Labor Notes Headliner Covered Up Sexual Assault & Retaliated Against Chicago Union Democracy Activists

As Labor Notes has grown and received funding from more and more unions, they have begun to whitewash the records of corrupt union leaders in their publication (Labor Notes)

Labor Notes began in the late 1970s as both a training organization and publication dedicated to union democracy struggles within the United Auto Workers. The annual Labor Notes Conference, being held this weekend in Chicago, is considered a must-attend event for thousands of union democracy activists across the country, with big-name guests like Senator Bernie Sanders, AFA President Sara Nelson, and Teamster President Sean O’Brien. However, as Labor Notes has become an institution, it’s morphed into a consultancy service, taking money from local unions and even some international unions to help with everything from contract bargaining to training. 

As Labor Notes began to receive significant financial support from unions like the NewsGuild, its focus shifted away from union democracy struggles. Instead, Labor Notes whitewashes the records of labor leaders that provide them with financial support, covering up actions that it would have once denounced. 

Labor Notes ignored high-profile sexual misconduct in the NewsGuild, which was covered widely in the New York Times and resulted in a high-profile sexual misconduct whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against the union. The NewsGuild leader’s sexual abuse was so horrific and widespread that the New York Times labeled him “the Harvey Weinstein of Pittsburgh.” 

Nor was the cover-up of sexual misconduct within the nation’s most prominent journalist’s union the only scandal that Labor Notes ignored. When Chicago NewsGuild activists fought for greater local union democracy, the national NewsGuild leadership barred their union rep from assisting the local during bargaining, undercutting their efforts in an event reported by other publications. Labor Notes said nothing.

Likewise, for decades, Labor Notes journalists like Steve Early rallied against the abusive top-down nature of SEIU leadership, but when Schleuss abandoned efforts to represent SEIU’s staff union because it was too politically risky, Labor Notes once again stayed silent. 

Labor Notes’ journalistic credibility was damaged as it started to receive an increasing amount of funding from unions whose elected leadership they had helped put in office. It relocated its headquarters from Detroit, where it was mostly staffed by long-time shop floor activists, to Brooklyn, where it is primarily staffed by college-educated organizers with no rank-and-file experience.

The organization has sacrificed its founding principles and violated basic journalistic ethics to focus on helping an increasing number of unions grow their revenue stream.

Labor Notes Financial Conflict of Interest with the NewsGuild 

For the leaders of Labor Notes, there has been no greater prize than taking over the leadership of the 25,000-member NewsGuild. When 34-year-old Jon Schleuss first ran for President of the NewsGuild, he received massive support from Labor Notes’ support network. He won the office in 2019, with a mere 1,954 members of the 25,000-member union voting for Schleuss in a historically low-turnout union election. 

Labor Notes’ investment in Schleuss paid massive dividends and gave new life to its publication. 

With over 25,000 NewsGuild members, the union’s leadership has the potential to make articles go viral. The NewsGuild leadership quickly began sharing Labor Notes among its journalist members, giving the publication new life and credibility. Even publications like the New York Times began citing Labor Notes in their pages. 

The NewsGuild also began using Labor Notes for internal training and encouraged its members to donate to the organization. Recently, Schleuss emailed the union’s 25,000 members and asked them to attend the Labor Notes Conference this weekend in Chicago. Likewise, Labor Notes has widely advertised Schleuss’s attendance and the NewsGuild support for the conference in print advertisements mailed to subscribers as a sign of Labor Notes’ growing relevance within the media. 

“We need to organize every news worker in this country. Think about it: wouldn’t that be a big boon to organizing everyone else?” Schleuss said in a promo for the Labor Notes conference. 

While Schleuss promoted Labor Notes, it has ignored three major scandals involving the cover-up of sexual assault in the union, retaliation against Chicago NewsGuild union democracy activists, and Schleuss’ abandonment of SEIU staff fighting retaliation against their union.

A look at each of these separate scandals within the NewsGuild raises serious questions about how Labor Notes, billed as a beacon of union democracy, has seized power within the labor movement while simultaneously abandoning journalistic ethics. 

Multiple Scandals Ignored by Labor Notes 

According to reports first published by Payday Report and later confirmed independently by the New York Times, Jon Schleuss had knowledge of sexual assault allegations against former Pittsburgh NewsGuild President Michael Fuoco for nearly a year but refused to take action. The New York Times reported that Scheluss had even met with a sexual assault survivor of Fucoo’s, but continued to promote Fuoco at rallies and on social media. 

