The COVID-19 outbreak has brought the role of labor into focus for many people who might not have previously thought about what workers they considered “essential.” Farmworkers, nurses, pork processors and auto workers have been vocal sections of the working class protesting unsafe working conditions and low pay during the pandemic.
In addition to those unprecedented changes in the labor landscape, the killing of George Floyd brought the role of police unions to the forefront of public consciousness, with prominent labor leaders discussing removal of the police unions from the AFL-CIO. And the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has instigated labor organizing of its own, with Black workers and allies calling for general strikes in some cities. The BLM shutdowns, sometimes downplayed by officials in traditional unions, have resulted in hundreds of walkouts around the country.
Payday Report has been a key news source for this heightened activity. The outlet’s map of wildcat strikes has been particularly useful for labor reporters over the past few months, giving a centralized source of information for hundreds of walkouts, sickouts and other actions. Payday’s coverage of labor has not been sycophantic, however: Among other projects the publication has taken on is an investigation of sexual abuse in the SEIU.
Truthout interviewed Payday Report Founder Mike Elk and Editor Clarissa A. León about the site’s origins, current focus and plans for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Patrick Maynard: Mike, did you dream as a kid of starting a journalism portal for labor information? How did that come about?
Mike Elk: My father was a union leader [with the United Electrical Workers]. So when I was a kid, I always dreamed of being part of the fight back to cover workers, because of the kind of conversations we would have — I grew up in a very literate family, we read a lot; we talked a lot about what I was reading when I was a child. I think there was always a dream about wanting to go into that sort of press.
[Payday Report] came about [after] I was fired during the union drive at Politico, and in 2015, I went out to Louisville. I saw my good old friend J.P. Wright, a folk musician, and he’s worked a lot with Wendell Berry, and he gave me a copy of Anne Braden’s book, The Wall Between, about how she got blacklisted from the Louisville Courier-Journal. And at the time, I was going through a blacklisting myself, and so, what Anne Braden did to survive was she created her own publication. I said, “What an idea — why don’t I use the sympathy and support, as well as the $70,000 [labor settlement] I won from Politico to start a publication?”
And Clarissa, how did you come to the publication?
Clarissa A. León: Well, I came to Pittsburgh in 2016 to get my master’s in nonfiction writing, and I had already done some journalism work for investigative journalists prior to coming to Pittsburgh, and I really kind of wanted to continue within the journalism vein of my career but also kind of get back to writing in a way. So long story short, I had been on Twitter, and Mike had been on Twitter as well, and so we connected through there — I think through our shared contacts.
And were your parents in unions when you were a kid?
León: No, (laughs) I don’t think my parents were in a union at all. But I think that’s not necessarily because they wouldn’t have joined — it’s just their line of work. I came from Reno, Nevada, so I think that’s not as big of a union town as, say, Pittsburgh is.
Elk: Clarissa is a first-generation American as well…. My grandmother was an immigrant from Italy, and, you know, I lived in Brazil, and I really think that if we don’t organize to protect immigrant workers, it has ripple effects everywhere — where immigrant workers are the ones taking the boldest actions and the boldest risks in all of the labor movement. Dealing with deportation and death almost every day.
León: To add onto that a little bit, it’s sad that when we talk about these meatpackers, and you see and read so many of their stories, that very few stories get to talk to people who are working at those plants, so we kind of want to change some of that.
How has being the daughter of immigrants helped in your reporting?
León: I would say that being a daughter of immigrants provided me with another viewpoint from which to see the news and the world. If you can understand more communities, I believe your reporting and storytelling will improve on some level. On a more specific note, being able to speak Spanish helps in covering Spanish-speaking communities. Not having that language barrier helps in getting the stories, getting them right and asking more in-depth questions.
Elk: [With] a lot of the strike tracking map, all we’re doing is tracking Google search terms, and what’s funny is that since a lot of these things are impromptu things, they’re not necessarily officially called “strikes” but “wildcat strikes,” so we have to search for all kinds of terms, like “workers protested,” “workers call in sick,” “workers slow down production,” you know, these kinds of things.… We discovered it through that network, but the work that we did — the people involved in that strike — we first got to know when we were covering seafood workers down in … Lafayette, Louisiana. Payday has spent four years now, building the credibility so that when it’s a crisis moment, we can go get the ear of a garbage truck worker. And a garbage truck worker knows that, “Hey, we might be a smaller publication, but these guys are communicating with the movement, communicating with the press leaders.”
Would you say that most of those readers are unionized, or is it really a pretty big mix?
