That his newspaper has survived for 100 years might have amazed Geraghty and his successors. During that century of publication the newspaper has endured financial crises, changes of ownership, political attacks and upheavals in the labor movement. It has never wavered, however, in its commitment to serving as a voice for working people.
In the late 1890s, the track record for labor newspapers in the city was not good. Prior to Geraghty’s venture, there had been a number of labor publications, including the St. Paul Labor Bulletin. None had sufficient financial backing and each, in turn, failed.
Unions, in St. Paul and across the nation, were struggling to rebuild after economic depression in the 1890s and the crushing of the Pullman strike. The Knights of Labor and the American Railway Union were fading, giving way to organizations such as the AFL. The St. Paul Trades & Labor Assembly, formed in 1882 by delegates from five craft unions and two Knights of Labor assemblies, decided to affiliate with the AFL in November of 1896. The creation of the Union Advocate coincided with that move.
First issue off the press
The first issue came off the press -- probably a small foot treadle press -- on Jan. 22, 1897. In those days, publishing a newspaper was a laborious process, with most small printing shops still setting type by hand, a letter at a time. The newly invented linotypes, which speeded up typesetting, were just making their appearance at larger daily newspapers.
The Advocate came out weekly and carried news of the Trades & Labor Assembly affiliated unions and advertisements by businesses sympathetic to labor. During that first year, the name was changed from the St. Paul Union Advocate to the Minnesota Union Advocate, reflecting its position as official organ of both the St. Paul Trades & Labor Assembly and the Minnesota Federation of Labor. In 1966, "Minnesota" was dropped and the name became simply "The Union Advocate."
The source of funding for the startup of the Advocate is not known, but about midway through its first year, the newspaper came under the ownership of Cornelius Guiney, who operated it as a private enterprise. It was not subsidized by the labor movement, but it did cater to organized labor. Some later accounts accuse Guiney of being a tool of political boss/St. Paul Mayor John O’Connor, who cut an infamous deal to provide asylum for gangsters in St. Paul so long as they committed no crimes in the city.
An account in a 1949 issue of the Advocate reported, "Guiney was a handy man for the O’Connor regime and he took orders. Editorially the Union Advocate stood for whatever Guiney stood for, its columns were open and he accepted patronage from all parties and all individuals provided the O’Connor regime did not object."
It is difficult to evaluate the accuracy of that statement. But a review of some of those early issues shows that, whatever his political leanings, Guiney, one of the founding delegates to the Assembly, maintained a steadfast faith in the labor movement. The newspaper provided regular accounts of the activities of local unions, among them the printers, building trades, boot and shoe workers, machinists and boilermakers. It reported on negotiations and strikes and, when scabs crossed a picketline, their names were published. The newspaper editorialized against the oppressive use of injunctions to stymie unions and in favor of reforms such as a workers’ compensation law.
From its earliest editions and continuing today, the newspaper promoted the patronage and purchase of union label products and services.
'Give voice to lofty aspirations'
On the occasion of the Advocate’s 23rd anniversary, in 1920, Guiney wrote, "Twenty-three years have passed into history since the Minnesota Union Advocate, with hope and fear, began its work of trying to give voice to the lofty aspirations, the earnest longings and the just demands of the organized workers in this part of the country. During the whole of that period this paper has advocated and defended the rights and the proper claims of trade unionists with all the force it has had or could summon to its aid."
Guiney was not to remain editor much longer, however. New people were moving into leadership roles in the St. Paul labor movement and they wanted a publication that reflected their aims. They were led by William Mahoney.
A pressman by trade, Mahoney was also trained in the law. He had a broad vision of the mission of the labor movement. In 1918, he was elected president of the Trades & Labor Assembly and began agitating for the ownership by labor of its own newspaper. In 1920, Mahoney headed a committee that presented Guiney with two options -- sell the Union Advocate to the Assembly or the unions would start up their own, rival publication. Guiney chose the former.
Coming up with the $6,000 needed for the purchase was not easy. Mahoney and other Assembly officers appealed to the unions for loans and Mahoney himself pledged his own credit in guarantee. In later years, when funds were low, Mahoney and Business Manager Fred Miller went without pay so that other employees could be paid.
Mahoney takes the reins
"This Journal is dedicated to the cause of the common people," Mahoney declared in his first editorial. The need for such a voice was never greater, he said.
