David Bacon brings activist’s soul to journalism
Freelancer one of the few reporters covering lives of migrant workers
by John Geluardi
Freelance journalist and radio host David Bacon is one of the few remaining American reporters whose work openly advocates for social reform. He rejects the illusion of journalistic neutrality and uses his pen and camera to give voice to organized laborers and migrant workers who are so often the hidden victims of an indifferent global economy.
Bacon is carrying on a long American tradition of advocacy journalism that began with the muckrakers of the early 20th Century and reached its zenith with the roving photo documentarians of the Depression era like Hansel Mieth, Otto Hegel, Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine, whose work was a catalyst for labor law reforms.
“They were committed people and they looked at their craft as a way to make social change,” Bacon said. “It’s not that they were just taking a position. They looked at themselves as being part of a movement.”
Journalist David Bacon, at work in an onion field near Taft, found himself at the other end of his own camera. (Photo by Fausto Sanchez/Courtesy of David Bacon)
At one time, every major American newspaper had a regular labor beat, but with the rise of corporate-owned media, and troubled state of American unions, labor reporters have all but become extinct. Steven Greenhouse at The New York Times is a notable exception, but for the most part, “there are no labor reporters,” said Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation.
Bacon, she added, combines his advocacy with the skills of “a rigorous journalist.” He may be uniique for his focus on the lives of immigrant workers and their impact on the U.S. economy.
“I can’t think of any other reporter who has a broader understanding of labor issues as they relate to immigrants,” vanden Heuvel said. “He has driven the discussion on how immigration fits into the broader labor picture in this country.”
Until recently, Bacon hosted a radio show on KPFA-FM in Berkeley. He maintains a prodigious output of photographs, books and freelance articles. His work comes during a time when a whole generation of workers is becoming invisible to anyone who relies on mainstream media, Greenhouse said during a telephone interview.
“Our country’s news media have hundreds of reporters covering banks and Wall Street and corporate mergers, but unfortunately only a handful of reporters covering the nation’s more than 130 million workers,” Greenhouse said. “This means there are many important stories about workers — whether about minimum wage violations or on-the-job injuries or efforts to unionize or discrimination against women or minority workers or management rolling back wages and benefits — that are overlooked and never get written.”
Bacon reports and writes these overlooked stories with the same dedication that has made him a force in the labor movement for more than 40 years. He spent more than half of his career working as a union organizer and immigrants’ rights advocate. Over the past 18 years, he has primarily worked as a journalist though he continues to put himself on the front lines of labor disputes.
Last year Bacon showed solidarity with his fellow KPFA workers when Pacifica Foundation canceled the station’s popular Morning Show and fired the program’s hosts and production staff in violation of the station’s union contract with the Communications Workers of America Local 9415.
Bacon, a longtime CWA member, hosted a weekly half-hour labor segment of the Morning Show that had been on the air for 17 years. He gave a moral boost to the station’s CWA workers when he vowed in an open letter to keep the labor show off the air until the ongoing dispute is resolved in a fair way.
“The union has asked me not to come in to do the labor show while the dispute is going on,” Bacon wrote. “Their request is like a picket line protesting the violation and in solidarity, I won’t cross it.”
Philip Maldari, the host of KPFA’s Sunday Show, said the loss of Bacon’s knowledge of international labor policies and migration trends has hurt station programming. “He could report with fluency on local workers’ rights issues as well as those in Nebraska, South Carolina and Brazil,” Maldari said. “It’s one thing to say ‘let’s do a story about labor,’ it’s another to have someone like David who has contacts and background knowledge about these issues.”
But despite the loss of his show and the continued shrinking of newspapers from the American landscape, Bacon is busier than ever. He has written three books on globalization and its effect on migrant workers. He speaks regularly about immigration trends and he is a regular contributor to The Nation, The American Prospect, Truthout.org and the San Francisco Chronicle. His photo essays have been exhibited throughout the United States, Europe and Mexico.
Fourteen-hour workdays — without overtime — are not unusual.
“That’s the curse of being a freelancer,” he said, “you tend to work all the time because you have the pressure of having to pay your bills.”
For the past eight years, he has worked on his opus, “Living Under the Trees,” a photo and oral history of migratory workers from Oaxaca, Mexico. “That’s the part of my job that I love the most, going into the fields as a photojournalist,” Bacon said.
