Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Hearst: Six Down, One To Go
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Don't be surprised if the Hearst Corporation makes San Francisco the first major U.S. city without a major daily newspaper by closing the San Francisco Chronicle, despite its importance to the community and the men and women who produce it. Hearst, after all, has already killed six other San Francisco newspapers. That's right: six papers killed in one city alone.

It began in 1913, when William Randolph Hearst, who had been operating the then-morning Examiner, bought the San Francisco Call and merged it into Hearst's Evening Post. Sixteen years later, he bought the San Francisco Bulletin and merged it with the Call to create the afternoon Call-Bulletin.

All was quiet on the newspaper-gobbling front until 1959, when the Hearst Corporation began in earnest its drive for a daily newspaper monopoly in San Francisco and the huge profits that would flow from it.

There were four daily papers then - Hearst's Examiner and the independent Chronicle in the morning, Hearst's Call-Bulletin and the Scripps Howard chain's News in the afternoon. The papers competed fiercely, offering readers a wide variety of viewpoints and approaches to the news - some of them good, some not so good. But what mattered most was that readers had a genuine choice.

Hearst's chance to lower the number of dailies to two came when major department stores, which were then open only one night a week - Thursday - decided to open on Monday night instead, Thus the stores switched their major advertising to the Sunday papers - the Chronicle and Examiner - since neither the News nor the Call-Bulletin had Sunday editions.

Both afternoon papers began losing gobs of money, and Hearst convinced Scripps Howard to merge the two papers into something called the News Call-Bulletin. It was a dreadful paper featuring a stable of rabid right-wing columnists and lurid crime stories.  But that didn't matter to advertisers. They rushed in to buy space offered them at the same rates as the two separate papers previously charged, so that they reached twice as many readers as before for the same price.

The News Call-Bulletin nevertheless survived only six years, finally dying in 1965 when Hearst took the next step in its drive toward monopoly. The corporation merged its advertising and other non-editorial departments with those of the Chronicle to create the San Francisco Newspaper Printing Company, then killed the afternoon News Call-Bulletin and switched Hearst's morning Examiner into that spot.

That merger enabled the Examiner and Chronicle to more than double their advertising  rates and guaranteed the Examiner half the profits, even though its circulation was - and remained - far below that of the Chronicle.

The city's long-suffering newspaper readers hardly benefited. The afternoon Examiner remained as dull, reactionary and Hearstian as it had been in the mornings - picking up, moreover, the sloppy slap-dash habits of the defunct News Call-Bulletin. The Chronicle, where I was then Labor Correspondent, retained its position as one of the country's more liberal, sprightly and well-written papers, but still far too short on solid information and investigative reporting.

Both papers had the talent and resources to do much better. But they hadn't merged in the interest of better newspapers. The goal was to maximize profits and, with competition wiped out, the money rolled in. Neither readers nor advertisers had anywhere else to go, so why change?

Newspaper unions took some perfunctory and belated steps to attack the merger on anti-trust grounds, mainly because of concern that their members would lose jobs after the merger.  They were right, and began a fight to block further job losses, as well as to get the greatest possible share of the new profits.

The unions were aware that the merger would not be completed until the Printing Company also completed its joint headquarters - remodeling the Chronicle's headquarters building and adding an annex in the rear.  It was there that the merger plans would be carried out. New equipment to produce more with fewer employees would be set up. Profits would reach their maximum.

But what of the unions? They could spoil the plans. They could cut into the new profits.  The unions had to be held down, and they had to be held down in 1968. That was when the plans were to go into operation, and the year the contracts of the three largest unions, representing editorial employees, typographers and delivery drivers, would be up for re-negotiation.

First, however, came the little Mailers Union, whose members prepared papers for distribution as they rolled off the presses. Their contract expired in 1967. If they got what they wanted in a new contract, others would expect the same treatment in 1968.

"If we're a pushover for the Mailers union," a Printing Company official candidly told negotiators, "the three big ones will think it's pretty easy."

It certainly wasn't easy for the mailers. The company knew they wouldn't accept, across the bargaining table, its plans for mailer operations in the new headquarters building. As Mailers Union President Doug Smith declared, that would "just about wipe us out."

