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Thursday, December 7, 2006

Poisoned labor-management relations

Anti-union roots

Sam Newhouse was as tough on unions as any owner in the business; maybe as tough as any owner in the history of American journalism.

As a college freshman at Syracuse in 1945, Si wrote:

"While I'm on national events, thank god the news strike is over. There was a disgraceful a business as I've ever seen. Imagine 3,000 fugitives from a chain gang, keeping 17,000,000 people from reading newspapers. They all should have been thrown in jail."

He worried about "CIO communists ... grabbing control of the party and turning it into a hotbed of extreme leftish, communists and socialists controlled by labor."

Some of Si's attitude was surely acquired at home, just as some of Sam's hostility toward unions was likely a reaction to his own father's fervent and completely opposite belief in the right of workers to organize. For Meyer Newhouse, unionism was as close to religion as he ever came.

But Sam Newhouse went the other way and remained a foe of newspaper unions all his professional life. He believed that the unions were responsible for weakening and even killing newspapers, that on the production side especially featherbedding was notorious; that they made it impossible for an owner to make a decent profit and plow money back into the paper.

Sam once wrote that "busting" unions was not something he enjoyed, but "I refuse to stand by passively and allow any union to 'bust' me." He said that "to yield to others the controls that are vital to your own security is suicide."

The patriarch always tried to prevent his workers from organizing. And when he bought a newspaper that already had a union in place, he worked hard to emasculate it.

His modus operandi on buying a paper was first to modernize the production facilities with labor-saving devices. Once all the innovations were in place, he would turn his attention to cutting the workforce. The unions, logically, resisted any cuts, and sometimes a walkout or a strike resulted; almost always the relationship between the workers and management was poisoned.

(© Carol Felsenthal, "Citizen Newhouse", p.101-102)

Part 1 in a series, "Newhouses and labor unions"

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