labor Wash Post Busted Pressmen’s Union in 1975 Strike. Why It Still Matters Today.
On what would have been former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s 100th birthday in June, the Post ran a story that continues the paper’s decades-long effort to rewrite the history of the 1975 pressmen’s strike. This article is in response to the Post story.
“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” Mark Twain advised. In 1975, a hard-nosed union did just that – and lost.
On the face of it, it appeared the 200 pressmen from Local 6 of the Newspaper and Graphic Communications Union had some advantages. They were, after all, the ones who turned those barrels of ink into the printed pages of The Washington Post. It was dirty, dangerous work but it gave the Post’s pressmen leverage: if they went out on strike there’d be no newspaper.
Much to the chagrin of Post management, the pressmen – who were located in the basement of the old Post building blocks from the White House – didn’t just use this leverage to improve their own lot, but also that of the newspaper’s other unions.
“The pressmen, particularly, were giving us a lot of problems,” Post publisher Katharine Graham wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirs. “What it came down to was that, after years of concessions to their union… of surrenderings in order to avoid a strike at all costs, we were no longer in control of our own pressroom.”
“They had a feeling of immense power down there,” said Lawrence Wallace, who led the Post’s negotiations with its labor unions. “Everything that is produced here in the newsroom, in advertising, funnels right down over that folder on that press.”
Wallace was brought to the Post as a get-tough-on-the-unions guy in 1973, two years after the newspaper went public, which would prove a turning point.
In 1933, Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, bought the Post at a bankruptcy sale for $825,000. In his years as publisher and after, Meyer maintained close ties with Postemployees and was even named an honorary member of the pressmen. One day, Meyer and his wife “gave the paper’s employees a half‐million dollars in stock,” The New York Times reported. “Some people remember their old associates in their wills,” Meyer explained. “But Mrs. Meyer and I have both thought that a rather melancholy thing to do.”
Meyer’s legacy continued on with his son-in-law, Philip Graham, who in 1946 succeeded Meyer as publisher. In 1963, Philip Graham’s tenure as publisher came to a tragic end, with his untimely suicide. It was left to Philip’s devastated widow, Katharine, to carry on the family’s leadership of the Post.
Under Katharine Graham things continued on much as before. That was, until she took the company public.
The Post’s new emphasis on greater profits – and the pressmen’s strike that followed – exemplified “a crucial change in American newspapering,” former Post national editor Ben Bagdikian wrote in The Washington Monthly in January 1976. It marked the “transformation of the daily newspaper in the United States from a family enterprise to a corporation with an obligation to its stockholders to ‘maximize’ profits.”
For years, the family-owned Post had been profitable, but now that wasn’t enough. After going public in 1971, investors wanted more, and Katharine Graham was determined to deliver.
Overall, the newspaper’s financial health was good. By 1974, revenue had soared to $122 million, up from $84 million in 1971; and profits stood at $10.9 million or 9.1 percent. But investors were concerned with a dip in profits, which in 1969 had been as high as 15.1 percent.
Graham was committed to returning the Post to this level of profitability, which meant cuts. “The first order of business at The Washington Post is to maximize the profits from our existing operations,” Graham told security analysts in January 1972. “Some costs resist more stubbornly than others. The most frustrating kind are those imposed by archaic union practices... This is a problem we are determined to solve.”
In her push to reduce spending Graham could have turned to the area with far and away the greatest growth, the Post’s executive salaries. Between 1971 and 1975, the Post’s administrative costs had more than doubled, ballooning from $6 million to a little over $12 million. “The ultimate in executivism had been reached,” wrote Bagdikian. “A newspaper was finally paying more for ‘administration’ than it was for journalism.”
Bagdikian’s story in The Washington Monthly hit a nerve with Graham. “This literally takes my breath away it’s so insane,” she wrote to her son, Donald Graham, who would succeed her as publisher. And in a memo to Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, Graham wrote of Bagdikian, “I am really embarrassed to think this ignorant biased fool was ever national editor. Surely the worst asps in this world are the ones one has clasped at the bosom.”