Organized business, in the form of the Citizens Alliance, was crushing unions. "The vicious attacks made on Organized Labor will be repelled and the false representations of its principles and purposes and methods will be exposed," Mahoney wrote.
At the same time, working people were coming to the realization that they must be politically active to improve their lot, he said. "This Paper stands unqualifiedly for the use of the ballot to correct radical evils growing out of our industrial development."
Thus, in 1920, began a decade in which the Advocate was transformed from a labor publication with a mainly local focus to a vehicle for the fledgling Farmer-Labor movement growing throughout the state. Mahoney was a leader in the Farmer-Labor Association and he used the Advocate to advance the building of the association and the Farmer-Labor Party and to promote their candidates and goals.
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Challenging the Citizens Alliance
In issue after issue, the newspaper also challenged the union-busting of the Citizens Alliance. Noted Mahoney later: "In the open shop fight, the Union Advocate took a leading part and established itself as one of the most militant and aggressive labor papers in America, but in doing so, we antagonized the business element, and those we befriended were unable to succor us financially."
The Citizens Alliance launched a boycott of the Advocate. A heavy blow was the decision by three department stores to withdraw their ads. To stay afloat, the price of the paper was raised from two cents to three and one-half cents; circulation fell from 12,000 to 6,000. Mahoney and Business Manager Miller looked for ways to weather the financial difficulties. They decided to build up the Advocate as a printing business as well as a newspaper.
Under Guiney, the Advocate was printed by Ramaley Printing, a union printer still in existence today. After the Assembly bought the paper, the editorial offices were moved to the Volkszeitung Building at Third and Jackson Streets and the printing and mailing was done by the Volkszeitung, the "People’s Press," which was a daily German language newspaper and the first newspaper in St. Paul to have a unionized staff.
The Equity was a cooperative movement to organize cooperative farmers elevators. In 1922, when the Equity Herald of Fargo closed its composing room, the Advocate bought its linotype and undertook to produce that paper for a year under contract. The added revenue kept the Advocate’s books in the black. The next year, a committee from Typographical Union Local 30 approached the Advocate about printing the Catholic Bulletin.
The weekly newspaper of the Catholic archdiocese had been produced at a scab shop since the start of a printers’ strike in 1921. The printers had learned from Archbishop Dowling that he would prefer it be produced by union labor -- if they could find a suitable place to handle the job.
The Advocate’s composing and mailing operations were happy for the additional work; in time, other publications, such as the Farmers Union newspaper, would be produced by the Advocate.
Printing operation grows
The newspaper still had no printing press of its own, however. That situation was remedied in 1928 when the Advocate bought a used Goss web press in Waukegan, Ill., and brought it up to the new St. Paul Labor Temple at 408 Auditorium St. The basement of the Labor Temple was remodelled to serve as a printing plant, the press moved into place along with the other equipment and the Union Advocate finally established as a full-fledged publishing operation.
While the Roaring ’20s were a time of struggle for unions and the Farmer-Labor Party, the Great Depression years of the 1930s proved to be just the opposite. Minnesotans elected their first Farmer-Labor governor, Floyd B. Olson, and St. Paulites their first Labor mayor, William Mahoney.
As might be expected, Mahoney’s candidacy was promoted heavily in the Union Advocate. Headlines urged, "Give the Laboring Man a Chance." Mahoney and several other labor candidates rode to victory on a wave of popular disillusionment with the incumbents and their response to the economic devastation of the depression. Upon his election in 1932, Mahoney resigned as Advocate editor. "I have spent 12 years of the most useful and pleasant experiences in my life," he wrote the Board of Directors. They, in turn, praised his leadership.
"Under Mr. Mahoney’s stewardship, the Advocate has grown steadily with an ever-enlarging prestige in trade unionism and the community life of St. Paul," the newspaper reported in announcing Mahoney’s departure. "From a payroll of $12,000 in 1921, the business has expanded to such proportions that for the past two years the annual payroll has exceeded $43,000.
"The editorial policy of the Advocate was shaped by Mr. Mahoney, noted for his militancy in espousing any just cause, and that his editorial policy has been constructive is indicated by the high standing of the Advocate in national labor circles."
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Shortly after Mahoney (second from right) became mayor of St. Paul, one of his duties was welcoming famed aviator Amelia Earhart to the city.
Photo from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.
