Labor’s Voice in Milwaukee for 73 years is gone; Now, how will workers be heard?

The end of the Milwaukee Labor Press:  Another sign of perceived impending death of the U.S. labor movement?  Not all all; it’s just a realistic look at the changing world of communications.

The cost of printing, distributing and paying for the monthly publication is just too much for the Milwaukee Area Labor Council to bear as it faces the impact of declining membership, due most recently to the passage of Wisconsin’s Act Ten that has gutted membership among public employee unions.  However, more and more persons, and especially young people entering the workforce, are depending upon social media, like Facebook, Twitter and the others to share information.  It’s good news that the labor movement is trying to keep up with this trend.

Nonetheless, the demise of the printed version is sad to see, at least for those of us who grew up looking to alternative, pro-worker views from the Milwaukee Labor Press.

The final edition of the Milwaukee Labor Press, with an abbreviated spelling of 'Good-Bye'

The final edition of the Milwaukee Labor Press, with an abbreviated spelling of ‘Good-Bye’

The newspaper was born in 1940, following the death of another Milwaukee newspaper that carried labor’s message, the short-lived Milwaukee Post which was a successor to Milwaukee’s longtime Socialist daily newspaper, the Milwaukee Leader.  Founded in 1911, the Leader’s first editor was Victor Berger, who guided the paper throughout most of its existence.  Berger became famous (his opponents would likely have said “infamous”) as a Socialist Congressman when he was jailed for his opposition to World War I.  Even so, he was reelected to the seat while in jail.  (For a fascinating look into Berger and his importance to the City, read this from Peter Dreier, a professor at Occidental College.) 

In 1917, when the newspaper’s editor died suddenly, Berger recruited John M. Work, a renowned Socialist leader and anti-war activist, to edit the paper.  Because of its anti-war stands, the Administration of President Wilson suspended the newspaper’s second class mailing privileges; yet its subscribers made extra donations to keep the paper alive during this difficult period.

Work stayed on through the paper’s remaining years until 1938 and continued as editor through its successor publications, the Milwaukee Evening Post, and shortly thereafter to the New Milwaukee Evening Post, and finally to the Milwaukee Post.

Brisbane Hall, early home of Labor Press.

Brisbane Hall, early home of Labor Press and its predecessor, the Milwaukee Leader.

It was printed at Brisbane Hall, which stood at N. 6th St. and W. Juneau Ave., just north of Milwaukee’s downtown, and the home of the new Milwaukee Labor Press in 1940.  The factory-like structure that housed the Leader then became home to the Labor Press until the building was torn down in 1965 to make way for the North-South freeway.  The Labor Press then moved its current location within the offices of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council on S. Hawley Road.

The weekly Labor Press concentrated mainly upon local labor union news for its coverage, though it did offer comment on national news as well.  It also offered readers a few enticing offerings, such as recipes (usually from union members or their spouses), pictures of pin-up girls (a practice it ended as the feminist movement gained influence), do-it-yourself articles and sports.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s – until the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955 – the Labor Press was the official paper of the Federated Trades Council, while the CIO Labor Council published the Wisconsin CIO News, which mainly carried news of the industrial unions in the area.

A series of colorful editors headed the Labor Press the longest tenure being held by Ray Taylor from 1954 until the 1980s; he was outspoken and a popular candidate for emceeing events, where he had a knack, through his friendship with most labor leaders of the area, to “roast” them in his presentations to the glee of the audiences.  Patsy Cashmore was the first woman to edit the paper, succeeding Taylor; in 2002, retired Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editor and reporter Dominique Paul Noth, took over.

The paper will be missed, to be sure.  It offered a chance for local unions to assure that their story got into publication.  During this writer’s life, he relied on the Labor Press to provide space for articles giving the workers’ side of the Milwaukee Newspaper Guild’s ten-week strike against the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1962, the efforts at gaining first labor contracts by AFSCME’s District Council 48 for municipal workers in the County after passage of the nation’s first collective bargaining law for public employees, and for stories involving strikes and issues for locals of the former Allied Industrial Workers at Briggs & Stratton, Harley-Davidson, and others.

The Labor Press at one time the largest circulation labor paper in the nation proved for years to be a bulwark against the often one-sided coverage of the community’s major news outlets, where the views of business seemed to hold priority.  Now it will be up to the new social media and other present-day communications forms to get the workers’ side into the public mind.

It’s critical that the views of working people not be lost as we write “30” to the printed form of the Milwaukee Labor Press, a great institution that served workers in Milwaukee for 73 years. — Ken Germanson, April 3, 2013

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