This harsh language from Graham is striking when considering Bagdikian was responsible for the Post’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers, it’s second-biggest story after Watergate.
Once the Post went public, the pressure to bring down labor costs led to increasingly tougher negotiations with the newspaper’s ten unions. But one union stood out.
When it came to securing better wages and working conditions, the “pressmen were pace-setters at the Post,” labor journalist Fred Solowey, who assisted the pressmen during the strike, wrote in Washington City Paper. “Everyone knew the big showdown would come in 1975, when the pressmen’s contract expired.”
For the Post, going after the pressmen wasn’t just about dollars and cents, it was also payback. Local 6 routinely defied the Post on matters big and small. For instance when the pressroom’s soda machine broke and management ignored requests to fix it, the pressmen loaded it onto the elevator and sent it to the executives on the seventh floor.
And on more consequential matters, the pressmen also struck a defiant tone. That had led most recently to the pressmen’s dramatic breaking of the Post’s stalemate with another craft union, the printers.
‘It was a battle’
Amidst negotiations and in response to the firing of one of their own, the Post’s printers engaged in a sit-down strike in 1974. The Post, in turn, called in the U.S. Marshals, who removed the strikers, arresting six.
Things started looking even worse for the printers when the pressmen, who were among the unions who walked out in solidarity with the printers, appeared to cross the picket line and return to work.
Former Post reporter John Hanrahan, who supported the strike, and Chip Berlet, writing later in MORE magazine, described the dramatic turn of events that unfolded after the pressmen were let back in.
Thinking the printers’ union had been defeated, management “opened up the shutters to the pressroom windows so the union members outside in the street could see the presses running,” remembers [printers’ union president William] Boarman. “Suddenly, the paper was cut, and it shot right up to the ceiling. Everyone cheered because we knew there wasn’t going to be a paper.
The pressmen’s action forced the Post to quickly settle with the printers. It also put the pressmen squarely in the Post’s crosshairs.
“That night signaled a change in labor relations here,” said Post executive Lawrence Wallace. “It was a battle to see who was going to run the pressroom down there.”
Despite taking it on the chin with the printers’ strike, Post management nevertheless felt emboldened heading into the 1975 contract negotiations with the pressmen. This was in no small measure because of the failed Newspaper Guild strike of the year before.
In an ill-fated move, the Post’s Guild – representing reporters, editors, circulation and advertising employees – went out on strike without asking the Post’s other unions to join them (in part because there was some initial resistance).
“Withholding excellence” is what the Guild called its solo action. “The theory was that the Post, bereft of its editorial talent and its gung gung-ho advertising staff, would cave in and beg them to return,” Hanrahan and Berlet reported. “It didn’t work that way.”
The Post’s coverage may have suffered but there was still a newspaper filled with content and ads arriving on people’s doorsteps in the morning. This created little pressure on management to make concessions, particularly when a few disgruntled Guild members were privately meeting with Post executives.
“The cause may have been just,” Bagdikian wrote, “but the strike was a fiasco.”
Another reason Post management was feeling emboldened heading into negotiations with the pressmen was because of careful planning. In preparation for taking on the pressmen, Post management had launched “Project X,” a secret program aimed at undermining the pressmen’s leverage. As part of Project X, Post executives were sent to the Southern Production Program, Inc. in Oklahoma, where they were trained in how to put out a newspaper using non-union workers in the event of a strike. (Union supporters referred to the Oklahoma program, which was funded by newspaper publishers across the country, as a “scab school.”)
“As 1975 wore on, we retrained executives in all the production processes needed if we were ever forced to publish without the craft-unions,” Graham wrote in her memoirs. “Many of those who had gone to Oklahoma City for the original training had not taken it very seriously; now we sent several people down to the Miami Herald to brush up on their production skills.”
The Post, wrote Bagdikian, “prepared for a strike for two years, sending 125 management people to a training center to take over union jobs, and setting up alternative composing equipment in a secret project on the paper’s executive floors.”
