At one time, every major American newspaper had a regular labor beat, but with the rise of corporate-owned media, labor reporters have all but become extinct. One of the few who’s still at it is Oakland’s David Bacon, and he’s busier than ever — even as newspapers are shrinking from the American landscape. He has written three books on globalization and its effect on migrant workers, and he is a regular contributor to The Nation, The American Prospect, Truthout.org, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Bacon also did a morning radio show for KPFA for seventeen years and has been a contributor to the Express.
The decline of labor reporting reflects the troubled condition of American labor in general, noted The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. “There are no labor reporters. Steve Greenhouse does a fine job for a major newspaper, but that type of regular reporting on labor issues has disappeared,” vanden Heuvel said. “We are lucky to have David, who is a rigorous journalist and does an excellent job. I can’t think of any other reporter who has a broader understanding of labor issues as they relate to immigrants. He has driven the discussion on how immigration fits into the broader labor picture in this country.”
According to New York Times labor reporter Greenhouse, a whole generation of workers is becoming invisible. “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.
Bacon is also a journalist who uses his reporting skills as an instrument for social change. He has shed the illusion of journalistic objectivity and uses his pen and camera to give voice to migrant workers who are so often the hidden victims of an indifferent global economy. As a photojournalist, he’s also 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 — Hansel Mieth, Otto Hagel, Dorothea Lange, and Lewis Hines — whose work was a catalyst for the reform of labor laws. “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.”
Likewise, Bacon has been a force in the labor movement for more than forty years, working as a union organizer and an immigrants rights advocate. Over the past eighteen years, he has primarily worked as a journalist, though he continues to put himself on the front lines of labor disputes. He advocates for the rights of undocumented workers who have lost their jobs in “silent raids,” and last year, when the Pacifica Foundation canceled the popular Morning Show on KPFA, Bacon showed solidarity with his fellow Communication Workers of America members by vowing to not return to the air until the ongoing dispute is resolved in a fair way.
His photo essays have been exhibited throughout the United States, Europe, and Mexico. For the past eight years, he has been working 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. The walls are decorated with hand-painted placards from past protests, journalism awards, and his moving black-and-white photographs of migrant farm workers on picket lines and laboring in the earthy rows of Central Valley farmlands.
Contrary to the stereotypical image of a firebrand labor advocate, Bacon is soft-spoken. From under his signature baseball cap, he listens attentively and his pale blue eyes tend to fix with undivided attention on whomever he is speaking with. He is more comfortable behind a camera; being interviewed makes him ill at ease. Despite his modesty, Bacon has been called the “Renaissance Man” of the labor movement because of his versatility as an organizer, rights advocate, writer, 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 Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, a longtime labor activist and vice president of the International Glass, Molders, and Pottery Workers Union. “Make no mistake about it, my friend,” he said. “David and I worked together in some real battles … in the good ol’ days when you would get beat up and bloody.”
De La Fuente said he and Bacon were physically assaulted in the early 1980s during an organizing effort at New Life Bakery in Hayward, and during a four-month strike at Basic Tool & Supply in Oakland, Bacon was arrested off of a picket line at least ten times. De La Fuente said Bacon’s journalism has been just as effective as his organizing efforts. “You can write with a soul, or you can just write,” he said, “and David writes with a soul.”
Bacon has spent a great deal of time on the road during his career, though in recent years he has tried to stay closer to home in order to spend time with his three daughters and his wife, Lillian Galledo, a labor activist and executive director of Filipino Advocates for Justice.
But Bacon still found time to advocate for the undocumented workers who were facing the possibility of losing their jobs at Pacific Steel Castings in Berkeley at the insistence of the Department of Homeland Security. 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 are 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.
Philip Maldari, the host of KPFA’s Sunday Show, said the loss of Bacon’s knowledge of international labor policies and migration trends has been a blow to the station. “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.”
After graduating from Berkeley High School, Bacon studied print setting at Laney College, and later, when he couldn’t find a union job, he took one in a nonunion printing shop and set about organizing his co-workers. Bacon was fired for his efforts, but he had embarked on a new career as an organizer. Over the years, he has been involved in organizing campaigns for the Molders union, International Ladies Garment Workers, and the United Electrical Workers.
But it was the Farm Workers Union that had the largest impact on Bacon’s life and career. He helped organize farm worker unions in the Imperial Valley, Hollister, Santa Maria, Oxnard, and Chowchilla. He learned to speak “worker” Spanish and spent a year working in the grape and broccoli fields outside Hollister.
Bacon said his immersion into the lives of migrant workers made him realize culture should be an important element of his journalism. “The US creates very good labor organizations, but we are not very good at speaking to people in a broader way,” he said. “We need to pay attention to workers as people … to use the human story to show life is broader than just the economic factors in the factory.”