25 years!


I said nothing at the time, but last fall marked a milestone for me: I’m now an old-timer. As of October, I’ve been writing for the Northwest Labor Press for 25 years. Have I learned anything in a quarter century, gathered any wisdom? Do I feel any differently about the labor movement’s prospects?

On paper, the numbers haven’t been encouraging for either of my two professional passions. As a labor journalist, I’ve joked with friends for a long time about having hitched my wagon to two noble institutions that are in longterm retreat — organized labor and newspaper journalism. Newspaper readership has been shrinking since the 1940s. And the union share of the workforce has been falling since the 1950s. I’m convinced both declines are a grave threat to democracy. When I started at the Labor Press in 1998, 13.9% of American workers had a union. Last year it was 10.0%. 

And yet for all that, I’m not pessimistic today. A decade ago when my friend Barbara Byrd was the number two officer of the Oregon AFL-CIO, she and I would get together for happy hour to talk shop. “Don, you’re so pessimistic!” she’d tell me after hearing my news from the field. “No, I’m just realistic,” I’d reply. Union members deserve an honest assessment. We can’t afford wishful thinking. There’s a class war under way, and our side needs accurate intel about the strengths and weaknesses of our forces. 

But in the last few years, I’ve been sensing a shift in the winds. 

Union-haters were cackling when the Supreme Court issued its Janus decision six years ago. They thought making all union dues voluntary would be the death of public sector unionism. But public sector unions held on, and in some places even increased their numbers. Working people weren’t so easily fooled into ditching their defenses.  

At the same time, our local union construction trades have been growing, evolving, and thriving. Seeing them up close as I do, I’m here to tell you the building trades are an under-appreciated powerhouse, providing top-of-the-line training, family-wage jobs, and enviable health care and retirement security.  

And in recent years, the Democratic Party, which fell out of love with labor in the 1970s, has come back from the brink. Democratic politicians today are more keen to court labor than at any time since I’ve been reporting on it, and the president himself is a loud and proud union diehard. Our state and federal government right now are the most pro-union they’ve been for at least half a century.

Not only that, but the so-called “free trade” ideology of the NAFTA era has become discredited in both parties. Both parties seem ready to support American manufacturing again, and there are some signs it’s coming back.

With the population aging long-term, the labor market is and will continue to be tight. Those conditions tilt power in the direction of workers.

Today the youngest workers are the most pro-union, as confirmed by opinion polls year after year. That fact alone lays a foundation for revival. 

But for me the most hopeful sign is the rediscovery of the strike by American working people. I’ve come to believe that striking is labor’s muscle. The union movement is a weakling when its strike muscle atrophies, but lately it’s started hitting the gym again. Inspired by red state teachers, autoworkers, actors, and hospital workers, working people are shaking off the fear, taking risks, and winning big. 

Like a spore waiting for the return of water, or kindling anticipating the flame, conditions are ripe for a labor movement revival. 

I’ve been at it 25 years, and if my health and my eyesight hold, I may stay at it another 15. I’m ready to write about renewal. I think it’s coming. I just hope it happens soon. 


  1. Thank you so much for your work in the trade of Journalism.
    I am retired as a former Business Manager of IUOE local 302. While I am enjoying retirement, I attempt to stay alert of the issues of organized labor. Your newsletter is a central and vital part of keeping me informed and up to date.
    I read every issue and look forward in my email to receiving each issue.
    Once again, thank you so much and know you are appreciated for your skill and knowledge in the communications trade.
    [email protected]

  2. Don,

    Your newspaper is a breath of fresh air. It sheds light on our struggles and bright moments. It connects us with our sisters and brothers in labor. I’m seeing the spark come back for labor in young workers as they are realizing to thrive in the middle class it’s best to be in a union. Keep up the great reporting!

    Howard Bell

  3. Lovely to read your heartening words. What I also find encouraging is the uptick in class analysis appearing on social media. The US is finally catching on to what Europeans have been discussing for decades.


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