National dialogue has radically changed over the first half of 2017. Phrases like “alternative facts” and concern over “fake news” has been the subject of presidential tweets and investigative reporting. While issues over reputable and authoritative news and information are critical discussions, concerns over the media are not only a thread throughout American history. It was an issue within the labor movement as well.
The International Labor Communications Association (ILCA) is a professional organization for members of the labor movement who work in communications or the media. Founded in 1955 after the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged into the AFL-CIO, its main objective, as outlined in its constitution is “to increase the effectiveness of communications in the United States and Canada between union leaders and union members, between organized labor and the general public and as an instrument of support for the goals of the AFL-CIO, CTW and the CLC.” One of the ways the ILCA has worked to achieve this goal is by investigating, what they have termed, racket presses.
So what exactly is a racket publication?
The usual scenario with a racket press is: a publisher offers a deal that seems too good to be true to a local union. The company offers to publish a union newsletter for free with the only stipulation being that the company keeps all ad revenue. After the union agrees to this opportunity, the company turns to local businesses and promises them unique advertising opportunities to reach loyal union members. In the end, as reports to the ILCA illustrate, often the local businesses and the local unions both suffer as the racket press company uses the newsletter as an opportunity to charge money for advertisements in a newsletter that may not even circulate.
Reports of Phony Papers
The above letter from Murray Seeger, Director of the AFL-CIO’s Department of Information, details a case of possible phony paper local to Maryland. The letter details to Henry Koellein, Jr., President of the Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions, a case reported by a Baltimore doctor who was solicited to buy advertising space in a labor publication. After researching the publication, it appeared that the publication was fake, so he reported it to the AFL-CIO.
One case well-documented in the ILCA records is the case of Anthony Pomporeni, a man who distributed scam papers across several states. Many of the reports and papers in the collection about Pomporeni focus on one paper in particular, the Labor Union Advocate. Above you can find a letter to the ILCA President from a restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida, The Sand Dollar, responding to Kenneth Fiester, Secretary-Treasurer of the Labor Press Association, warning business owners about Pomporeni’s Labor Union Advocate. The letter details how Dahlberg received a solicitation to buy ad space for a newsletter for a local union. Because Dahlberg had an amicable relationship with the local Electricians’ Union, he felt no reason to be skeptical of the solicitation and agreed to pay for a one-time advertisement. After purchasing the single ad, he discovered that the Local Union Advocate had no connection to the union and refused to place any furthers ads despite receiving continued solicitations by the company purporting to be a labor press.
Above you can see a wanted poster distributed by the Post Office Department regarding Pomporeni. The notice reports that Pomporeni was eventually indicted for fraud in June of 1968, almost two years after John Dahlberg sent his letter to Kenneth Fiester. After also being indicted in Ohio and then arrested in Pennsylvania, Pomporeni failed to show up for a court appearance and became a fugitive. The mailer goes so far as to describe him as having “an extensive criminal record, is frequently armed and should be considered dangerous.”
As the national conversation continues about fake news, it can be beneficial to look back at how similar problems were handled in the past. While the “frequently armed” and “considered dangerous” fugitive, Pomporeni might evoke our imaginations, the stories of local unions and business owners whose trust was abused resonates with how some news publications and websites today may abuse the public’s trust. Organizations like the ILCA have developed professional and ethical standards for their members, like many other professional organizations, which the public can use as a standard to judge a publication against.
Benjamin Bradley is a second year MLIS student in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. He works in the Labor Collections at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives.
Ben learned about the ILCA and racket presses while processing a new accession of materials that have been donated to libraries. The University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives have the ILCA records, and you can access an abstract about the collection of ILCA materials here.