But rather than compromise with the 150-member union, the company stalled mailer negotiations. It hoped to complete the building while still negotiating, then institute the company's plans unilaterally. The company felt this would give the mailers no choice but to accept the new operations, because the other newspaper unions would not allow the mailers to call a strike that also would idle their 2,700 members.

The other unions, however, also  had some thoughts about "pushovers."

"If the newspaper publishers can push some of us around," they argued on handbills distributed on mailers' picket lines, "they can push us all around."

The other unions didn't know what the Printing Company's might be planning for them, but they got a good idea from the company proposals to the mailers. They called for reducing the number of mailers by as much as 25 percent, for instance, while almost doubling the hourly output of papers and increasing the length of mailers' night shifts, while raising pay only slightly.

There were about 40 issues in all, including a company demand that the mailers be allowed to honor only the picket lines of the Typographical Union, with which their union was affiliated. The unions saw that as an obvious bid to weaken their unity.

Whatever the specific issues, the fight boiled down to this: A struggle by publishers to reap the greatest return from the merger that ended daily newspaper competition in San Francisco and paved the way for new and bigger profits. From the publishers' viewpoint, the merger would be a success only if their plans to institute cost-cutting and union-weakening operations were realized.

The unions fought back, of course. They would not stand by while the publishers took unilateral actions that would weaken them and minimize the share of their hardly affluent members in the new money.

The stakes were high. How high was known only to those who had seen the publishers' well-guarded financial records. But they were large enough for the publishers to take a strike, and large enough for 2,900 men and women to leave their jobs and live on strike benefits of no more than $100 a week, for those who got them at all.

If they were to win, the unions needed two things: tight unity and strong support from a public that never had had much reason to love the publishers of its daily papers.

Thus the publishers attempted to split the unions, and to appeal to a public that, whether it loved them or not, was interested primarily in getting its papers back, whatever the harm to those who produced the papers.

The unions, however, stayed together. Even union officers privately conceded surprise at the cooperation among unions, especially among members of often hostile blue-collar and white-collar unions.

Too, food and money flowed into strike headquarters regularly from outside sources. There was cash from other unions and liberal groups, individual newspaper readers and other sympathizers. Fast-food restaurants donated hot dogs, burgers and such, for example, upscale restaurants sent deserts. Coffee -- many gallons of it -- was provided by  arch capitalist Lou Lurie, who thought it worthwhile to bring in his first donation personally and pose for news photographers.

Printing Company negotiators meanwhile continued to stall negotiations as they collected strike insurance payments and played on public opinion by suggesting that the strike might kill yet another San Francisco newspaper.

The strike rolled on for 52 days, until late in February of 1968. It finally ended with San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto bounding excitedly out of his City Hall office to announce that a settlement had been reached and the papers would be back in circulation in just four days.

It was one of the most significant strike settlements in many years, one that assured San Franciscans uninterrupted daily newspaper production for at least the three years that the new contracts would be in effect.

Unions, seeking the unity necessary for maximum bargaining power, had proposed to renegotiate their contacts and extend them to a common expiration date. The newspapers, seeking to avoid constant labor strife as one union contract and then another expired, readily agreed.

But before labor peace could be declared, 15 union contracts had to be renegotiated. Agreements had to be reached on wage increases and other new provisions for all of them. That it was done at all was amazing enough. But it was done in only 16 days of negotiations.

The major credit went to a brilliant mediator, Sam Kagel, and to Lou Goldblatt, the also brilliant secretary-treasurer of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union.

Goldblatt, whose union represented some newspaper employees in Hawaii, had come to the unions' joint strike committee with the plan. He saw it as the way to end the constant labor-management scrapping that began with the merger of the Examiner and Chronicle into the Printing Company in 1965.

It was, most importantly, the way to shore-up the unity of the unions in the strike that, until Goldblatt moved in, was the battle of only one union, the Mailers, for a new contract.

