Harry Bernstein, 83; Veteran Labor Reporter for The Times

Times Staff Writer

Harry Bernstein, a labor reporter whose hiring at The Times in 1962 marked a sea change in the paper’s coverage of union-management issues, died Tuesday. He was 83.

Bernstein died of pneumonia at Verdugo Hills Hospital in Glendale, said his son Adam. He had been in failing health for some time.

In a career spanning six decades, Bernstein covered major developments in labor, including the merger of the AFL and CIO, various labor disputes in Los Angeles and the rise of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. In later years, he wrote a column on labor issues that appeared in the Business section and after retiring in 1993 contributed to the opinion page.


“He was the last of the great labor writers,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, a former labor lawyer, told The Times on Wednesday. “In the days when labor relations were a major part of life in this country, he made it a fascinating subject for the entire community.”

Coming two years after Otis Chandler took the reins as publisher of The Times, the hiring of Bernstein to report about labor issues was considered remarkable. The paper’s antipathy toward organized labor was historic and deep. And in the 1960s, organized labor had much less impact in Southern California than it does today. But Chandler wanted more nuanced, balanced coverage of issues in The Times.

Hiring Bernstein from the Los Angeles Examiner after the morning Hearst paper folded in 1962 was “very significant to the development of the paper,” said Bill Boyarsky, a former city editor, political writer and columnist for The Times.

“He brought straightforward, honest labor reporting to the paper,” Boyarsky said. “For the first time, labor’s point of view was consistently reflected in news stories. He reported the huge transformation of Los Angeles through the prism of labor and management issues.”

In his book, “Privileged Son,” about Chandler, Dennis McDougal noted that Bernstein’s early stories brought criticism from business leaders who were unaccustomed to seeing labor’s views reflected in The Times.

According to McDougal, Editor Nick Williams told one irate businessman: “The Times has an obligation to its subscribers, of reporting the news -- all the important news -- and that includes labor news.”

Bernstein was born Sept. 14, 1922, in Charleston, S.C. He earned a journalism degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before serving in an Army intelligence unit during World War II. His reporting career included stints at papers in Washington, D.C.; Lynchburg, Va.; Tucson; and El Centro, Calif., where he also served as city editor. He joined the Examiner as a reporter in 1953 and was named labor writer in 1955.

Over the years, he developed a rapport with leaders on both sides of the issue.

“His views had tremendous influence,” Reinhardt said. “Management and labor both trusted him. His coverage helped bring about resolutions to labor disputes.”

Bernstein was also effective in covering the politics of the labor movement.

Edwin O. Guthman, national editor of The Times from 1965 to 1977, said he often added Bernstein to the team covering political conventions. “He had great access to labor leaders,” Guthman said.

“Harry was always a great part of our coverage. People would tell him things and had great confidence in him. He was an incredible source, and people in labor trusted him.”

Dan Weinstein, who met Bernstein in the mid-1980s when Weinstein was an aide to Bill Robertson, the longtime executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, remembered Bernstein as “courtly and gregarious. A real Southern gentleman ... who was eloquent in articulating the concerns and struggles of working men and women.”

In addition to his son Adam, Bernstein is survived by his wife, Joanne; children Rachel, Aaron, Sarah and Daniel; and eight grandchildren.

A memorial service is pending.