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Sunday, December 24, 2006

The unions grimly hold on

Time Magazine backs Newhouse on strike

Showdown in Portland

Time Magazine, Feb. 22, 1960

From house to house in Portland moved union teams, exhorting tenants to cancel their subscriptions to Portland's two daily newspapers, the morning Oregonian and the evening Oregon Journal. As a substitute, subscribers had the offer of a new weekly tabloid published by the Portland Interunion Newspaper Committee in a desperate attempt to win a strike that was already three months old. During those three months, the dispute had become a finish fight, eyed closely by printing-craft union men and newspaper publishers all over the U.S. At stake: the capability of newspapers, using modern equipment, to get along with fewer of the skilled hands of the powerful, featherbed-prone printing-craft unions.

Weekly Improvement. The strike began last November when 54 Oregonian and Journal stereotypers walked off their jobs in protest against the Oregonian's plans to buy a highly automated German plate-casting machine. When other printing craftsmen followed, Oregonian and Journal brass joined forces, moved into the Oregonian's mechanical department, began putting out a pied, but still readable, combined edition of the Oregonian-Oregon Journal (TIME, Nov. 23). A call for mechanical help went out to nonunion papers throughout the U.S., and the jointly published paper soon was limping along with 72 experienced hands recruited from as far away as Florida. As the months wore on, the imported work force was gradually replaced by 350 unskilled workmen hired locally and trained on the job.

Management's showdown effort was costly. Before the strike, the morning Oregonian had a daily circulation of 242,035, the p.m. Journal, 188,677. Oregonian Publisher Michael J. Frey estimates that total circulation has dropped 70,000; the Portland Newspaper Guild's President Robert L. Shults has set the loss at 160,000.

Half Pre-Strike Size. But the unions were even harder shaken. When the pressmen, among the last of eleven unions to go out, joined the stereotypers, the papers fired them; the National Labor Relations Board upheld the dismissal. And violence broke out as the papers appeared to be proving their point: that modern, automatic printshop machinery can run on unskilled labor with far fewer hands than union featherbedding clauses demand. In January, ten newsprint delivery trucks were dynamited; last week five persons were indicted in connection with the bombings, including a member of the stereotypers' negotiating board.

Neither side shows any inclination to settle. The papers, getting along with a mechanical staff less than half the pre-strike size, have set March or April as target month for returning to separately printed, normally competitive publication. The unions grimly hold on. "This is one strike we cannot afford to lose," says a representative of the international stereotypers' union. In fact, if the unions do lose, it could make a big difference in the publishing business throughout the nation.

Part 7 in a series, "Newhouses and labor unions"

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