Labor Beat / Labor Express Remember Larry Duncan, 1945-2018

Labor Beat / Labor Express (CIMC Repost)

CHICAGO - One of the unsung heroes of labor journalism in the US, our co-founder and chief producer Larry Duncan, has died at age 72. We at the Committee for Labor Access (CLA), the producers of Labor Express radio and Labor Beat TV are heartbroken to share the news of Larry's passing. He spent his life documenting the struggles, defeats, and victories of ordinary working people, a class he felt held great untapped strength in our world. He will always be remembered for directing his wit and sardonic humor at those in power.

Larry Duncan was born Sept. 14, 1945. Like many of his generation, his politics took shape in the turbulent 1960s anti-war movement. During this time, he was a member of the Workers League, organizing at United Auto Worker- and Teamster-affiliated workplaces in the St. Louis area. He was later an active supporter of groups Socialist Action and Socialist Organizer. For a time, he lived in San Francisco.

Larry eventually settled in Chicago and made his living in the trade of publishing​, becoming a member of Communication Workers of America local 14408. But Larry's life was better defined by what happened off the clock. He saw the growing attacks on organized labor in the 1970s and 1980s as a wakeup call.

From studying labor history, he came to understand that the newspapers, TV, and radio held by big business would never accurately cover working people’s issues without the inherent venom of the wealthy interests owning those media. Larry came to understand that everyday people needed to get their hands on those media to tell their own stories.

The 1980s saw the spread of cable TV and the growth of community "public access" TV channels and training. ​In 1984, Larry worked with a core of dedicated labor and media activists, co-founding Committee for Labor Access to push for a TV channel or regular television series to convey the untold stories of working class challenges. In 1986, Labor Beat began production and cablecasting at what is today Chicago Access Network (CAN-TV).

From vibrant protests to guest speakers from around the world, contract campaigns and radical union reform efforts, Larry had a hand in creating content for hundreds of episodes. Events like the Central Illinois "War Zone" union battles of the mid-1990s and the 1997 UPS strike became defining points in the history of his organization. When cameras evolved into smaller forms, he was often the sole videographer and editor on many episodes.

Because of its independence, Labor Beat was not immediately popular with old-guard union bureaucracies. In the 1990s, Larry affiliated with Labor Party Advocates to try to form a viable political party for working class demands as an alternative to the Democratic Party.

As the 21st century took shape, Larry pivoted with the changing times. He mentored new voices in radio and television. Maintaining cablecasts for the show in multiple cities, Larry migrated Labor Beat to a YouTube channel, which currently has over 350 videos. In this era of the immediate, unedited video upload, he was opposed to "hot takes." Larry instead preferred a reasoned analysis after the fact. Significantly, he rarely used voice-over narration for his videos, since promoting the voices of the rank-and-file was core to his identity.

Larry became especially adept at finding the smaller union struggles that did not grab headlines: Railroad workers struggling to unite their unions against logistics companies; public transit unions standing up for riders and drivers alike; and small workplaces that had won their first union contract. He was more documentarian than newsman, forming working relationships with union militants and leaders. Geography limited what he could cover, but never apathy.

His final month of life typified the whole. Larry recently engaged in efforts to re-ignite the anti-war movement. He hosted several of the organizing meetings of the recently formed Chicago Anti-War Coalition, coming early to set up the UE Hall. According to coalition organizers, Larry's thoughtful participation could always be counted on to bring calm to heated discussions, without egotism or sectarianism.

One of Larry's final projects was a document illustrating tech companies' move to censor content on social media. He concluded that workers creating their own media were more important now than ever before. His final shoots and edits were to videos about railroad workers and about immigrant working women facing sexual harassment on the job. To his great joy and excitement, he lived to witness the historic multi-state strike wave by teachers that began in West Virginia earlier this year.

Perhaps only the late Studs Terkel had a wider impact in the endeavor of portraying the "salt of the earth" though their hopes, actions, courage, and contradictions. Larry Duncan's importance to labor media in general, and the Chicago labor left in particular, can never be understated.

Family and close friends will hold a memorial. A larger, public "Celebration of Life" for Larry Duncan will be planned and announced soon. He is preceded in death by his father, Robert Duncan and his mother, Nancy Hurley Duncan. He is survived by his brothers Dick (Sally) and Paul (Jean), his daughter, Zara (Mike) and son, Benjamin, his grandchildren Isabella and Noah.

Larry will be missed by hundreds of friends and comrades across the nation and world, many who quietly regarded him a working class hero for his contribution to the common struggle of everyday people.


Andrew Friend wrote this memorial, with contributions from Wayne Heimbach, Jerry Mead-Lucero, Joleen Kirschenman, Erik Slater, and Alan Benjamin.

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