Lockhart assumes editorship
The transition to a new editor was seamless. With Fred Miller staying on as manager, A.F. Lockhart took over the editing duties. Lockhart continued the newspaper’s strong support for the Farmer-Labor Party. In 1934, when the party’s platform was attacked as "radical" by the daily newspapers, Lockhart responded caustically, "The Farmer-Labor platform admittedly is radical, but it is no less radical than the conditions rugged individualism brought to a nation which now must admit that people starve because there is too much food and that millions are impoverished because there is too much money in the vaults of the banks.
"The wildest schemes ever proposed by any radical group could not produce a national calamity comparable with the one brought about by the leadership the St. Paul Dispatch and the Minneapolis Journal have always glorified while holding their noses against the realities known to all."
The Advocate’s progressive viewpoints did not extend, however, to coverage of the young Committee for Industrial Organization, later the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In the 1930s, the CIO unions were organizing huge numbers of workers in steel, auto, tire, textile and numerous other industries. Little of this received coverage in the Advocate, which was an official organ of the CIO’s rival, the American Federation of Labor.
The landmark 1934 Teamsters strike in Minneapolis garnered some ink, but the coverage paled in comparison to that provided in the Minneapolis Labor Review, the publication of the Minneapolis Central Labor Union Council.
Advocate editor Lockhart was a member of The Newspaper Guild, a union of writers and editors formed in the early 1930s. When the Guild affiliated with the CIO, Lockhart left the union and helped found the Advertising, Publicity and Newspaper Writers’ Union Local 23843, a direct affiliate of the AFL. In later years, this union dissolved and editors again became members of The Newspaper Guild.
Backing the war effort
During World War II, the Advocate was a staunch supporter of the war effort, while constantly warning against workers sacrificing for the benefit of "war profiteers." Editorials blasted government and business proposals for wage freezes and legislation outlawing strikes.
When the 1943 state Legislature proposed several anti-labor measures, the Advocate responded by saying, "Labor is too busy trying to win a war to spend any time messing around with screwball legislation that reads as though it was stolen verbatim from Mein Kampf. Labor is too absorbed with the living realities of global war to divide its interest, its energies and its time with those who think the best way to break Hitler it to imitate him here at home."
After the war, the Advocate joined the rest of the labor movement in demanding that workers receive their fair share. The newspaper also occasionally addressed an issue that was gaining increasing national visibility -- race.
A 1947 editorial defended the AFL against accusations by the CIO and other organizations that it was racist. "Nearly 10 percent of the present membership of the AF of L are Negroes," the editorial noted. "One large international is headed by a Negro and there are dozens of Negro vice presidents of international unions within the framework of the AF of L; moreover there are hundreds of Negro union organizers. There are more than 100,000 Negro members of the United Mine Workers and more than half of all the organized building trades journeymen below the Mason and Dixon Line are Negroes . . ."
The coverage in the Advocate also reflected the broadening scope of trade unionism. Organizations represented included all of the Building Trades unions, several printing crafts, the Fire Fighters, Hotel & Restaurant Employees, Street Railway Employees, Machinists and Retail Clerks.
Issues from the 1950s are filled with numerous articles and commentaries condemning the use of the new Taft-Hartley law to weaken and bust unions. The newspaper also featured a column by an elected official very popular with working people -- Senator Hubert H. Humphrey.
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|The St. Paul labor temple, shown here in 1975, was one of several buildings that housed the Union Advocate newspaper over the past 100 years.
Lockhart began a tradition of winning awards for the Advocate from the International Labor Press Association, now the International Labor Communications Association. In the last several decades, the Advocate has won dozens of awards for general excellence, editorials, news stories and special coverage.
In 1955, the AFL and CIO merged and new unions joined the Assembly. As union membership grew, so did circulation of the Advocate. Unions paid for some or all of their members to receive the newspaper. Circulation peaked in the 1950s at around 50,000; today it stands at just under 37,000.
In 1956, A.F. Lockhart retired. He was replaced by Earl Almquist, a reporter on the St. Paul Dispatch and veteran newspaperman. He continued in the Mahoney-Lockhart tradition of forceful editorial commentary.
"Industrialists and others who profess to be concerned about the harmful effects of ‘foreign competition’ upon the American economy would be well advised to join the AFL-CIO and the International Labor Organization in seeing to it that the people of the world receive an opportunity to enjoy higher living standards by making it possible for them to derive more money for the work they perform," he wrote.
