a means of being aware of the limitations of how the idea of an “intellectual” is generally thought of. I firmly believe that workers are no less smart than myself — it’s an accident of birth and the largely random path of my life that my place in the division of labor is to write for a living rather than, say, assemble cars in a plant. They are certainly far more knowledgeable when it comes to the conditions of their life and work. I think with them at all times; my writing may have only my name attached to it, but that is a simplification, as I am in constant communication with worker-organizers, historians, members of other movements, and so on, our conversations a never-ending stream of questions and jokes and provocations and arguments. That’s what generates my knowledge.

A relevant Gramsci passage:

All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals. When one distinguishes between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, one is referring in reality only to the immediate social function of the professional category of the intellectuals, that is, one has in mind the direction in which their specific professional activity is weighted, whether towards intellectual elaboration or towards muscular-nervous effort. This means that, although one can speak of intellectuals, one cannot speak of non-intellectuals, because non-intellectuals do not exist. But even the relationship between efforts of intellectual-cerebral elaboration and muscular-nervous effort is not always the same, so that there are varying degrees of specific intellectual activity. There is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded: homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens. Each man, finally, outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a “philosopher,” an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought. The problem of creating a new stratum of intellectuals consists therefore in the critical elaboration of the intellectual activity that exists in everyone at a certain degree of development, modifying its relationship with the muscular-nervous effort towards a new equilibrium, and ensuring that the muscular-nervous effort itself; in so far as it is an element of a general practical activity, which is perpetually innovating the physical and social world, becomes the foundation of a new and integral conception of the world. The traditional and vulgarized type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist. Therefore journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the “true” intellectuals. In the modern world, technical education, closely bound to industrial labor even at the most primitive and unqualified level, must form the basis of the new type of intellectual.

I’m a union member myself — in the News Guild of New York, a great union. So I am in the labor movement in that way. But I also think someone who can facilitate relationships and share knowledge across workers and industries, a sort of professional dilettante freed of the considerations that come with commitment to a particular industry, happy to criticize a bad contract or employer or undemocratic union, serves a useful function for the movement. Writers like myself get to tell workers’ stories and share their insights with a broad audience, and with a deeper understanding than those journalists whose lives are not devoted to working-class politics and the socialist movement (not to mention those whose job is to write for an audience composed almost entirely of the rich). These are my comrades, we have relationships well beyond the traditional ones a writer has with a source, and I am fundamentally accountable to the movement. It’s a form of discipline. While a vocation like mine is unusual these days, it’s certainly not new. Writers in the Communist Party in the previous century offered plenty of models of how to play one’s part. On that, I highly recommend Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century as well as Scott Borchert’s Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America. The latter came out in 2021 and from what I can tell, didn’t get nearly the readership it deserves given what a blast it is to read. I wrote about it here.