Elk: It’s a pretty big mix of folks, but our biggest donor base outside of Brooklyn is right here in Pittsburgh [where we’re based]. So there’s a lot of folks in the labor movement here in Pittsburgh. This is a town where the AFL-CIO was founded. So, in many ways, Pittsburgh’s been the birthplace of the American labor movement, dating back to the 1877 general strike. I think with so many publications based in these other places, being in a place like the Rust Belt [helps us].
Regarding racial equity, do you think the labor movement has done a good job of paying attention, or are they in some ways part of the problem?
Elk: I think labor’s part of the problem in many ways. Look at the leadership of the AFL-CIO: We’re talking a leadership that is — I don’t know, 75 percent white male? While statistics show that the majority of the labor movement — along with the fastest-growing parts of the labor movement — are female. Many of the care industries and public sector industries, as well as communities of color [are most active]. So we have a labor movement that is led by white men, and we’re getting into this massive fight over police unions where a lot of people say, “Hey, cops shouldn’t have collective bargaining rights.” And that’s a complex issue, because if you’re taking collective bargaining rights from one group of workers, then where do you stop in taking them from different public sector workers? Look at TSA agents, right? TSA agents didn’t have collective bargaining rights for years, and you know, they’re making 15, 16 bucks an hour. I think Veena Dubal, the brilliant [University of California, Hastings College of the Law] professor, was saying that the problem really isn’t police unions as much as it is police, and how the job of police is defined, and that we need to tear up these collective bargaining agreements and start with a whole new classification of the job. This is going to be a really tense debate, with a lot of people on the left saying police shouldn’t have collective bargaining rights, with some people in the labor movement saying, “Hey, if we start taking away collective bargaining rights from cops, does that mean the secretaries in the police station lose their collective bargaining rights? Does that mean the EMS [Emergency Medical Services] guys lose their bargaining rights?”
León: I think Mike is definitely right. I don’t know how much more I can add, but to say that I think that what’s happening with Black Lives Matter is definitely going to show itself in so many different industries, as it has slowly been doing for the past several years, and I don’t think labor is going to be an exception to that. It’s critical that the United States begin to see itself in terms of racial inequity.
Elk: I think if you want to talk about interesting new relationships that are being formed with organized labor … Michael Santiago and Alexis Johnson were taken off of covering the Black Lives Matter protests by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, because they were writing about it in a way that upset the white owners, who published all these racist op-eds — pro-Trump op-eds in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And we’ve seen the community rally around here. And the people leading the community and organizing are actually the bus drivers, which are a pretty progressive union here.
With labor localized and capital globalized, can workers really afford to strike anywhere? And are there certain industries that are less portable than others?
Elk: I mean, strike anywhere, right? It inspires other strikes. You know, people talk about strategic organizing, which I think is just a bullshit idea. You organize where people want to organize. You know; they do the organizing. I think so much of the intellectual left gets into these very, kind of top-down conversations about “We have to organize in this industry or that industry.” No. We’ve got to show solidarity with what workers are doing anyway. And I think that’s the approach we’ve got to take. And I would say the fight is in communities of color — particularly, in my opinion, in immigrant communities. We’ve tried to focus heavily on immigrant meatpackers. Over 20,000 meatpackers — largely immigrants — have gotten COVID. Scores of them have died.
What was the toughest part of reporting the SEIU sexual misconduct investigation?
Elk: The toughest part of covering [the] SEIU sexual misconduct cover-up was watching the story be ignored by so many left-leaning “labor journalists,” who would otherwise speak out against these abuses in the workplace.
Sure, it was stressful being threatened with [a] lawsuit, but it was gut wrenching to see so many left-leaning reporters ignore this story. This is why cover ups of sexual misconduct keep happening in the labor movement [because] so many labor journalists, particularly ones trying to sell books with the help of unions, don’t want to burn these bridges.
If there’s one thing that readers take away from your news outlet, what would it be?
Elk: That it’s possible to build new types of media outlets. That we don’t have to just have this sort of fatalism about whether we can change the press. We can change the press, one reader at a time. It’s a question of whether or not we as a movement are going to get serious about organizing around that. Right now, the News Guild has a very flawed plan to call for a news bailout, when really, we should be focusing on the growing trend of newsletters and helping coordinate foundations and help giving worker-owned power to news outlets — to build model news outlets that can implement good policies.
León: I couldn’t agree more with what Mike has been saying, and as far as building new, alternative media outlets, I think it’s really critical. They are trying to build sustainable journalism. What I would like is just to see new voices out there — and voices that have been disenfranchised and marginalized especially — be raised up and lifted.