I learned from the UAW that decent wages and health benefits made it possible for workers’ families to eat meat loaf on Monday, pork chops on Wednesday, beef roasts on Sunday, and steak now and then. Once I wrote a series about how families on different rungs of the income ladder spent their money. I interviewed a Ford worker who lived in a modest bungalow in one of Detroit’s downriver suburbs. He was taking night classes, hoping to become a foreman someday—a route up in the union hierarchy. The family ate meat almost every night. Too often, I thought; besides, they could save money by eating rice and beans. Then someone at the union told me it was not my place to judge—that meat represented security to that worker and his family, and that was how he provided for them. I had to understand more and see the whole picture before making such flip judgments. Good training for any reporter.
From Mildred Jeffrey, a labor, civil rights, and women’s rights activist who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton a few years before she died in 2004, I saw that women could be strong advocates for the disenfranchised—as well as strong reporters, at a time when newsrooms hired few women to write about things other than food and fashion. Jeffrey passionately believed in democracy and the political process, and understood journalism’s role in safeguarding both.
Once, when I returned from a vacation, Jeffrey, who headed the union’s consumer affairs activities, asked me if I had come back refreshed and ready to do battle exposing the forces of evil in the Michigan legislature. By that she meant the bank lobbyists who had bottled up a bill that would have allowed women to have credit in their own names, not their husbands’—as well as other bills that would have given consumers relief from onerous credit contracts. She and the UAW were ready to fight for these bills because they dealt with serious inequities in the credit marketplace, and consumers needed a voice. Union reps would meet workers in their union halls across the country, warning against usurious loans and demonstrating how to shop for credit using the annual percentage rate. I reported on these meetings and passed along the consumer advice to wider audiences.
People still need health care and insurance that covers them throughout their lives, protection from unscrupulous credit sellers, advocates to work on their behalf, and journalists to explain the complexities of weird mortgage instruments, credit cards with hidden fees, flimsy insurance policies, and how Social Security works—without the self-serving rhetoric from those out to destroy it. And newbies to journalism need tutors more than ever.