Coverage of labor, unions, and workers’ rights issues has exploded across a variety of media, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic exposes the plight of vulnerable workers and changes the nature of work itself. Mainstream publishing behemoths are now trying to catch up to the left-leaning publications that have always cared about such stories. The organizing streaks of media unions like the Writers Guild of America, East (for which I’m a council member), and the NewsGuild have resulted in a generation of labor-savvy media workers with a fierce commitment to improving their workplaces. (This is how I unexpectedly morphed from a heavy metal journalist into a labor reporter!)
There are now more labor reporters (and labor-curious reporters on other beats) diving into strikes, union drives, corporate malpractice, internecine power struggles, workplace safety, and all the other fascinating components of workplace power. We’re wrestling with updated versions of the same injustices that so captivated our 19th- and 20th-century counterparts like Ida B. Wells, Ida Tarbell, Dorothy Day, and Mary Heaton Vorse—all heroes of mine, and one of whom you’ll be hearing much more about shortly. “With the flood of workplace stories in this unprecedented moment, it seems likely that labor coverage will remain strong and perhaps even grow,” veteran journalist and author Steven Greenhouse, who for years was one of the country’s few full-time labor reporters, wrote in a recent piece on the phenomenon. “The beat has expanded to include everything from how Uber treats its drivers to some Amazon workers not having enough time to go to the bathroom to issues like the #MeToo movement, work-family balance, and the lack of childcare.”
We’re still a far cry from the labor beat’s 19th- and early-20th-century heyday, though, when hundreds of labor reporters, magazines, radio broadcasts, and pamphlets—plus an entire cottage industry of union-printed newsletters and educational resources—brought workers’ struggles to the forefront of everyday life. As every good labor reporter knows (and as the pandemic has taught many others), every story is a labor story, and workers’ voices are always the most important part of any report or narrative.
Journalists like Mary Heaton Vorse devoted their lives to this truth as they chased down news in the streets and on the picket lines. Vorse, who was born into a wealthy New England family in 1874, shunned her gilded upbringing and reported on downtrodden, exploited, and abused workers. As a white woman born into privilege, she was expected to stay home, marry well, and have lots of well-behaved children. Instead, she forged her own path, one that was often sorrowful but that came with its own rewards. Her name is no longer as well-known as it once was, but at the height of her career, Vorse was one of the most popular women writers in America, and one of the country’s most brilliant and respected labor journalists.
History’s victors may have been uninterested in keeping her memory alive, but biographer Dee Garrison, professor emerita of history and women’s studies at Rutgers University, has ensured that Vorse and her work would not be lost. In 1985, she released a collection of Vorse’s writings titled Rebel Pen, which collects some of her most stirring reporting, and in her 1989 book, Mary Heaton Vorse: The Life of an American Insurgent, Garrison traces Vorse’s life from its suffocating beginnings through decades of heartbreak, hard work, and adventure to its quiet end in 1966. “There is at least one reliable measure of Mary Heaton Vorse,” Garrison wrote. “Across the space of half a century, wherever men and women battled for a wider justice, she was apt to have been there.”
Garrison was not exaggerating. Vorse was a late bloomer, and did not enter the world of labor journalism until she was a widowed 38-year-old mother of two splitting her time between New York City’s bohemian Greenwich Village and her idyllic summer home in Provincetown, MA. After an unhappy first marriage and a tragic second, Vorse became accustomed to supporting herself and her children on her own. She had already built a financially stable if unfulfilling career as a writer of popular short stories for women’s and general interest magazines (she was a regular contributor to The New Yorker) and light romantic fiction novels that she dismissed as “lollypops” when she decided to pitch to Harpers’ Magazine a very different kind of story.
The 1912 textile workers strike in Lawrence, Mass., of “Bread and Roses” fame was roiling New England, and strikers had begun sending their children out of town on trains to keep them safe. She had read about the exodus, and wanted to learn more. When she arrived, she was stunned to see armed soldiers lining the mill town’s streets, and when she visited workers in their rickety homes, she was devastated by the poverty, sickness, and squalor that mill families endured. “I wanted to see the wages go up, and the babies’ death rate go down,” Vorse wrote, having been shaken out of her middle-class bubble. “There must be thousands like myself who were not indifferent, but only ignorant. I went away from Lawrence with a resolve that I would write about those things always.”
The time she spent in Lawrence coincided with a new era in American labor journalism. Union leaders had seen the positive effect that publicity and good reporting had on the strike and workers’ morale, and the public had been given a bracing look into the bloody conflicts between labor and capital. It was the perfect time for a scrappy, principled writer to become a labor reporter, and she later wrote of the experience, “Before Lawrence, I had known a good deal about labor, but I had not felt about it. I had not got angry. In Lawrence, I got angry.” She stayed angry as she followed the workers’ struggle to Michigan, where she reported on the Mesabi Iron Range Strike; to New Jersey, where IWW organizer and friend Elizabeth Gurley Flynn recruited her to act as publicity director for the Passaic textile strike; to Gastonia, N.C., where she covered the bitter fight to organize the Southern textile mills; to Alabama to cover the Scottsboro Boys’ trial; to Harlan County, Ky., where the war between coal bosses and union coal miners raged and Vorse was run out of town by thugs; to Flint, Mich., to cover the United Auto Workers’ 1937 sit-down strikes, and to Youngstown, Ohio, to bear witness to the brutal Little Steel Strike, an experience she wrote about in her 1938 book, Labor’s New Millions. There, company guards nearly shot her in the head, and a photo of her pale face, bloodied by a ricocheting bullet, graced the front page of the nation’s Sunday newspapers. At the time, she was 63—a few years older than her friend the Irish immigrant and militant labor organizer Mary Harris was when she donned her trademark widow’s weeds and took the nickname Mother Jones.