" . . . But apparently the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and many American industrialists have forgotten that a fine formula for increasing business volume is making people WANT things and helping see to it that they have the kind of buying power that ENABLES THEM TO GET what they want."
Women were more visible in the pages of the Advocate, as union members and leaders. Articles promoted organizing drives among women workers and supported equal pay for women. The coverage was not always enlightened, however. One issue from the mid ’60s featured a photo of a new woman Machinist on the job. Alongside was a "pin-up" photo of the same woman -- she was also the company’s "Girl of the Month!"
By 1965, the Advocate had outgrown its space in the Labor Temple, its home for nearly 40 years. The Board of Directors proposed to move to larger quarters and the newspaper and printing company purchased a building at 440 West Minnehaha Ave. In 1969, a new Goss Suburbanite press was installed. The Advocate was the printer for several publications, the newspaper reported, including "the Catholic Bulletin, a Negro weekly, a Lutheran paper, three publications of the Farmers Union, two veterans publications and sundry others."
Tackling controversial issues
Editor Earl Almquist retired in 1967 to be replaced by Fred Sweet, another veteran journalist. In articles and hard-hitting editorials, he tackled many controversial social issues of the time.
A 1970 editorial took on the thorny question of school busing:
"The same people who flatly oppose school busing also vote down open housing and the steps needed to find good jobs for all at steady wages, the kind of jobs people must have to be good neighbors," Sweet wrote.
"This whole nation is becoming alarmed about the pollution of air and water and soil . . . Isn’t it time to add white racism to the list of pollutants threatening our children’s future?"
In the era of anti-war protests, civil rights activism and other social movements, Sweet welcomed the questioning that was taking place.
"Youth of today have a great capacity for whittling away the hypocrisy and propaganda in our society," he told an interviewer. "They are looking with honest eyes, listening with honest ears, and making the most of information available. I’ve witnessed this in my own children. I have no fear of the future."
The broadmindedness reflected in Sweet’s comments has been a characteristic of every Advocate editor. While each editor has imbued a slightly different personality in the newspaper’s news and editorial pages, all have been forward-looking. This has sometimes led to controversy as Advocate editors have, on occasion, been accused of being too liberal and out-of-step with the membership.
When Sweet retired in 1971, a union member wrote to the Advocate, "The chief special characteristic of this editor was his willingness to lead rather than follow. He did not have to wait on any issue to find out what labor’s position was. The ‘movement’ was in his bones, and he could not wait to take his pen in hand and cry out against injustice.
"The depth of his feelings for the working conditions of his fellow man was evidenced by his vigorous and repetitive support of the grape boycott and collective bargaining for California farm workers. His humanitarian respect for life led him to condemn the war when labor’s ‘hard hats’ were still thought to support it."
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Spielman in charge
With Sweet’s departure, the editorship of the once staunchly AFL newspaper was turned over to a one-time CIO organizer. In the 1930s in New York City, Gordon Spielman worked for the Textile Workers Organizing Committee and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, both CIO affiliates.
|Gordon and Phyllis Spielman
He and his wife, Phyllis, came to St. Paul after nearly 25 years at the helm of two country newspapers in southern Minnesota.
Spielman reveled in politics, in particular the activities of the Minnesota Legislature. He exposed illegal and questionable conduct, such as wining and dining that resulted in changes in state tax law that hurt working people.
In a series of articles that drew national attention, Spielman revealed how a group of doctors was being paid huge sums by employers and insurance companies to conduct "quickie" exams of injured workers. Based on the exams, which lasted from eight to 15 minutes, insurance companies would deny the claims of injured workers.
"The real culprits (for high workers’ compensation costs) are the greedy among the medical profession, and the unscrupulous among the insurance companies who have combined both to drive up the costs of workers’ compensation and to cheat injured workers out of their benefits," the Advocate editorialized.
The newspaper noted with apprehension the rise of Ronald Reagan and the corresponding increase in anti-unionism. His firing of the PATCO strikers in 1981 elicited swift condemnation.
"There is a certain irony in the fact that Polish government workers in a communist country seem to have won more freedom to strike than U.S. government employees have in this supposed land of the free," stated an editorial.
Spielman retired in 1983, but continued to contribute occasional columns to the Union Advocate up until his death in 1990. In his last column, he again urged the federal government to rehire the fired air traffic controllers.
