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A Brief History of Union-Run Media in Chicago

Labor-run papers used to be commonplace. More unique is the longest-running labor-owned radio station, which was based in Chicago and once hosted the Beatles.

Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, speaks to media after the purchase of the Sun-Times.   Photo: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune

This summer, when a coalition of labor unions and private investors purchased the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Reader for one dollar, they introduced a new element to the city’s media ownership landscape.

That’s not just because they beat out Tronc, the media parent of the Tribune (and this magazine), to do it.

Unlike Michael Ferro, Tronc’s majority shareholder, or Joe Ricketts, the wealthy businessman behind DNAinfo, the new owners of the Sun-Times (including the Chicago Federation of Labor, a former alderman, and the scion of a wealthy Chicago family) are firmly on the side of labor.

For its part, the new ownership group has said repeatedly that it won’t use its power to influence the coverage at Chicago’s second-largest newspaper. Bob Reiter, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said in an interview with the Sun-Times, “We didn’t get involved in order to get a pass from reporters … Our reporters will look at what is happening and report the story. If that means someone in the labor movement has an issue, then that’s the story.”

Still, labor-run media has a long history in Chicago. In fact, from the early 1900s to the 1970s, unions across the country regularly had broadsheets written by, and for, their workers.

Robert Bruno, a labor history professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that union-owned papers were sold on street corners and in factories. “For these working-class communities, these papers served as the alternatives to commercial papers,” says Bruno.  

The 1920s were a critical juncture for the U.S. labor movement. With employers increasingly unwilling to negotiate and with the country sliding toward the Great Depression, the American Federation of Labor, a coalition of the country’s biggest labor unions, discussed buying a radio station at its 1925 national conference. But the group scrapped the idea, feeling instead that its role in American society was secure enough to continue buying time on corporate broadcasts instead.

The Chicago Federation of Labor disagreed. It decided to create WCFL, “the voice of labor,” which became the longest-running labor-owned radio station in America from 1926 to 1978.

But it quickly came up against hurdles, and the station became a microcosm of the larger fight between organized labor, the government, and corporate America. First,  the U.S. Department of Commerce refused to give it a wavelength from which to broadcast. The station went ahead and began transmitting from Navy Pier, only to be blocked again by the Illinois Manufacturers Association, a trade group, who protested WCFL’s use of a public space for broadcasting.

Nationally, labor would be essentially knocked off the air in the 1930s when the National Association of Broadcasters announced they would adopt a “code of ethics” that didn’t allow commercial stations to broadcast controversial issues, including labor-related announcements, and prohibited stations from selling air time to unions. Business, meanwhile, saw no such restrictions.

As the WCFL wasn’t a member of the association, it continued to broadcast and became an ever-more prominent pro-labor voice as media access for unions around the county began to dwindle. WCFL covered the activist bent of a Chicago Public Schools social studies curriculum in 1938, took efforts to link both class-related concerns and those of particular ethnic groups (there was both a weekly Irish and Italian radio broadcast), and even hosted the Beatles in 1966.

Much like the labor movement at large, however, by the 1970s WCFL was having an identity crisis, with pop music gradually overshadowing news coverage; the station was criticized after it announced Richard Nixon’s resignation hours after it became public. The Chicago Federation of Labor eventually announced the station was too expensive to maintain, and it was sold to a subsidiary of the Amway Corporation in 1978. (The Chicago Federation of Labor did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)

This was the decade in which the labor movement turned away from getting involved in broader national conversations and toward a narrower focus on improving working conditions and raising wages, says Bruno. “The labor movement believed there would be enough [media] regulation so that the government would assure there would be an open and broad expression of different views,” he says.

Today, union membership in the United States has continued its steady decline. Journalism, similarly, finds itself in a crisis of shrinking jobs and increased consolidation.

For Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, those realities made any new ownership of the Sun-Times besides that of Tronc, its main competitor, a welcome announcement. “The most important thing is that the Chicago Sun-Times was saved as a separate and independent newspaper,” said Simpson.

Simpson says he doesn’t think the new owners will instill bias into the paper’s reporting. But there is one way that they could make an impact on the paper, and its treatment of labor, very soon: Unionized workers at the Reader authorized a strike over wages and cutbacks this past spring, and as of this fall, still haven’t signed a new contract.

In a statement, the union said it “takes heart” in the new owners’ respect for collective bargaining: “It’s still too early to say much, but we hope to develop a functional partnership with the owners rather than being forced back into the sort of adversarial stalemate that dominated our dealings with Wrapports [the previous owner]—such a partnership would not only improve the Reader’s already excellent journalism but also increase its reach.”

As for its coverage, Bruno is hopeful that the Sun-Times’s new owners will expand its include more issues that interest everyday Chicagoans. “If the paper is genuinely going to tell a story about life and labor and community, it should have a strong appreciation for its working people,” says Bruno. “There was a time when all great papers had a labor desk.”

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