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What Are the Odds on a Newspaper Strike?

The Uses of Candor and the Wages of Stupidity

The real-life situations of Arthur Sulzberger of The Times, Tex James of The News, and Dorothy Schiff of The Post are as grim as their case histories suggest. The newspaper business in New York has been bad news for some time now.

Whole categories of advertising that newspapers used to have a lock on— food merchants, clothiers, even book publishers—have been defecting increasingly to radio and television. The proliferation of branch stores of downtown retailers has been a bonanza to these competing media with their wider reach, and to suburban-based newspapers as well. Meanwhile, the number of spots in town where one can buy the three citywide dailies has been declining for a decade. The daily Times, for example, had 6,156 sales outlets in 1962. By 1973 the number had fallen to 3,581. And over the same period, of course, all newspaper costs have soared.

There is only one novelty in all this bad news. That is the possibility—still faint but at least visible—that this year the unions are beginning to believe it. In a recent monthly bulletin to his membership, President Carl Levy of the Newspaper and Mail Deliverers' Union discussed the dim prospects now before the two morning papers' bulldog editions—the editions that hit newsstands the night before—in astonishingly temperate tones. Said Levy:

. . . The circulation figure of The New York Times bulldog has reached an all-time low of approxiof men that are currently involved mately 12,000 papers. The amount in the delivery of these papers results in the cost factor far exceeding the return for The Times. . . . Complete elimination of The Times's bulldog, as small as it may be, would result in some revised thinking of the bulldog situations at The Daily News [which is also at] an all-time low. . . . I do not want to sound like a spokesman for The News or The Times, but in all honesty we will be doing ourselves more harm than anybody else if we do not try as hard as possible to sell these papers and keep it alive. . . .

Levy hastened to add that he had not gone soft in the head. Indeed, he tactfully reminded his men that in 1970 he had foreseen the difficulties the bulldog editions were headed for and had been ready to strike in order to protect the union's interests. But even in that part of the message there was a sense of balance and mutual need:

. . . It is true that in the last contract, due to the threat of a strike, we managed to obtain a clause which guaranteed no lay-off for the present men affected by the bulldog delivery if it will be phased out or eliminated. The clause would give us considerable consolation as far as steady jobs are concerned. [But] with the loss of the bulldog edition, it would create a tremendous loss in earning power for men that are making overtime because of the bulldog and it would eliminate a certain amount of extra work. . . .

The Deliverers' Union has traditionally been tough at the bargaining table. It would bode well for the present negotiations if Carl Levy could bring that openmindedness into the same room with the publishers, and if the publishers could match it. That would leave only the electrical workers, machinists, mailers, paper handlers, photoengravers, pressmen, stereotypers, the Newspaper Guild, and the I.T.U. to go.

With so many different unions involved, too much should not be made of one temperate comment Carl Levy offered in January. But the fact remains that this year Levy is not alone. Jack Deegan, executive vice-president of the Guild, does not buy the idea that Punch Sulzberger is one of New York's neediest cases—"not with the profit picture as we understand it," he says. On the other hand, he remarked, "there may be some things that even we would agree they can't afford. The Times has had even more staff reductions than The News or The Post."

If the newspapers have indeed gained the union's attention this year, it probably won't be because the leadership now thinks the publishers may be right, but because just three publishers are left. As a direct result, membership of the Newspaper Pressmen's Union has fallen from 2,800 in 1966 to 2,400 today. The Newspaper Guild's membership is now 4,310, down from 5,700 in the same period.


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Mar 26, 1973 issue of New York