New pressures in the 1980s
Drew Mendelson jumped into the editor’s job at a difficult time. Corporate mergers, leveraged buyouts and concession fever were at an all-time high. Workers and unions were being wiped out by plant shutdowns or smashed by union-busting companies. These pressures converged in one of Minnesota’s great labor struggles, the Hormel strike in Austin, Minn.
Mendelson and student intern Jim Smoger drove to Austin regularly to cover the strike and reported on the support activities in the Twin Cities. Conflicts within the United Food & Commercial Workers and controversy over the direction of the strike made it an especially difficult situation for the Advocate. The newspaper was criticized for appearing to support one side or another -- for being too "radical" in its coverage and for not being radical enough.
Mendelson addressed this in his last editorial before leaving the newspaper: "The coverage we gave the Hormel labor dispute, for instance, was controversial. I heard some say that a labor paper should not have devoted so much space to a dispute that was largely internal to the movement.
"Frankly, though, I did not trust any one else, not the television or radio stations or the mainstream newspapers to get it right. The labor movement is in upheaval now and the fight at Hormel is exemplary of that upheaval. The Advocate didn’t take sides in the dispute. We just reported the facts that you wanted to read."
Mendelson closed out his tenure at the Advocate with a special issue entitled "Fighting Back: Unions Against Plant Closings," which identified ways workers and unions were trying to stem the tide of job loss. At a time when much of the mainstream media was touting the false economic "progress" of the Reagan years, the Advocate was focusing on what they ignored: the human cost.
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Changes at the Advocate
When Mendelson had to leave the Advocate quickly for family reasons, intern Jim Smoger filled in ably for several weeks. He was one of a long line of student interns that goes back to the editorship of Gordon Spielman and continues today. Many of these interns come from Macalester College, spending a semester covering labor events for the Advocate. It has been a mutually beneficial relationship. The Advocate is enlivened by their enthusiasm and fresh perspectives, while the students invariably learn much that they did not know about the labor movement. Some have continued on into jobs as union organizers.
Barb Kucera was hired as editor in December 1986. Shortly after she arrived, the newspaper faced another financial crisis, the most serious in its history.
In 1985, the Advocate purchased a new, $1.1 million printing press. The Advocate business manager and Board expressed the hope that an expanded printing operation would draw more business. Unfortunately, by 1987 it was clear that the optimistic projections were not panning out and the printing operation began to have difficulty paying its bills. A fund drive was started and many local unions contributed, but in May 1988, the bank foreclosed and the printing plant was shut down.
All of the printing company employees lost their jobs. The unions of the Trades & Labor Assembly remained committed, however, to continued publication of the Union Advocate. During its entire existence, the newspaper had been subsidized by the printing operation and was published weekly. After the printing operation closed, the Advocate had to depend solely on revenue from union dues and advertising. Publication was reduced to twice monthly. The offices were moved to the St. Paul Labor Centre.
Despite the upheaval, the Advocate never missed an issue, continuing an unbroken string going back to its founding in 1897.
New, global concerns
The late 1980s and early 1990s found the term "global economy" popping up frequently on the pages of the newspaper. The Advocate documented the growing concern about the international competition that was driving down wages and living standards and trade agreements such as NAFTA that were fueling that downward spiral.
Workers who had never before featured in the Advocate -- Mexican trade unionists, young girls from Salvadoran maquiladora factories -- appeared more and more frequently.
In previous decades, the Advocate promoted numerous friends of labor -- Robert LaFollette, Floyd B. Olson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale. In the 1990s, the tradition continued with Paul Wellstone.
In recent years, the Advocate has documented the changes taking place in the AFL-CIO and the new emphasis on organizing, organizing that is necessary if the labor movement is to survive and working people are to have any hope of improving their lives.
The new century will no doubt provide new challenges for the Advocate. Those challenges can be met if the newspaper abides by the principles outlined by its greatest editor, William Mahoney:
"The Union Advocate is devoted to the cause of the great common people, and stands for democracy and an equal opportunity for all; and is opposed to autocracy and special privilege.
"It favors the industrial and political organization of the common people as the surest safeguard against tyranny and degradation; and the foremost guarantee of freedom and prosperity for all."
Barb Kucera left the Advocate in July 2000 and now edits www.workdayminnesota.org
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