The blogger "labor union" that isn't

The right jeers reports that lefty bloggers are forming a labor union. The reports, though, don't tell the whole story.

Published August 7, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

There's an Associated Press report flying around that looks into what would seem to be a strangely indulgent activist effort -- the fight by some progressive bloggers to form a labor union. The story is full of quotes about how such a thing could never work. Curt Hopkins, founder of the Committee to Protect Bloggers, tells the AP, "The blogosphere is such a weird term and such a weird idea. It's anyone who wants to do it ... There's absolutely no commonality there. How will they find a commonality to go on? I think it's doomed to failure on any sort of large scale."

And here's how Tom Blumer over at Newsbusters ("Exposing and combating liberal media bias") reacted to the affair: "Maybe I'm missing something, but when you want to form a union, isn't it sort of necessary that there be a mean, oppressive employer, or a group of them?" Nobody really employs progressive bloggers -- so if they're going to collectively bargain, who'll be their target?

Good points, Tom -- except it turns out you're barking up the wrong tree. Susie Madrak, proprietor of the blog Suburban Guerrilla and the AP's main source for its story, is not calling for a labor union for bloggers. She understands that bloggers aren't employed by anyone, and that consequently collective bargaining wouldn't work. What Madrak is organizing, instead, is very different: a kind of grass-roots insurance pool to pay for health emergencies of progressive bloggers -- people without whom, she says, Democrats would not enjoy the political success they're now seeing.

Madrak's fight was inspired by the death last month of Jim Capozzola, one of the founders of lefty blog the Rittenhouse Review. Madrak, who calls Capozzola her "fairy blogfather," argues that if he'd been a Republican, Capozzola would be alive today. "He would have been in a well-paid think tank job, living the high life (He did, after all, have a masters degree in foreign policy,)" she wrote recently in the Huffington Post. "Most importantly, he would have had health insurance for the past six years."

Instead, Capozzola "didn't have enough money to go to the doctor while he was waiting for his health insurance to kick in," Madrak told me in a phone interview today. "By the time his benefits started up he had an infection that was really bad. The drugs they treated him with kept his blood from clotting. He hit his head, and he died from a brain hemorrhage."

The fund that Madrak is trying to set up would cover emergencies like Capozzola's. "If you needed to go to the doctor, if you have an abscessed tooth, if you finally got a car and all of a sudden the brakes go -- things like that," she says.

Madrak is applying to blogger Matt Stoller's Blogpac fund for a $5,000 grant to pay for an attorney who could help set up the insurance system. But she imagines that most of the money in the fund would come directly from readers of left-leaning sites, and, she hopes, influential progressive organizations and perhaps even the Democratic Party itself. Such groups would pay into a fund -- in much the way listeners pledge to public radio, Madrak says -- and when a blogger hits hard times, the fund would cover the costs.

I asked Madrak about the difficulty she'd have deciding who's covered and who isn't; after all, I could set up a site tomorrow and call myself a progressive blogger in an effort to get some insurance. Madrak says the fund would set up rules to sort this out, and it would start very small. "Probably what we'd do is look to start something in the Northeast area -- say, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston. We'd work out the kinks, and then try to expand and perhaps set up regional pools around the country."

Just before our phone call, Madrak had spoken to another reporter who'd asked, "What's so special about progressive bloggers? Why shouldn't people who blog about anything else be eligible for coverage too?"

Madrak's answer is that netroots bloggers are changing the country. "I write a blog that activates and motivates Democrats," she says. "The Democratic Party was pretty much moribund for a long time. They were on the ropes. They weren't getting anywhere. We were the ones who had the vision -- yes, we can take back the House and the Senate. We knew we could help make it happen, and we did make it happen. I think it would be nice if we got a little more than a pat on the head in return."

Madrak is undoubtedly right that the Democratic Party has been boosted by lefty bloggers -- the difficulty, though, is in putting a price tag on that help. How much would it cost to cover healthcare for influential lefty bloggers, and how much of that should Democrats pay?

These questions rest upon a fundamentally unknowable thing -- the blogosphere's direct impact on American elections -- and when you conceive of funding bloggers' emergencies, it's this fact that trips you up.

All across the nation, though, officials and experts are imagining creative ways to cover the uninsured. Madrak's plan is certainly unconventional, but little about healthcare isn't. I'd put long odds on her success -- the fact that the plan is too easily dismissed as a "labor union" is perhaps the foremost stumbling point. But it's a long way from crazy.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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