Instead of investigating the claims of sexual assault within his own organization, the New York Times reported that Schleuss planned to malign my mental health as a former Brazilian drug war reporter suffering from PTSD in an attempt to discredit our reporting. This mental health smear campaign, as well as a death threat that I received from a local union officer and the harassment of my father by Schleuss, are now the subject of an ongoing lawsuit against Schleuss and the NewsGuild

After the New York Times ran a Sunday feature story on the cover-up of sexual assault by the NewsGuild leadership, Schleuss promised to do a formal independent investigation. Instead, he hired a veteran police union crisis communication expert, who had worked for some of the most notoriously racist police groups in the country, to conduct a “listening tour” about feelings and attitudes toward sexism within the union. 

The subsequent report explicitly stated that “this listening tour was not conducted as an investigation of, or inquiry into, the behavior of past or current Pittsburgh Guild membership “this listening tour was not conducted as an investigation of, or inquiry into, the behavior of past or current Pittsburgh Guild membership”

For years, Labor Notes journalists like Steve Early rallied against top-down abuses of power by SEIU leadership. But Jon Schleuss worked to block SEIU’s staff union, the Union of Union Representatives (UUR), from affiliating with the NewsGuild, which represents the staff unions at the AFL-CIO, UFCW, and APWU. At the time, SEIU was facing major sexual misconduct charges, which had resulted in several lawsuits and forced a number of its top leaders to step down.

With SEIU resisting efforts to take on sexual misconduct within its ranks, the UUR has been vigorously protesting and calling on the union to do more to combat its culture of sexual misconduct. 

However, Schleuss resisted UUR’s efforts to affiliate, angering many local leaders, particularly leaders in the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild who were outraged by Schleuss’s resistance. 

In a letter written on April 25 to the leadership of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild obtained by Payday Report, Schleuss wrote that he was blocking the affiliation because the parent union of the NewsGuild, the CWA, wanted to avoid a confrontation with the politically powerful leadership of SEIU. Allowing the UUR to affiliate would mean that the NewsGuild would likely have to fight SEIU’s politically powerful leadership over their treatment of staff and take on the massive sexual misconduct scandal that has rocked SEIU over the past few years. 

“The CWA has a strong partnership with SEIU through political work. For those reasons, I am directing the local to stop any affiliation efforts,” wrote Schleuss in the letter. (Read a copy of the letter here obtained by Payday Report.)

After Schleuss blocked the affiliation, the leadership of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild appealed to the union’s Executive Council, which voted unanimously to overturn the decision of Schleuss and allow the affiliation of the UUR to continue. 

“A lot of people in the local were in agreement that Jon was out of line and wrong and are pretty mad about it,” one Washington NewsGuild activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, told Payday Report in June 2021. 

They had good reason to fear retaliation. When Chicago Tribune reporters raised concerns that the implementation of bargaining imposed by the national leadership was undemocratic, national NewsGuild leadership pulled their union rep from severance bargaining with the newspaper, hurting the union at a critical moment. 

“The guild has abandoned us and left us without representation at the bargaining table to punish us for a local decision,” Chicago NewsGuild President Gregory Pratt wrote in an email to Chicago Tribune reporters in June. “We have a situation in Chicago that should alarm each of you, even if you aren’t in agreement with our current position.” 

The repeated patterns of retaliation against union democracy activists and the cover-up of sexual assault within the NewsGuild should raise troubling questions for any activists attending the Labor Notes Conference this weekend. 

Payday Report sought to contact Labor Notes more than a dozen times over the last year, through its lead media staffer, Jonah Furman. (Furman, an influential former Bernie Sanders staffer, is a labor media juggernaut in his own right with over 47,000 Twitter followers.) All comment requests have been ignored.

Union Democracy Depends on Accurate Information

Labor Notes was once a great labor publication that fearlessly covered union democracy struggles. However, as Labor Notes has evolved into what is primarily a consultancy and training firm, it has abandoned journalistic independence. It is now a political organization primarily concerned with power and money.

As the owner of Payday Report, I refuse to take union money or provide consulting or training services to unions. We rely on a variety of small donors so that no one institution can prevent us from telling the truth, as NewsGuild has done with Labor Notes. 

Union democracy depends on workers getting accurate information. A labor news organization like Labor Notes, which runs interference for politically supportive labor leaders, doesn’t believe in union democracy. It simply believes in power. 

Labor journalism is about telling the truth, no matter how ugly, how complex, no matter the political costs or lack of union financial support. This is because union democracy depends on honest, accurate information. This is the only way that union members can make informed decisions about the direction of the labor movement. 

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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