Workers’ Control and the News: The Madison, Wisconsin, Press Connection*
by Dave Wagner interviewed by Paul Buhle
The Madison, Wisconsin, Press Connection (1977–1980) was a worker-run newspaper started by striking employees of Madison’s two dailies. Published at first as a weekly striking paper, in which editorial and production workers pooled their skills, the Press Connection evolved into a cooperatively owned daily which long outlived the strike. Shares were held by unions, other organizations, and individual supporters. Its peak circulation was 13,600, reached early in 1979. Always short on advertising and cash, the PC became an early victim of the current recession as it suspended publication in January 1980.
THE PRESS CONNECTION’S ORIGINS
The leadership of the PC in its origins was provided by two groups. There were the leaders of the production unions under whose banner the newspaper strike (which led to the founding of the PC as a strike paper) was called; they were, for the most part, printers, pressmen, and mailers, men, white, mostly in their forties and fifties, union members from way back who were going through their first big strike. There were also the leaders of the editorial unions (one a local of the Newspaper Guild, the other an independent) who had come to union activism from a background in other struggles, notably from the gay rights, feminist, and anti-war movements. Some of this group had been Vietnam veterans with anti-war sentiments (that was also true, by the way, of some of the leaders of the production unions) and others were just plain pissed off at the bosses’ provocations.
Needless to say, there was tension between these two groups, at least on a few key issues. For the most part, however, for reasons I’ll get into later, there was a remarkably strong feeling and practice of solidarity throughout the strike.
As for “community attitude,” it is precisely the kind of phrase overindulged in by the PC; we never defined the “community,” though we wanted to use the phrase to our advantage—usually it meant “the otherwise unspoken for” and referred to people in the inner city. It’s a worthless euphemism, much like the use of the term “progressive” to mean “socialist.” We used it despite the constant awareness that within the Madison “community” there were many thousands who supported former mayor Bill Dyke, who later became Lester Maddox’ vice-presidential running mate. Madison is a bit schizoid.
Our practical reasons for trying to “organize the community” were, first, that many of us knew that our chances of stopping production at the struck plant were next to nil; and second, that we faced a tremendously difficult, always uphill battle to persuade many people who abhor racism, sexism, and imperial adventures that working people as workers have an equally universal cause. It’s remarkable how some liberals can go into a St. Vitus dance of anxiety on this point when “liberal” union busters appear on the scene.
(It’s also true that women and minorities, sometimes with the ready sneer that “unions never did anything for me,” were among the first to cross the picket lines. We tried, sometimes with great difficulty, to explain to our own members that the long years of racial and sexual discrimination in the union were coming home to our roost. Not everyone understood. But we had to hammer away, even at one point printing in the strike paper a statement that the union leaders would not tolerate anti-Semitic, racial, or sexist epithets on the picket line. Some of the production craft people had enormous difficulty understanding why scabs could not be called by any epithet at hand. But they tried. One incident I will never forget occurred late one night when a particularly good-hearted but outraged pressman, who had been struggling for days to bite his tongue when a black security guard sailed through the line, finally could take it no longer. He stepped in front of the guard’s car, leaned toward the windshield, and yelled, “You . . . Polak!” It was our turn to be bewildered. I hope someday to be able to write a short piece on “picket line culture,” the stage on which workers put on masks to become themselves.)
As for labor struggles of the seventies, ours was the first definitive one in Madison with the exception of a brief but important teachers’ strike in 1976; our main job, through the PC, was to explain our own story and to give as much support as we could to the many other unions that began to hit the pavement soon after we did. Because we had defined ourselves, fitfully at first but with more and more clarity, as a feminist paper, we were able to play a rather more active role than usual in supporting nurses in a threatened citywide strike. When the cab companies conspired to boot out their union (for the third time in a decade), we were in a unique position to support the unions, expose the often illegal finagling of their former bosses, and encourage their effort to found a worker-run cab company of their own. We were able, in our opinion columns and in our news pages, to give unique coverage to the teachers’ contract battles; they not only trusted us, their locals bought a great many shares in our cooperative, and of all the unions were most sympathetic to our insistence that labor struggles were part and parcel of sexual, racial and political issues. Our biggest failure was with the meatcutters’ strike. Well over 2,000 workers at a local meatpacking plant walked out for the first time in Madison history (they too were provoked by layoffs), but their leadership was dominated by the members of the old guard at the central labor council with whom the PC regularly crossed swords. Though we gave the meatcutters as much supportive coverage as we could, we had a sense that it was not entirely welcome. More than anything except the dramatic mayoral election—which found the new and old guards bitterly split—this strike showed the extent to which our political notions about unionism were not universally shared by Madison unionists.