On a recent afternoon, Bacon sprung up the stairs to his small photography studio in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. Journalism and labor awards hang on the wall, along with his black and white photos that depict the working lives and conflicts of migrant workers. There is a photo of picketing carpenters during a 1993 strike in Los Angeles, garment workers protesting unpaid wages in San Francisco and migrant farm laborers sleeping in cardboard tents in strawberry fields near Salinas.
Contrary to the stereotypical image of firebrand labor advocate, Bacon is soft spoken. He listens attentively and his pale blue eyes tend to fix with interest on whomever he is speaking with. He is modest about his work and seems more comfortable being behind a camera or a notepad. He said being interviewed puts him ill at ease.
Modesty aside, Bacon has been called the Renaissance man of the labor movement because of his versatility as an organizer, rights advocate, writer, speaker, photographer and broadcaster.
“My life doesn’t have a lot of neat borders. Things get mushed up,” he said. “I think it would be boring otherwise.”
But just below Bacon’s mild manner is a very passionate and dedicated labor advocate, said Oakland’s Vice Mayor Ignacio de la Fuente, a longtime labor activist and vice president of the Glass, Molders and Pottery Workers International Union.
“Make no mistake about it, my friend,” he said. “David and I worked together in some real battles Š in the good ol’ days when you would get beat up and bloody.”
De la Fuente said he and Bacon were assaulted in the early 1980s during an organizing effort at New Life Bakery in Hayward. During a four-month strike at Basic Tool & Supply in Oakland, Bacon was arrested off a picket line 15 times.
De la Fuente added that Bacon’s journalism is just as effective as his front-line organizing efforts. “You can write with a soul, or you can just write,” he said, “David writes with a soul.”
Bacon found time recently to advocate for undocumented workers who were threatened with the loss of their jobs at Pacific Steel Castings in Berkeley. At the same time the foundry’s union, Glass Molders Local 164B, was in tough contract negotiations, the Department of Homeland Security showed up and began a process that could lead to the firing of all the undocumented workers there.
Mass firings such as these have been called “silent raids,” because they are carried out administratively. Bacon said silent raids are less frightening than armed federal officers storming homes or workplaces, but the economic effect on the workers and their families is just as devastating.
“Paraphrasing Woody Guthrie, they used to rob workers of their jobs with a gun. Now they do it with a fountain pen,” Bacon wrote in a story published in These Times Magazine.
Bacon’s social consciousness was forged by his parents, who were both union activists, and the political upheaval of the 1960s. He was a Berkeley High School student when he first volunteered for KPFA in 1964. One of the 16-year-old’s assignments was to record the fiery speakers of the Free Speech Movement on the UC Berkeley campus. Bacon was arrested during the student occupation of Sproul Hall and spent three days in juvenile hall.
At Berkeley High, Bacon helped counter-balance the Young Republican and Young Democrat clubs by co-founding the Young Socialists Club. One of the club’s first actions was to invite the head of California’s Communist Party to speak at the school. The school administration put the kibosh on the invite and made Bacon an offer: He would be assured of graduating provided he did not attend the graduation ceremony.
“I guess they thought I’d disrupt it or something,” Bacon said.
After high school, he worked as a laborer, carpenter and cook before attending Laney College to study print setting. When he couldn’t find a job in a union print shop, he took a nonunion job and set about organizing his co-workers.
He was fired for his efforts, starting his lifelong career path as an organizer. Over the next 20 years, he was involved in organizing campaigns for the Molders Union, International Ladies Garment Workers and the United Electrical Workers.
The United Farm Workers would have the greatest impact on Bacon’s life and career. Bacon helped organize for the UFW in the Imperial Valley, Hollister, Santa Maria, Oxnard and Coachella. He learned to speak “worker” Spanish and spent a year working in the grape and broccoli fields outside Hollister. Bacon said his immersion in the lives of migrant workers made him realize culture should be an important element of his journalism.
“The U.S. creates very good labor organizations, but we are not very good at speaking to people in a broader way,” Bacon said. “We need to pay attention to workers as peopleŠ To use the human story to show life is broader than just the economic factors in the factory.”
In his eight-year project, “Living Under the Trees,” Bacon has carefully documented the rich and diverse cultural traditions of indigenous migrant workers from Southern Mexico.
“There are photos of dance troops, young people trying to carry on tradition” Bacon said. “To see these performances, you can’t help but fall in love with them.”
For more information:
David Bacon’s website:
This Camera Fights Fascism
03 Oct 2011
Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA Local 35921
East Bay Express, September 28, 2011