The Newspaper War Moves to Seattle
Nearly one thousand newspaper workers in Seattle walked off the job November 21 after Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild members rejected a final contract offer from the city’s daily papers. The Guild represents the newsrooms of the two papers and advertising and circulation employees. The Seattle Times, owned by the Blethen family and Knight-Ridder, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a Hearst paper, publish together under a Joint Operating Agreement and negotiate together with the Guild.
On November 24, Guild members started their own paper, the Seattle Union Record, named after the influential paper of the Seattle labor movement that flourished in the 1910’s and 1920’s. After being bumped from one printer by pressure from the newspapers, the strikers are putting out three print issues a week as well as an online edition at www.unionrecord.com. The press run has increased to 40,000 (compared with the combined circulation of the dailies at 500,000 pre-strike).
The principal issue is wages, which have been losing ground to inflation, especially since housing costs have soared. The Guild had asked for $3.25 per hour increase over three years and elimination of a two-tier pay scale. The newspapers offered $3.30 over six years. The Guild also sought a match for 401(k) retirement contributions, which is offered to many non-Guild employees.
While this is the first newspaper strike here since 1953, ninety percent of the Guild members are participating, including four Pulitzer Prize winners and all of the widely recognized columnists. The strikers’ cause has been strengthened by the solidarity of the higher-salaried employees with their co-workers in circulation, distribution, and advertising, who make as little as $8-$12 an hour.
Marge Glasper, a 16-year customer service representative interviewed in a strike bulletin, cited a pay-for-performance plan created in 1987 at the Times as the beginning of a downward spiral in working conditions. The ever-increasing goals of the plan and management scrutiny have caused massive turnover in her department.
BOYCOTT EFFORT ESCALATES
After talks broke down again December 10 in a short session involving a mediator, the Guild’s efforts have begun to focus more on the circulation and advertising boycott. Management had been distributing the daily newspapers for free since the strike began, but planned to resume charging on December 17. Because so much advertising revenue depends on circulation figures, the newspapers also made it difficult for readers to cancel subscriptions, continuing to deliver after repeated phone calls to cancel.
The community has so far given a favorable response to the strikers. Individuals, unions, and small businesses have donated food, firewood, money, and help with strike paper distribution and picket-line support. The Guild has printed up yard signs reading, “I support fairness for workers--No Times/P-I here,” but has not yet tapped the potential for having neighborhoods blanketed with those signs.
Nirmala Bhat, a striker on the outreach committee, responded to a comment about the Guild’s flying start in printing a strike newspaper, “That’s what we know how to do. Everything else is so new to us.” Indeed, prior to the strike Guild members had attended a workshop given by the Boeing engineers who struck for 40 days last winter. Over 300 newspaper workers and University of Washington graduate students, also preparing for a strike, learned about burn barrels, picket line chants, and surviving during a long strike.
Apparently absent is any plan to physically block newspapers from leaving the North Creek printing plant. A court order had first enjoined picketers from blocking entrances at the Times for more than two minutes, then 45 seconds; now any blocking has been prohibited.
TEAMSTERS REACTION SPLIT
There are a number of bargaining units at the newspapers that are not on strike. But the most important are the Teamsters, represented by locals that have taken sharply contrasting positions. All 84 truck drivers represented by Local 174 have joined the picket lines. Local 174, led by Bob Hasegawa of the reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union, has been highly visible in contract and organizing campaigns.
At the same time, only a handful of the approximately 400 workers represented by Teamsters Local 763 are honoring picket lines, even though their contract allows them to. Local 763 recently signed a contract with the newspapers after the membership had voted the offer down.
Local 763 is led by Jon Rabine, an International vice president of the Teamsters and a close ally of Teamster President James Hoffa, Jr. Members of Local 763 say that Rabine had a petition sent around asking that the contract offer be accepted, circulating it in an operation with a large number of non-English-speaking workers, and then used the petition as a contract ratification.
Strikers say that participation by Local 763’s drivers would have made a big difference.
REPEAT OF DETROIT?
Comparisons with the Detroit newspaper strike are inevitable, although that experience has affected some of the tactics and timing on both sides. The Guild’s parent union, the Communications Workers of America, quickly pledged financial support for the strike paper. Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley, in an encounter on the picket line, was quick to deny similarities to the Detroit strike, perhaps because of the long struggle and the losses incurred there.
With an active labor movement in Seattle and community support that has great potential, the strikers have strong allies. They also have a sense of justice. “This is the first time I have ever been able to get involved in the union,” said striker Marge Glasper in a Guild bulletin. “I feel good about it, because I’m standing up for what I think is right.”
David Yao is a postal worker whose contract expired the same day the newspaper strike began.