If the pressmen didn’t end up striking, all the training would have been for naught. Despite this, the Post continued expressing interest in reaching a settlement with the pressmen – at least in public, behind closed doors was another matter.
Ten weeks into the strike, Graham called on AFL-CIO president George Meany, a family friend, who was hoping to find a resolution to the situation. After coming up repeatedly against Graham’s resistance to any negotiations with the pressmen, Meany asked her, “What would you do if they accepted the contract?” “I guess I’d slit my throat from ear to ear,” Graham replied.
The Post’s offer to the union – which even the Post noted would lead to “an almost total loss of union prerogatives” – reflected Graham’s anti-union animus, said Local 6 leader Jimmy Dugan. “To have accepted their final offer would have meant there was no union,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind the Post wants to bust its unions.”
Stop the Presses
On October 1, 1975, Katharine Graham got her strike.
At midnight on September 30 the pressmen’s contract expired. Still, the presses were running smoothly in those next hours and the morning’s paper was nearly finished. Then around 4 a.m. things took a surprising turn when a small group of pressmen began disabling the printing presses and damaging the pressroom. When the manager came to see what was going on, he was roughed up.
Meanwhile, a small fire was started in the pressroom. The D.C. Fire Department investigated the fire but no arson charges were filed. Still, the Post accused the pressmen of “burning printing presses.”
But if burning the presses was the pressmen’s goal they could easily have achieved it, a pressman told New Times magazine. “We could have burned the place down if we wanted, but we set the alarms off when we saw the fire.”
The pressmen “had not wrecked the presses,” said Hanrahan, contradicting the Post. Rather they had “disabled the presses” by removing key parts.
With the presses disabled and the pressmen now out on strike, the Post didn’t go to print on October 2. But by the next day, Project X was being operationalized and the paper was put out, with help from non-union workers flown in from Oklahoma.
Most of the Post’s in-house presses, meanwhile, were up and running again within days. Post readers could be forgiven for thinking the damage to the pressroom had been far more extensive – at one point the Post implied there was $15 million in damages before later settling on the decidedly smaller amount of $270,000.
Still, others came to an even lower number. A Chicago Tribune reporter called Goss, the company who made the needed replacement parts, and was quoted a figure of $12,900.
‘The most vicious smear’
In its first edition after the pressmen’s strike began, the Post went nuclear in an editorial. “[T]he immediate recourse to violence is the temper of our times. It is the same spirit as that of the hijacker in the airliner, or the sniper on a Belfast roof, or the assassin in the crowd that turns out to welcome the politician.”
“The Post’s attempt to equate the pressmen with airplane hijackers, snipers and political assassins,” the pressmen responded in a pamphlet they published, “is perhaps the most vicious smear the newspaper has ever published.”
As the pressmen were being compared to terrorists in the pages of the leading liberal newspaper, other major publications stayed on the sidelines (or quietly helped the Post – see below). It was left to the alternative press to tell the other side.
‘Unabated Old Testament vengeance’
“The Post is engaging in strike-breaking tactics that in days when more liberals were less affluent would have brought strong support for the union,” Sam Smith wrote in the D.C. Gazette. “But now the Post’s cold-blooded economic violence against the pressmen is condoned in many quarters because the pressmen failed to defend their survival in a sufficiently polite manner.”
“It was, of course, the damage to the presses that gave the Post management the excuse to carry out its campaign against the unions without a scintilla of compromise, other unions the rationale to desert the pressmen and the community leave to remain disinterested,” wrote Smith. “And the Post management, with many years of manipulating public opinion behind it, found little difficulty in maintaining its self-cast role of victim.”
In The Village Voice, Nat Hentoff condemned the Post for not only replacing the pressmen with permanent strikebreakers but blacklisting them in other cities. The pressmen “are experiencing unabated Old Testament vengeance,” wrote Hentoff. “Ye, like Cain, shall wander the earth, forever cursed!”
