Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Solowey, a Washington labor journalist, served as co-chair of the pressmen’s legal defense committee during the 1975 strike against the Washington Post.
On Oct. 1, 1975, the Washington Post stood at the height of its prestige as a liberal, crusading newspaper. Its publication of the Pentagon Papers four years earlier had been seen as a courageous journalistic blow against the war. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had exposed the Watergate scandal and helped topple disgraced President Richard Nixon. The paper was soon to be glorified in the smash movie All the President’s Men, with Robert Redford as Woodward, Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, and Jason Robards as acclaimed editor Ben Bradlee.
But early that morning, Pressmen’s Local 6, which represented the paper’s more than 200 press operators, went on strike. The bitter labor dispute involved all but one of the paper’s 10 unions, lasted nearly two years, and ended with the total defeat of the pressmen’s union. The Post‘s victory raised fundamental questions about the paper’s power to manipulate politicians and judges and its commitment to the causes touted on its editorial page.
In the early ’70s, as Watergate transformed the Post into one of the nation’s most important papers, the company’s attitude toward its unions began changing drastically.
Traditionally, the company had good relations with its 10 unions. Katharine Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, had purchased the bankrupt paper in 1933, and he was always popular with the Post‘s craft unions. A picture of him standing in the pressroom wearing his “pressman’s hat” (a paper cap made from discarded newspaper) still hangs in the Post‘s lobby. Meyer established an employee profit-sharing plan, and the local inducted him as an honorary member in 1951.
Philip Graham, Meyer’s son-in-law and Katharine Graham’s husband, took over as publisher in 1946, and like his father-in-law, he kept the goodwill of rank-and-file workers. He often visited the pressroom, and union leaders felt they had management’s ear.
“If anything, the attitude of the Post was somewhat paternalistic,” says Robert Petersen, president of the Columbia Typographical Union, which still represents the Post‘s printers. “If there were problems, most of the time we could go to people and work things out, even during the first years of Mrs. Graham.”
Katharine Graham inherited the publisher’s job after her husband’s 1963 suicide. She began to change the labor relations approach after the company went public in 1971. In 1972, she told a group of securities analysts, “The first order of business at the Washington Post is to maximize profits from our existing operations….Some costs resist more stubbornly than others.”
It was time to take on the unions.
“Management developed a hard-nosed attitude,” Petersen charges. “They no longer cared about employees, only about profits.”
Graham killed the profit-sharing plan, and in 1973 she hired a new chief of labor relations, Larry Wallace. Years later, in an internal Post memo, Wallace described part of his strategy toward unions: “The purpose of corrective discipline is to demean the employee, in his eyes, in the eyes of his family, and the eyes of his fellow employees….We do not demean an employee if we simply take away an economic benefit or an economic privilege….If a union official abuses his leadership responsibilities, accelerate his punishment—e.g., give a written reprimand to the others and give him a suspension, or give him a longer suspension than the others.”
Labor disputes came hot and heavy in the early ’70s. In 1973, the paper faced off against unions over the printers’ contract, but the paper backed down, thanks to the pressmen’s union, which occupied the pressroom in support of a fired printer. A year later, the Post easily handled a strike by the Newspaper Guild. But everyone knew the big showdown would come in 1975, when the pressmen’s contract expired.
The pressmen were pace-setters at the Post. Theirs was the first union to win a cost-of-living wage clause in its contract. They had come, in a sense, to run the pressroom. They, rather than management, arranged who would work on each shift and policed their own ranks.
Newspapers all over the country had broken pressmen’s unions and replaced them with cheaper, nonunion workers. Local 6’s members suspected that the Post would try to bust them, too. According to union leaders, the paper began targeting pressmen even before the contract expired. The Post, the leaders say, harassed workers on the job, allowed the pressroom to deteriorate, and tried to lay off 36 pressmen, offering to hire them all back as part-timers with no benefits. (A judge overturned the firings.)
The company also embarked on “Project X” to train management and strikebreakers to take over union jobs in the event of a job action. It also hooked up with Southern Production Program (S), a school for newspaper industry scabs in Oklahoma. S was tied in with the anti-labor “right to work” movement, a campaign that the Post‘s editorial page had opposed.
“It was clear to me that the Post intended all along to break the pressmen, the most militant union at the Post,” says John Hanrahan, a reporter and assistant metropolitan editor who honored the pressmen’s strike. (Hanrahan, now a private investigator, did not return to the paper after the strike ended.)
