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Mike Elk

Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times

March 28th, 2011 2:26 PM

The "Pack" of Young DC Labor Journalists - The Sh*tkickers

A recent New York Times profile of several young male trend setting DC journalists known as the "Brat Pack" inspired Good Magazine Executive Editor Ann Friedman to write a piece on the "DC Lady Journo Mafia." Friedman recounted a meeting composed of several female journalists to discuss barriers that women journalists face in the industry. “Everyone’s gotten a little bit older and a little more tired of being constantly rendered invisible,” Ms. Friedman was quoting saying about a group of young women journalist who come of age together in D.C. speaking of a wave of Washington women journalists who have come of age together. “Four years ago, we were fact-checking and editing these male pundits, along with creating award-winning work of our own. None of that has changed.”

Friedman's article recounted how these young women journalists see the social scene many men inhabit: "In a city where male journalists still get away with sexual harassment and the glass ceiling is still firmly in place at many publications, the scene these young women inhabit is as foreign as Mars. It’s not uncommon to spot them in packs, swilling whiskey at Dodge City or elbowing bros out of the way at new spots like American Ice Company."

Much like how these brave women had set trends and redefined styles to be all but ignored, working class labor journalists have challenged those in power while turning heads with their social exploits and style. They spoke with the accents common of the working class Italian American backgrounds from which they hailed. Sometimes while interviewing a source in the labor movement they often swore heavily to make their source feel more comfortable. They wore flannel in TV debates to make pinstripe suit-wearing union-busters uncomfortable. They drank 2 dollar Schlitzes at dives like the Raven because that’s all they could afford. People often referred them to as "sh*tkickers."

Much like how the voices of women are often excluded  the exclusion of voices of women by establishment males the voices of working class labor journalists had been excluded from Ivy league educated rich white men. A Pew study found that voices from organized labor were only cited in 2% of all economic reporting in 2009.

Working class voices have been left out of most publications, while journalists favor stuffy policy debates that bore most working class Americans. Rarely was the story told of the nearly 30,000 people are disciplined or fired from their job every year for trying to join a union -- much less told as the told the real reason for the recent economic crisis. When these journalists presented stories of workers attempting to organize a union or stop a plant closing, they were often told by editors that those stories would bore their publications' audiences.  As one editor put it, "Who wants to hear a story of a worker getting fucked? That happens all the time."

Inspired by Ann Friedman, Mike Elk, a freelance labor journalist decided to hold a meeting of young working class journalists to talk about how they could change things. Problem was, the only two other full time labor journalist based in DC besides Elk were both well over the age of 60.

"So the meeting was just me and my investigative partner, my dog Murphy. He's 56 in dog years, but technically eight in human years, so I guess he fits in the under 30 category of labor journalists. I tried to discuss the lack of coverage with Murphy, but he got really bored by it the way most editors do and started chewing on furniture. So I decided to take him for a walk.”

A few weeks later, Wisconsin hit and newspapers were full of labor coverage. Labor stories on the front page of the New York Times suddenly appeared about the rights of public employees to collectively bargain. For several weeks, there was a flurry of coverage of organized labor's efforts to beat Governor’s Walkers proposed plan to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin. However, the fight in Wisconsin was being covered as a political story by political reporters. These reporters covered a political fight happening in legislative bodies and being influenced by massive protests and a two week long Capitol occupation.

The new attention to the political attacks on public employees did not extend to new coverage of workplace struggles, union organizing drives, strikes, or lockouts such as the long Honeywell lockout at a uranium plant in Southern Illinois. There was little new attention drawn to the things that working class people can do in their own workplaces through organizing to improve their conditions.

So Elk decided to do one of the least working class things possible: he organized a stuffy panel on the future of labor journalism at an elite university, Georgetown University, on April 12th at 4:15 PM in the Gervase Conference Room. The panel, "New Labor Journalism," includes Gabriel Thompson, author of Working in the Shadows (Nation Books); former Washington Post Reporter Kari Lydersen, author of Revolt on Goose Island (Melville House); Mike Elk; and Mark Nowak, author of Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press). The event is co-sponsored by the Rose O'Neill Literary House and Georgetown's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, whose funding is provided by the CEO of union-made PBR, the beer of choice for many labor journalists.

In the spirit of sh*tkicking labor journalism, the panel will most likely end with grabbing some PBR somewhere located outside of the stuffy confines of the opulent Georgetown neighborhood. Elk hopes this panel will attract more people and involve far less chewing on furniture than the conversation he had about labor journalism prospect with his dog, Murphy.

Come April 12th at 4:15 PM to Georgetown University’s Gervase Conference Room for an important discussion of labor journalism. See the link here for more details.

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