Vorse made up for the time she’d lost to feckless husbands and what she felt were the stifling demands of motherhood by throwing herself into every bout of worker unrest or labor conflict she could find. Her personal life was always a source of stress and emotional turmoil, and she agonized over her relationship with her children, whom she often left with friends or relatives during her reporting trips and sometimes went for years without seeing. Vorse felt the pressure to have it all—a career, a partner, children—but was too often thwarted by a combination of circumstance, self-sabotage, and bad luck. She began using morphine after an injury, and spent several years battling substance abuse disorder. For a woman with so many comrades and admirers, Vorse spent much of her life feeling lonely and unloved. Her Victorian upbringing clashed with her radical politics and feminist worldview, and she felt compelled to escape her unhappy home life and concentrate instead on her work, which gave her a sense of purpose and accomplishment. “Like a warrior scenting battles, she dashes off for the fray,” her friend Dorothy Day once wrote. “But her movements are never dashing. Rather she quietly appears where labor trouble is, and gets to work.”
Her work was distinguished by her clear, evocative prose, and an emphasis on women and children—a novel approach throughout every decade of her career, in which social expectations for women slowly evolved but society at large continued to center men’s perspectives. During the UAW fracas, Vorse was the only reporter who gravitated toward the Women’s Emergency Brigade, a coalition of striking women workers and strikers’ wives who raised hell on the picket lines, and wrote about them for The New Republic. (In 1979, the women were further immortalized in the film With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade.) Vorse often blurred the line between journalism and activism, and could often be found working closely with strike leaders and unions and using her skills as a writer and communicator to coordinate publicity, propaganda, and public opinion. Vorse made her sympathies plain, and the workers she covered respected her for it.
When she began traveling overseas to attend feminist conferences and then to cover international conflicts, she was often the only woman among the gaggle of male correspondents. The horrors she witnessed reporting in Europe during World War I had a marked effect on her; when she came home to Greenwich Village, she found herself unable to relate to her sheltered literati friends. Her experiences in Stalin’s Russia and in Hungary covering Béla Kun’s aborted Communist government had also permanently altered her political outlook. “I am a communist because I don’t see anything else to be, but I am a communist who hates Communists and Communism,” she wrote in her diary in 1931. Garrison locates Vorse’s true political identity in libertarian socialism. This stance complicated her love life. She had a doomed love affair with Robert Minor, an anarchist turned Communist Party mouthpiece who left her for a younger, more ideologically malleable woman. Her social circle ran the gamut from labor leftists to literary types to artsy bright young things, many of whom were caught up in the Palmer Raids and the Red Scare. Vorse herself was kept under FBI surveillance for nearly 40 years, though the bureau was comically bad at keeping tabs on the globe-trotting journalist.
It’s not as though she were flying under the radar like some of her old comrades. Vorse remained prolific, writing for major magazines and newspapers (including The Nation!) and traveling to strikes and campaigns around the country. She even briefly held a government position at the Office of Indian Affairs, acting as publicity director and editing the journal Indians at Work, and worked for the United Nations Refugee and Resettlement Agency during World War II as the nation’s oldest war correspondent (she was 71 when she sailed for Europe in 1945). In 1952, she penned a blockbuster investigation into dirty politicians, organized crime, and union corruption on the New York/New Jersey waterfront, charming her way into interviews with the likes of Tony “Bang Bang” Anastasia, a Brooklyn hiring boss who had family ties to the Mafia cartel known as Murder Inc. “It’s OK, she’s harmless,” he’d told his associates when the kindly looking elderly woman came knocking. He’d had no idea whom he was dealing with—but got to read all about it in Harper’s.
Vorse undertook her last reporting trip in 1959, when she traveled to Henderson, N.C., to cover a textile workers’ strike; she was then 85. She slowed down as a reporter only after suffering a stroke on her way home. Unable to support herself with writing, Vorse took on the role of doting grandmother. She survived financially on donations from friends and allies in the labor movement like the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and United Autoworkers, who disguised their charity by inventing a social justice award to present to her at their 1962 convention. She spent their money the same way she’d spent her life—in service to others. In 1965, the year before she died, she sent a check to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, who were then in the middle of the Delano Grape Strike. She died from a heart attack at 92, and was buried in the hills above her seaside home.
“When people are gathered together, when the individual is forgotten for the collective good, there is this quickening; suddenly, the aspirations of some anonymous, lonely people have come together and formed the flame,” Vorse had written in her final dispatch from Henderson, which could just as well double as an epitaph for her own remarkable life in labor. “There is the flame of the labor movement. The flame ebbs, it fluctuates, it never goes out.”