So when the pressmen walked off the job, the paper was ready. Strikers had inflicted minor damage on the presses before they left on Oct. 1, but the machines were up and running in a few days. Managers and scabs flown to the Post building by helicopter operated the presses. Other unions—except for the Newspaper Guild, which represents reporters, ad salespeople, and others—joined the strike. Some reporters who backed the pressmen did stay away from work, but the majority kept writing—including Woodward and Bernstein, the latter the son of left-wing union activists. Robert Kaiser, now the Post‘s managing editor, crossed the lines and covered the strike for the Post.
The pressmen lost, but not without a fight. The other unions ended their sympathy strikes after four-and-a-half months, but the pressmen picketed for 19 months. The pressmen, their families, and a broad group of supporters held rallies, attended vigils outside Graham’s Georgetown home, went on speaking tours, and even convened a “people’s grand jury” to investigate the Post‘s union busting. (I personally handed Katharine Graham her “subpoena.” Always the lady, she simply said, “Thank you,” but never fit the event into her busy social schedule).
Newspaper unions and workers from around the country poured in financial support. Other Washington-area unions lent some support, but D.C., which lacks big industrial unions, was not a very strong labor town. Pressmen staged a sit-in at the office of AFL-CIO President George Meany to protest that organization’s tepid support. (Meany proved to be an inhospitable host.)
Support City Paper!
The union had squared off against an enemy that was far too powerful. The paper kept publishing throughout the walkout. It also won the publicity war. (The Post hired the J. Walter Thompson firm to handle its public relations. The local placed its president, James Dugan, in front of the cameras. The youngest local president in the history of his union, Dugan was slightly less telegenic than Richard Nixon and about as effective in making the union’s case to the public as Nixon had been at explaining Watergate.)
And the strikers were battered by a relentless grand jury investigation, one that union members are convinced was instigated by the Post. Just two weeks after the strike began, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Earl Silbert, a Nixon appointee, began a grand jury probe of the strikers, investigating pressmen who had allegedly vandalized equipment at the paper on the morning of Oct. 1. According to Post officials, the paper’s own articles, and the Post-owned Newsweek, strikers had done “millions of dollars” in damage to presses. According to other, non-Post sources, the actual amount of damage totaled a mere $13,000, but the small scale of the vandalism didn’t discourage Silbert from a zealous investigation. (Silbert had the distinction of running the first Watergate grand jury probe, which had effectively shielded the Nixon White House and cast G. Gordon Liddy as the fall guy.) During the nine months after October 1975, more than 100 strikers—including Dugan—were called before the grand jury. In July 1976, 15 of them were indicted on felony charges, and some faced more than 40 years in jail.
“The Post made a lot of hay out of very minor stuff that happened in the pressroom,” explains Petersen.
The fact that there were indictments at all said a great deal about the Post‘s motives and power. Washington, D.C., circa 1975, had an average of one murder, 10 aggravated assaults, 40 grand larcenies, and two rapes each day.
“I’ve been around the newspaper industry for 43 years,” says Thomas McGrath, head of the newspaper, magazine, and electronic media division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “This was the only time I ever saw a grand jury used as a weapon over minor property damage.”
Dugan says the grand jury acted as the Post‘s pawn, undermining the strikers. “Why do you think all that time and money was spent going after us?” he asks. “The government did the Post‘s bidding in sapping our resources, further tarnishing our image, trying to turn brother against brother, and in punishing people who were victims of union busting, not criminals.”
Dugan adds that “there never were charges or even investigation of those who assaulted strikers.”
In April 1977, in a plea bargain, all felony charges against the strikers were dropped in exchange for guilty pleas to minor misdemeanors. In May 1977, D.C. Superior Court Judge Sylvia Bacon sent one pressman to jail for a year, and sentenced several others to halfway houses, declaring that “violence had to be deterred and punished.”
Everett Forsman, who had taken over from Dugan as Local 6’s president, claimed a victory of sorts, saying the deal proved “what we have been saying all along. There was no riot, there were no millions of dollars of damage done to the Post. There was no conspiracy to destroy the Post.”
But it was a hollow victory at best because the Post won the strike. Even before the legal skirmishes ended, the Post union was decertified. The pressroom became a nonunion shop and it has remained one ever since.
And the strike took an enormous toll on the pressmen. One striker committed suicide during the walkout, and two others attempted suicide. Many pressmen lost their homes. Some returned to nonunion jobs at the Post. Others were initially blacklisted by newspapers around the country, but found jobs in the industry when the blacklist eased.
On Sept. 18, 1995, I take a quick tour of the pressroom in the Post building where the strike began. I’m there courtesy of the Post‘s current head of labor relations, Frank Havlicek.
When I first called Havlicek a few days earlier, he agreed to see me despite the subject of the interview. He and I had known each other in high school. We had worked together in student government and even campaigned for a political candidate together.
Havlicek, who came to the paper in 1988, is handsome, well-spoken, slick, and friendly. He displays no reticence in discussing the events of 1975, but his favorite topic is something else: the “excellent” state of labor-management relations at the Washington Post today.
“The strike was disastrous and for many people there still are profound and bitter memories,” he says. “I’ve spent my years here rebuilding trust with the unions.”
Workers and their unions at the Post have benefited from technological, jurisdictional, and other changes made at the paper, Havlicek says. He proudly notes that there have been no layoffs and no National Labor Relations Board charges issued against the company in his seven years on the job.
He cites a new contract with the Newspaper Guild (which has not yet been finalized at press time) as “a model for the future in the industry, a postindustrial agreement.”
But union leaders and members tell me a very different story. “Since the pressmen’s strike, things at the Post have been a lot harder for the unions. Management accomplished what they set out to do,” says the printer’s union’s Petersen. “We’re dealing with an employer that still wants to hammer us into oblivion.”
The craft unions at the newspaper, he says, have been forced into a series of concessionary contracts. “No union has been willing to strike since 1975. Every contract gets worse.”
And Newspaper Guild activist Lewis Diuguid, a Post assistant foreign editor, scoffs at Havlicek’s characterization of the new Guild contract. “The situation is worse now than it was [when Havlicek came] in the late ’80s,” he says. “I absolutely contradict Havlicek’s on this agreement being a model.”
The Guild, like all the Post‘s unions, is on its heels. It has gone for years at a time without a contract. The newsroom is now a totally open shop. Perhaps the most telling statistic is that in 1975, before the pressmen’s strike, the minimum salaries that the Guild negotiated with the Post for advertising sales, data processing, editorial, and news employees were the highest in the United States. Today, Post minimums lag $17,000 per year behind workers at the New York Times.
Yet the Post‘s 1994 profits per employee were the highest of any newspaper company —$25,300 per employee (compared with $16,500 for the New York Times) .
No wonder Havlicek speaks glowingly of the situation. Compensation for upper management is superb, and the company earned $170 million in profits last year.
“This is a very desirable place to work, and the Post considers it important to have union contracts,” he claims.
But not in the pressroom. There are good reasons, he says, to keep the pressroom nonunion. A pressroom union would oppose the technological changes that will come when the Post opens its new, suburban Maryland printing plant.
And Havlicek beams over the pressroom’s diverse work force, which now includes women. “They’re press operators now, not pressmen,” he stresses. And there are, he says, many more minority workers than in 1975—though Local 6 had a much better rec ord at integrating its membership than the rest of the newspaper.
The Post, says Petersen, gives the pressroom workers some of the best benefits at the paper in order to keep them nonunion, although there have been unsuccessful efforts to organize since the 1975 strike.
“A large group of pressmen came to us in the mid-’80s,” recalls Petersen, “complaining about conditions and wanting to unionize. The company got wind of it and [Katharine Graham’s son and now-publisher] Donald Graham came up to me at a United Way dinner and said he’d take it very, very personally if the pressmen organized. He said very forcefully, “we don’t want it to happen.’ ”
And it didn’t. “I can’t prove that the company committed any unfair labor practices,” Petersen says, “but people who were extremely interested in the union suddenly changed their minds.”
The pressmen’s strike may have had another deeper impact on the Washington Post. The 1975 dispute, says Hanrahan, marked the beginning of the Post‘s political shift to the right.
“In the late ’60s and early ’70s, on issues like worker rights, the Post was on the liberal side of things,” says Hanrahan. “Since then, the Post has never been a voice for working people around the country being shafted.
“Their Labor Day editorial this year,” he notes, “didn’t even mention unions.”