Unions discussed the plan for nearly a week with Goldblatt and arbitrator Kagel, and once they agreed, Kagel got agreement from the publishers. Then the unions asked Mayor Alioto to name Kagel to conduct negotiations as his representative.

Kagel's round-the-clock sessions with union and publisher negotiators ended with agreements that were recommended unanimously by the unions' individual negotiating committees - but which would go into effect only if all 15 striking unions ratified their particular agreements. The 15 unions quickly called membership meetings and all quickly voted to ratify.

It was a clear victory for all the unions, especially the Mailers, which won withdrawal of the Printing Company demands that had prompted the strike. Yet thanks to the unusual nature of the settlement, it also was a management victory.

Both sides got what they wanted, and the way finally was paved for them to fully concentrate - if they would - on providing the public with the kind of daily newspapers it needed and wanted.

The papers didn't quite do that, of course. But for a quarter-century, they did manage to continue publishing, for better or worse, without interruption. Trouble broke out again in 1994, with a bitter and sometimes violent 11-day strike prompted mainly by the papers' plans to eliminate dozens of Teamster delivery drivers' jobs.

As in 1967, members of every newspaper union joined the strike. But this time, the papers continued publishing by doing what had rarely been done in San Francisco. They recruited non-union workers-- scabs, to put it plainly --to keep the papers operating throughout the strike, and not unexpectedly draw violent protests for doing so. Delivery vans were pelted with rocks and forced off the road, strikers, non-union workers and security guards roughed up, as  the generally peaceful relationship between newspaper unions and management was shattered.

In the end, the Teamsters agreed that 150 drivers' positions could be eliminated through attrition, and the Printing Company agreed to raise all newspaper employees' pay by about 3 percent. Significantly, the unions also got agreement that severance pay would be increased should the Chronicle or Examiner be closed or should one of the papers buy the  other one.  Yes, they sure knew what was coming as long as 15 years ago.

All was more or less quiet for five years. But in 1999 Hearst took the final step in its long drive to make San Francisco a one-newspaper town, buying the Chronicle and closing the Examiner. There's still a non-Hearst Examiner in the city, but it's a throw-away free tabloid that hardly qualifies as a legitimate newspaper.

Wishful thinkers and Hearst toadies actually declared that the combined Examiner and Chronicle would be a better paper than either of the two had been as separate publications. Even casual readers know better than that.

Chronicle board members had an offer from investors that would have kept the paper as an independent voice, but they rejected that in favor of a higher bid from Hearst.

The newspaper unions didn't even raise token protests against the Examiner's closing, and in fact argued in favor of the daily newspaper monopoly that resulted.  The Printing Company made that just about certain by promising the unions there'd be no layoffs but would be more profits to share.

Greater profits were a given. But whatever the promises, layoffs also were certain, since the Chronicle was not about to engage in the huge expansion that would be needed to provide work at one paper for all those who had been needed to produce two papers.

However drastic that merger turned out to be for newspaper employees, their unions and the reading public, the situation is even worse now, with Hearst trying to sell the Chronicle -- and threatening to kill the paper if a buyer can't be found.

The corporation, which claims that the Chronicle is losing more than $50 million a year, has won major concessions from the Media Workers union that represents the bulk of the paper's employees. Union members voted by a 10-1 margin for Hearst's plans to fire at least 150 of the union's 483 members and to do so without regard to seniority. Hearst warned that if its plans were rejected, the corporation would have had to lay off at least 225 members.

In addition to layoffs, Hearst also got union agreement to increase the basic workweek of those remaining on the job and to reduce their fringe benefits. Paid vacations were cut, as were sick leaves and maternity and paternity leaves and health care benefits.

That was done at the recommendation of union officers and without Hearst offering any proof of its claimed losses -- and without even a promise that if the concessions were accepted, the 144-year-old Chronicle would remain open.

So what to do? Some have suggested that the employees could get together and buy the paper from Hearst. Some propose turning the Chronicle into a non-profit public enterprise, much like a public television station, or selling stock to finance its operations. There are other ideas out there, but none seem very likely, especially not in these times of economic distress.

San Francisco could indeed lose one of its most vital institutions. The city could indeed become become a paper-less city.

Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister