To explain newspaper unions and their interrelationships, you have to understand the fundamental difference between craft unions and industrial unions. The difference goes back on the one hand to the American Federation of Labor, whose member units organized workers who practiced a particular specialized craft like carpentry, and on the other to the Congress of Industrial Organizations, whose units aimed to organize all of a given plant or factory into a single union like the United Auto Workers. The AFL and CIO merged, but their member unions kept their different characteristics.

The International Typographical Union (ITU) was a craft union, with its own practices and pride. Members had become journeymen after a long apprenticeship. Generically known as printers, they comprised typographers (who set type), compositors (who composed pages from this type), and proofreaders (whose job was to compare the type after it was set to the original copy). As a management negotiator at The Washington Post once explained to a Newspaper Guild bargaining committee, “printers believe people are fungible.” (He was a lawyer, using the lawyer’s term for interchangeable commodities like oil or wheat.) ITU members could show up at a shop where they had never worked before and expect to be hired if there was work for them. I once heard one ITU member who was ticked off at a Washington Post foreman say something to the effect of, “I don’t need this. As long as I’ve got that card in my pocket I can walk over to the Star.” By the same standard, if the work was in ITU jurisdiction nobody else had better do it. Traditionally if a makeup editor (who would not be an ITU member) touched type it was supposed to be thrown away. Although I never saw that done, I made it a point not to touch their type.

The American Newspaper Guild followed the industrial union pattern. Although its founder, Heywood Broun, was a writer, the Guild tried to organize everybody in the plant who wasn’t already in a craft. I have left the fact off my résumé in recent years but I used to be active in the Guild, as shop steward, Washington Post unit chairman and president of the local Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.

The toughest Post employees for us to organize were in classified ad sales. The outside classified salesmen were men who tended to think of themselves as entrepreneurs and were likely to shy away from the union unless they thought they were in danger of being fired, whereupon they would leap aboard, and the inside classified sales force tended to be women who were used to being paid less than men and did not grasp our theory that they should be paid the same as the outside sales reps because they were doing the same thing. (By the way, most of them had regular clients just as the men did; the work of those who took random calls from people like you and me who might want to sell a car or a boat was called “voluntary” and was customarily an entry-level job.)

The easiest recruiting that I recall came once when I was either unit chairman or local president. The janitors who swept up the composing room had decertified their union on grounds it was collecting their dues while doing nothing for them. For some reason I don’t recall, either the other unions or the company, or both, didn’t want to leave them hanging. Their natural home would have been the ITU, whose members were all around them, but the ITU didn’t want them. The obvious reason was that the ITU was a craft union to which the janitors had no entitlement. A less obvious reason may have been that the janitors were all African American and although the ITU chapel had some black members most were white.

The Guild, however, was an industrial union which theoretically subscribed to industrial democracy even though the writers and editors actually tended to look down on everyone else, including the “girls” in classified sales and their own bosses in management. So the Guild signed up the janitors.

They had just joined the union when I was called to the composing room because they had staged an informal work stoppage. The janitors were refusing to tend the huge furnace where scrap lead from the hell boxes was melted down to be used over again in the linotype machines. Neal Greenwald, an assistant production manager, explained that he wanted me to intercede because the work needed to be done and he couldn’t have it stopped. The janitors explained that the printers had a habit of throwing paper, cigarette packs and whatnot into the hell boxes, and when thrown into the furnace it would burst into flame. One of them had just escaped serious burns.

Their position seemed reasonable to me, I told Mr. Greenwald, and I stuck to my position despite his argument that the old janitors’ union would have just ordered them back to work (which of course was one of the reasons it had been decertified and the Guild picked them up as members). The composing room adopted more careful safety practices thereafter, and the janitors were happy they had signed up with the Guild. One served on a later bargaining committee.

Copyright 2010, J.V. Reistrup