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What Are the Odds on a Newspaper Strike?

Down, too, is the membership of Local 6 of the International Typographical Union, and that fact may be more helpful to the publishers than all the other facts and figures they will trot out to document the bind they are in. In 1966, when the Telly, the J-A, and the Trib were around, Big Six boasted 8,700 members. Today, it has 7,600.

The death of those papers cost the I.T.U. 850 jobs. The other 250 were lost because of a slow decline in the commercial printing business, New York's second biggest industry. When the commercial printing business, New York's second biggest industry. When the commercial printers were still bustling, Big Six could reasonably take the position that it was not the proper business of the union to subsidize inefficient, uncompetitive newspaper publishers. Now, with unemployment endemic among I.T.U. members, the old let-'em-die argument no longer sounds quite so reasonable.

Of all the unions involved, however, it is the I.T.U. alone that has more—much more—to offer the publishers this year than a mere willingness to show up for work if the price is right. The New York publishers desperately need to modernize their composing rooms. If, after a decade of unyielding resistance, Big Six were now to agree to bend the automation bar, if not eliminate it, the publishers would be terribly grateful, in cash.

In the wake of a big breakthrough, several complications would immediately arise. If the publishers were to settle a lot of money on the I.T.U. in return for permission to modernize, this might inspire other unions to raise hell on what might be called the "son-ofabitch principle."

The other unions, this principle holds, have generally gone along with publishers' efforts to update facilities and raise productivity. Meanwhile, the I.T.U. has been acting like an S.O.B., refusing to let them do anything. Now, if the I.T.U. suddenly says, "Okay, we will stop being an S.O.B. but you will have to pay us something extra for it," how do the other union leaders justify not having been S.O.B.s?

". . .'With all that hair-splitting going on, never underestimate the power of parochialism and stupidity to louse things up'. . ."

A partial answer may lie in recent precedent. The I.T.U. managed to win a direct share in the savings from outside tape without inciting the other unions to rebel. But the past may be an unreliable guide to the future. If the price for bending the automation bar is set high, it might prove an irresistible target for the others.

Another complication arises from the very scale of the new technology now available to the publishers. Consider the nice lady at The Miami Herald who takes your classified advertisement to sublet the condominium. She gets it all down at the keyboard of an I.B.M. Selectric. In a single transaction, this single employee will have furnished copy in tape form which, with an assist from a computer, will hit the Linotype with lines already justified. She also activates an automatic billing routine— as well as a check on your credit rating.

At The Miami Herald, a non-union shop, this is old-hat. Within six months, The Herald expects to go from hot-metal to photo-composition. In New York the Selectrics and automatic credit checks are only now beginning to fall in place. But the output of such systems will wander through at least two different jurisdictions. Ad taking and billing tasks fall within the Newspaper Guild's jurisdiction. Setting the ad copy itself is the I.T.U.'s. The computer itself, presumably, is no problem, but whose hands are on the Selectric keyboard?

Here, alas, recent precedents aren't very helpful, for no clear pattern has emerged. And this could be a very tough issue. "If you fool around with a union's jurisdiction," says Sam Kagel, a veteran West Coast mediator, "you're fooling around with its soul."

This year's newspaper negotiations, then, would seem to come down to three, or at least two and a half, issues: a money package for everyone, a hassle of the first magnitude with the I.T.U. over the automation bar, and the possibility of jurisdictional disputes.

It was hard to tell underneath all the smoke starting to seep from the principals, but as negotiations began to get serious in March, both sides seemed optimistic about chances for heading off a strike. "I think we can get through this," said Bill Kennedy of the Pressmen's Union, "if no one miscalculates."

That's some "if." With so many union and publisher subcommittees splitting hairs in hotel rooms all over midtown, says one veteran of these trials, "never underestimate the power of parochialism and stupidity to louse things up."

Only a nut would claim to know whether there will or won't be big trouble this year. The only thing sure is that the publishers will sound like tigers, the unions will snarl back (and perhaps disrupt normal operations for discrete periods of time just to remind everyone that they have teeth), and that this will probably go on right up to the deadline.


Related:

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