Like many other folks around the country in the seventies, we cast about to find whatever local history and tradition of resistance might be useful. In Madison that tradition was the Progressivism of Old Bob La Follette. One of the papers we had struck (my old employer, the Capital Times) had once been the organ of the Progressive Party; our line was that the paper had drifted far away from its founding principles and that our own paper would try to refresh that honored Wisconsin tradition.
We were certainly not unaware of the contradictions within the history of the Progressive movement, and indeed they were pointed out to us often by our socialist readers. (Madison has, judging from certain election returns and subscription lists, about 6,000 Socialists.) But it was the only foundation at hand; in Milwaukee, we could have conceivably plugged into the old Socialist Party tradition, but there was no history of that—no ethnic base, for that matter—in Madison. Since our strike was fundamentally a strike against a larger corporate newspaper chain, namely Lee Enterprises out of Iowa, it made sense to fight along anti-corporate lines. For one thing, like all newspapers we had to rely on display advertising, and the old Progressive inclusion of small businesses within the anti-corporate struggle made sense for us financially. We never denied the PC’s self-interest here, but by the end it became evident that the line we had established at the beginning for economic reasons was politically justified. We became acutely aware of the difficulties small businesses have in finding credit, competing with the huge cash reserves of corporations, and otherwise finding a niche in an economy dominated by only 500 corporations. Those small businesspersons who understood our position gave us extraordinary support—in part, of course, because our rates were extraordinarily low. The larger businesses boycotted us consistently; since the 1940s, newspapers have been unable to survive on the small-business trade alone.
We tried, then, to forge together labor activists, feminists, small businesspeople, community organizers (the latter on issues such as school closings and property speculation), the poor, the Left (from the electoral to the cultural activists), students, and blacks (though the last two were most indifferent to our efforts) into a broad-based front against the reactionaries who were putting their own quiet agenda back on the table in Madison. While the PC was fresh and kept its quality up, the coalition held. Later, because of certain mistakes on our part, including the occasionally necessary abrupt criticism of elements in one’s own coalition, and because of a decline in quality derived from staff attrition and economic realities—not to mention a string of serious political defeats for the Left in general—the coalition wavered.
It is a vastly different undertaking to attempt to build a “counter-economy” in a city rather than a “counterculture” on a campus. In printing defenses of the small businesses’ struggle on the one hand and occasional teeth-gritting screeds from Left sectarians on the other, we tried to open up our pages as a wide-open forum. At the same time, we tried to encourage the notion that, as the economy continued to decline, a broad national coalition (based in local struggles) would have to emerge at some point, and that activists would eventually have to accept economic, job-oriented analyses as a common starting point for everyone.
It was this kind of thinking that led us to embrace with such enthusiasm the founding of the Progressive Alliance in Detroit, to which we gave extensive on-the-spot coverage. In retrospect, it seems clear that the cautions given in Radical America about that organization (which, by the way, were useful in our editorial meetings) were correct. But at the time it was the only game in town—and one we desperately needed in our constant search for national tendencies we could plug our readers into. (I’m convinced, by the way, that at some point there will be a wave of leftist dailies in the U.S.—but not until there is a movement that will provide the core of the news; a newspaper, especially a daily with its constant need for copy, becomes shrill in isolation, tries to create as much as to interpret the news, and runs the risk of simply becoming a “better” liberal paper than the liberals put out. We were a few years too early.)
In the meantime we found that cooperative ownership of a newspaper can create unusual pressures both editorially and politically. We were self-managed to a remarkable degree, but we had owners as well. Each single-issue group had its own idea of what the PC should become and which issues it should feature; many of them bought membership in the co-op, not only to demonstrate support but to have a say in our policies. So the editors were often called on the carpet in an office meeting when the paper deviated a jot or a tittle from the established line. It was not like a traditional newspaper where the editors condescend to deal with a small group the paper doesn’t really need; these were most often comrades as anxious to keep their paper from embarrassing itself as they were determined to keep it pointed resolutely in the right direction.
If we tried to keep the labor orientation as editorial ballast, we were still pulled in many different directions by the coalition members who were also owners. For that matter, political divisions emerged within the staff toward the end. Two incidents occurred in the fall of 1979 that seemed to sum up the experience of the PC at its best and worst, things we continue to chew on in this strangely reflective time that follows several years of manic activity.
The first was our decision to publish a letter, banned elsewhere by the Justice Department, purporting to describe the “secrets” of the H-bomb. The day after we published the letter the government dropped its case against the Progressive magazine. It was a big moment for the PC as a newspaper, and there was a sense of victory. It was the vindication of co-op ownership and workers’ control in the sense that all the privately-owned papers had refused to defy the government even in the name of First Amendment rights—rights which we of course harped on at symphonic length, and rights which for once were deposited in the hands of editors unhampered by a corporate board. (We were sometimes criticized by Leninists and others for thumping for the First Amendment, which they felt was a bourgeois civil liberty; our attitude was that bourgeois civil liberties were only the beginning of what will someday be demanded. . . . )
The second incident, which occurred only two weeks later, was grimmer. It began when a Milwaukee-based anti-abortion group plastered Madison with billboards that carried a photo of a three-month-old baby and the bizzare slogan, “Kill her now, its murder; six months ago, abortion.” It was, to say the least, provocative. A reporter and a photographer were assigned to do a story. The reporter was thorough enough to find and write that defacements of the billboards were covered by the owners’ insurance. Within days a spontaneous, systematic defacement began.
Then came a key move from the anti-abortion group. “If you’re so high and mighty on the First Amendment,” they said to the PC, “you will print a full-page ad of ours that reproduces the billboard and argues for our right not to have them defaced.” The ad read, “Their bomb and our baby.”
Question: should we print a full-page ad which we found nauseating? If we did, the pro-abortion groups in our coalition would, they told us, be upset enough to picket the PC. The ad would be an insult to women, in particular those women who had had abortions (by implication they were being called murderers) and we would be putting an opportunist interpretation on the First Amendment by claiming that anyone had the right to buy space in the paper. That’s the way the straight press does it, they pointed out, but the PC shouldn’t be like the straight press.
If we refused to run the ad, it would kick out from under the paper one of its editorial pillars; once we set ourselves up as arbiters of free speech (by denying access to the public prints) we would more or less be conceding to the Justice Department’s case that “in some cases” these rights should be abridged. We had exposed ourselves to $10,000 in fines and ten years in prison each to deny that. If we backed down when the issue was reversed we would, some staff members felt, be victims of “ideological blackmail.”
The dilemma, as it turned out, was resolved, or rather unresolved, in the worst and most destructive way possible. The decision to run the ad was in the jurisdiction of the general manager, who was determined to run it. Meanwhile, the editor and editorial board (whose authority was then in doubt because of a missed election) decided to run a same-day editorial attacking the ad. The general manager opposed the editorial on the grounds that same-day opinionating was “unprofessional” and reported the matter to the board of directors on the evening of publication. The board decided in favor of simultaneous publication of the ad and the editorial, but when that decision was reported to the general manager he refused to go along with it. As a result the ad ran alone, pickets appeared in front of the PC offices, and the editorial belatedly ran the following day.
It was a stalemate. Something cracked inside the paper at that moment. The board could not fire the general manager without inviting serious turmoil inside the staff, where he had the strategic support of some people who felt that the paper was failing economically because it was “too far to the left.” The issue was never resolved to anyone’s satisfaction, the lines of authority were never reestablished, and the tension between self-managment and cooperative ownership intensified without there being time to make it a productive conflict. By the time the annual shareholder’s meeting rolled around, at which 500 people were present and voting, the only serious issue that remained was the financial crisis that made it necessary to close down the paper.
PC’s political direction was formed by the new and sometimes strange combinations of forces at work on it. I think it will be some time before we draw the right lessons from the mistakes or from the victories.
WORKERS’ CONTROL IN ACTION
There is absolutely no doubt that without the twin principles of workers’ control and pay parity the PC would never have lasted the 27 months from October 1977 to January 1980.
But first let me give you a picture of how it worked. When we began as a strike weekly, the presidents of the five unions appointed workers in each of their ranks who had the widest respect as skilled and diligent craftspersons (as opposed to political officers in the leadership who were often better talkers than workers). These production leaders were pulled together into a Production Council which I was asked to chair (because of experience in the sixties in production problems when I worked in the underground press). Once a week, sometimes twice, we met and hammered out logistical problems. For the most part no one in the council had the slightest idea of the mysteries of the other crafts, and so democratic decision-making was absolutely unavoidable—it was the only process that could possibly have worked under the circumstances. These weekly meetings, for me, were the most exciting part of the strike. The mutual respect, the rounds of congratulation to individual workers and crafts for difficult jobs well done under impossible circumstances, the unquestioning trust in each other as skilled workers—here was the culmination of years of dreams and theories. Hell yes, it worked, and it continued to work all through the paper’s history. Over the months the walls of mystery were gradually battered down until workers in each department had fairly clear ideas of the problems and work tempos of adjacent departments; this was invaluable for the larger meetings involving all the workers, where political discussions were not allowed to become abstracted too much from the practical limitations of production.
Pay parity was the complement to workers’ control. All through the paper’s history the weekly paycheck (except, later on, those of the advertising reps who worked on commission) remained the same for each worker. It avoided the resentments that could have torn the paper apart within six months. (Of course, the size of the paycheck was so small that it more or less guaranteed equality in self-exploitation. As the old strikers left us one by one, we became more familiar with the external demands of the labor market on the pay scales. I doubt that the principle could have held forever. Yet without it, we never could have lasted 27 months).
These two principles worked soundly for the internal politics of the paper. The only alternative would have been massive infusions of money at the very start—enough showing up in our paychecks that we should forgo participation, that is, business as usual. But there were two unresolved problems.
Toward the end we found that the pay was too low to hold skilled workers, despite the fact that the majority held on as long as they could. They were replaced, at first, by people with little experience but with a strong political commitment to the experiment. But some people also showed up who were completely unskilled, who had little work experience of any sort, no understanding of union rules (which were the cornerstone of workers’ control from the beginning), and little experience in large organizations. They worked in the circulation and advertising departments, and what we had was a kind of lumpenization of the workforce on those departments. Never has that class distinction been made clearer to me, or with more pain. These new people lacked discipline, performed erratically, refused to analyze financial information, and would not respect collective decision-making. The youth culture of the sixties (ah, roots!) has become, no doubt because of its classless and utopian spirit, a nostalgic refuge for those who not only will not but cannot hold a job, or, rather, cannot do work. The Black Panthers’ paper in the sixties and Madison’s Take Over in the seventies glorified the “lumpen” consciously, with arguable points. No one but the sectarians has bothered to dispute these points, because discretion has become the better part of politics.
The other problem was that neither the financial leaders (including me) nor the other workers made an effort to democratize financial skills. Workers’ control will, I am convinced, be impossible until schools carry mandatory courses on the basic categories of the balance sheet. Workers simply must be able to distinguish between balance sheets, financial statements, pro forma budgets, and cash budgets—and be able to interpret them. For me the process of decipherment was difficult enough (I spent two years on the PC board of directors); we never should have democratized that process without spending many long hours of catch-up at the expense of production (which, in a daily paper, has its own fierce schedules).
Finally, while workers’ control and pay parity worked for a long time, the losses in the business end forced the paper over time to tie itself more and more dependently to credit institutions and contractors, until the space for financial maneuvering shrank to a narrow corridor indeed. In that situation workers sometimes had difficulty understanding the priorities assigned to incoming revenues.
Our effort to build a “countereconomy” in Madison got nowhere (except in our help to the worker-owned cab company); many more building blocks will have to be in place for that to appear on the scale we imagined. Even then we will have to be particularly careful that we are not simply creating an economy of the poor and for the poor, relieving in the process a considerable social burden from the corporations and the government.
