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The Column That Launched a Union

The National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in 1933, was a New Deal program intended to strengthen the economy by regulating production and prices; it also included a provision protecting the right of workers to form unions. One odd place in which a union drive emerged was among newspaper reporters, a group that had long resisted unionization efforts, in part because of their status as “professional” and “white-collar” workers. Newspaper columnist Heywood Broun was a sportswriter who gradually turned to writing book reviews and personal essays; in the 1930s Broun became a member of the Socialist Party and ran unsuccessfully for Congress. On August 7, 1933, Broun published this famous column calling—with some ambivalence—for a journalists’ union. The combination of Broun’s column, the intransigence of publishers, and the general labor unrest sweeping the nation led to a nationwide flurry of activity among newspaper people, culminating in the December 1933 formation of the American Newspaper Guild (ANG).

"You may have heard,“ writes Reporter Unemployed, ”that, although the newspapers are carrying the bulk of NRA publicity, a number of the publishers themselves are planning to cheat NRA re-employment aims.

"The newspaper publishers are toying with the idea of classifying their editorial staffs as ‘professional men.’ Since NRA regulations do not cover professionals, newspaper men, therefore, would continue in many instances to work all hours of the day and any number of hours of the week.

"The average newspaper man probably works on an eight-hour-a-day and six-day-week basis. Obviously the publishers, by patting their fathead employee on the head and calling them ‘professionals,’ hope to maintain this working week scale. And they’ll succeed, for the men who made up the editorial staffs of the country are peculiarly susceptible to such soothing classifications as ‘professionals,’ 'journalists,‘ ’members of the fourth estate,‘ ’gentlemen of the press' and other terms which have completely entranced them by falsely dignifying and glorifying them and their work.

White-Collar Hacks.

“The men who make up the papers of this country would never look upon themselves as what they really are—hacks and white-collar slaves. Any attempt to unionize leg, rewrite, desk or makeup men would be laughed to death by these editorial hacks themselves. Union? Why, that’s all right for dopes like printers, not for smart guys like newspaper men!”

“Yes, and those ‘dopes,’ the printers, because of their union, are getting on an average some 30 percent better than the smart fourth estaters. And not only that, but the printers, because of their union and because they don’t permit themselves to be called high-faluting names, will now benefit by the new NRA regulations and have a large number of their unemployed re-employed, while the ‘smart’ editorial department boys will continue to work forty-eight hours a week because they love to hear themselves referred to as ‘professionals’ and because they consider unionization as lowering their dignity.”

Keeping Hypocrisy Out.

I think Mr. Unemployed’s point is well taken. I am not familiar with just what code newspaper publishers have adopted or may be about to adopt. But it will certainly be extremely damaging to the whole NRA movement if the hoopla and the ballyhoo (both very necessary functions) are to be carried on by agencies which have not lived up to the fullest spirit of the Recovery Act. Any such condition would poison the movement at its very roots.

I am not saying this from the point of view of self-interest. No matter how short they make the working day, it will still be a good deal longer than the time required to complete this stint. And as far as the minimum wage goes, I have been assured by everybody I know that in their opinion all columnists are grossly overpaid. They have almost persuaded me.

After some four or five years of holding down the easiest job in the world I hate to see other newspaper men working too hard. It makes me feel self-conscious. It embarrasses me even more to think of newspaper men who are not working at all. Among this number are some of the best. I am not disposed to talk myself right out of a job, but if my boss does not know that he could get any one of forty or fifty men to pound out paragraphs at least as sippy and stimulating as these, then he is far less sagacious than I have occasionally assumed.

Fortunately columnists do not get fired very frequently. It has something to do with a certain inertia in most executives. They fall readily into the convenient conception that columnists are something like the weather. There they are, and nobody can do anything much about it. Of course, the editor keeps hoping that some day it will be fair and warmer, with brisk northerly gales. It never is, but the editor remains indulgent. And nothing happens to the columnist. At least, not up till now.

Bosses I Have Met.

It is a little difficult for me, in spite of my radical leanings and training and yearnings, to accept wholeheartedly the conception of the boss and his wage slaves. All my very many bosses have been editors, and not a single Legree in the lot. Concerning every one of them it was possible to say, “Oh, well, after all, he used to be a newspaper man once himself.”

But the fact that newspaper editors and owners are genial folk should hardly stand in the way of the organization of a newspaper writers' union. There should be one. Beginning at 9 o’clock on the morning of October 1 I am going to do the best I can to help in getting one up. I think I could die happy on the opening day of the general strike if I had the privilege of watching Walter Lippmann heave half a brick through a Tribune window at a non-union operative who had been called in to write the current “Today and Tomorrow” column on the gold standard.

Source: Heywood Broun, “It Seems to Me,” New York World Telegram, 7 August 1933.