I am satisfied that the actual work and the production schedules remained firmly in the hands of workers in each department, though the direction of that work was usually in the hands of the Production Council. That body, after the paper was sold by the unions to the workers and then to cooperative shareholders, (eventually about 800 of them), came to be made up of the elected heads of each department. They in turn were supervised by three assistant managers, who were elected by the workforce at large. The only member of management who was not elected was the general manager, who was appointed by the board of directors (they, of course, were elected by the co-op members, or shareholders). It was a balance between workers’ control and community control; some of the ideas of Gar Alperovitz went into the board’s discussions about achieving that balance.
In an essay, historian David Montgomery refers to a PC worker who said, with regard to a seminar he attended on workers’ sharing in decision-making, that he found the seminar irrelevant because people at the PC saw no need for “management participation.” That remark came comparatively early in the experience. At that point “management” referred to the old bosses at the struck plant. Eventually we did develop a management of our own. By the end only one of the three elected managers remained; they were replaced by “acting” managers who, under the pressure of business, were clearly perceived as the only persons with the required specialized skills—particularly in the business office. We folded the paper shortly before the next round of elections, so the problem of succession was never met in practice.
Some workers felt that workers’ control had become something of a charade. That feeling ranged from a few disciplined workers who saw no need for department heads, elected or not, to the group of marginal workers that continually lost political struggles because of naivete or lack of organizing experience.
Similarly, among the old guard of original strikers, particularly in the production crafts, workers’ control was felt to be too “ideological” and unnecessary; the printers (International Typographical Union) clung to their union control of production to the end.
Each department had a Workers’ Council for matters of discipline, hiring and firing. In the craft departments they remained largely unused because union committees had identical functions; some departments were too small to need them. Only the editorial department really made use of it, and it proved to be particularly valuable; we found that elected workers took their tasks very seriously and had a moral authority, particularly in matters of discipline, that often allowed them to be more stringent in their decisions than the elected management could afford to be.
It’s true that workers’ control is not always efficient, at least in the short run. Internal political questions seemed to erupt from time to time into a crisis in which the various elected bodies and leaders would redefine their roles and authority to achieve every imaginable parliamentary advantage. Periodically resentments and latent struggles, often around a symbolic issue, would come to a real boil. For days production efficiency would be compromised by caucuses, organizing, and lobbying as the lines of the various splits formed. But once the issue was resolved there was a general feeling that the unspoken had been uttered and that deep-seated wounds which in other work circumstances would have been allowed to fester had been revealed in what some of us came to call “labor theater”—and production would then return to a higher level of efficiency than before. In the long run, I am convinced, these political passion plays—in which everyone had lines to deliver, poses to strike, and quite often sound arguments to make—are inextricable parts of the way workers’ control will look in the future. Once these rain storms passed, the air in the office was usually remarkably invigorating. I only wish we had had many more years to see how the process developed. If the form was theatrical, the content, until the end, remained rational; I was never disappointed by it, anxieties of the moment aside.
THE PRESS CONNECTION AND THE UNIONS
When our strike hit the city in October 1977, the Madison Federation of Labor was a moribund organization, dominated by the building trades and run by an out-and-out business unionist. The first electoral challenge to his leadership, organized by the public employees two years earlier, had been crushed outright. A month after the PC went down the tubes the same man was reelected, after a challenge by the same group, by a margin of only about 55 to 45 percent. The failure of the building trades and the business unionists to support any strike effort in the preceding two years, along with steady hammering by the PC, changed the atmosphere. I have no doubt that the old guard will be thrown out next year. Unfortunately, the Federation has precious little power in any case; it will be largely a symbolic victory, I think.
But this same strain between business-unionist and insurgent tendencies seems to exist all around the country. Clearly something will have to give within the next decade.
I fully expect that, once the insurgents consolidate their gains by the middle eighties, the building trades hereabouts will withdraw, either formally or informally, from the Federation. I also expect to see new kinds of associative bodies spring up in which the CIO-oriented unions from the AFL-CIO will sit down with insurgent Teamsters and UAW members.
Who knows what may lie beyond that? Getting that far will be the fruit of 15 years of struggle. But I do know from my experience at the PC that there are many, many articulate and committed veterans of the sixties and seventies who are only awaiting an opening. It could all happen very rapidly, depending on how the issues develop and at what tempo. Time is on the side of the insurgents.
*Revised version of an interview that appeared in Vol. 14, No. 4 (July–August 1980).