“The pressmen’s strike,” Henry Fairlie wrote in The New Republic, “was crushed with methods and with a severity that are not usually accepted in the third quarter of the 20th century, and that the press in general or the Post in particular would not be likely to regard as acceptable from the owners of steel mills.”
As the alternative press condemned the Post’s attack on unions, the Post openly boasted.
“We were muscled and we muscled back and in that brute strength kind of perspective – looking at the casualties – I think you have one union dead on the battlefield, and others that have been chastened by the combat,” Post vice president Mark Meagher told The New York Times.
“I emerged from the strike with a higher profile than ever before,” Graham later wrote. “Though at the Post and in the community some people may have had mixed feelings about me, within the industry my star had risen.”
‘We Know Kissinger, too’
Up against a foe that buys ink by the barrel, the pressmen needed solidarity from sister unions. “The pressmen’s only hope was to draw out all the unions at the paper, and they nearly did,” wrote Bagdikian. “All the other unions except one honored the picket line.” That one was the Post’s Guild, which voted on four separate occasions not to strike with the pressmen.
The damage to the presses pushed some Guild members to cross the picket line, but for others something else may have also been at play. “What I find ominous is that a number of Guild people don’t think they have common cause with craftsmen,” Post religion editor Bill MacKaye told New Times magazine. “They feel professionally superior to guys with dirt under their fingernails.”
At a Guild meeting, one Post reporter even called the pressmen “slack-jawed cretins,” recalled Guild member Hanrahan.
Forced to choose between the cretins in the basement and management, Post reporters overwhelmingly sided with the folks on the seventh floor. “We go to the same parties as management. We know Kissinger, too,” a Post reporter told The New York Times, referring to the then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Maybe no Post reporter sidled up to management more than Bob Woodward. Fresh off of breaking open Watergate, Woodward vouched for Graham’s “humanitarian instincts and business sense.” Even so, Woodward stressed that he would support the pressmen – if only they didn’t make so much money. “If they got slave wages, I’d be out on the line myself,” said Woodward, who’d go on to live near Graham in a multimillion dollar Georgetown home.
At the time of the strike, the average base salary for Post pressmen was around $15,000, but frequent overtime bumped that up to $23,000, only slightly less than reporters. However, all those extra hours came at a cost, said Carolyn Clauss, the widow of a pressmen who took his own life. “Because of the night hours he worked, and working most weekends, and his having to sleep in the day time, we had no social life, no church life,” she said. “We had no friends outside the Post.”
While some 275 Guild members initially went out on strike with the pressmen, over 500 Guild members joined Woodward in crossing the picket line, providing management with a decisive edge.
“Had [reporters] stayed out,” said Hanrahan, “I don’t think anybody really believes that a handful of top Post editors and some people trained at the scab school could have put out a credible newspaper.”
“This is not the first time that a large paper has been able to publish without most of its unions,” reported The New York Times. “But it is the first time that a large and nationally prestigious paper has been able to keep publishing and at the same time retain a good deal of its journalistic quality.”
As if the odds weren’t stacked enough against them, the pressmen soon felt the weight of the federal government. The federal intervention began on the second day of the strike, when the Post sought and received clearance from the White House and Federal Aviation Authority (as well as D.C. police) to land a helicopter on top of the Post building to transport equipment and replacement workers.
“Permission was granted,” Graham wrote, “though with the stipulation that since Emperor Hirohito was in town we couldn’t fly south of K Street, just one block away from our building, which would take us too close to the White House.”
But this federal intervention paled in comparison to what was coming. “I’ve been around the newspaper industry for 43 years,” Thomas McGrath, a Teamsters leader, told labor journalist Fred Solowey, who served as co-chair of Local 6’s legal defense committee. “This was the only time I ever saw a grand jury used as a weapon over minor property damage.”
A grand jury investigation looking into the damaged Post presses would go on for 19 months and ultimately lead to 15 pressmen pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges, and one pressmen sentenced to a year in jail for punching a reporter. But the grand jury’s biggest effect may have been the toll it took on Local 6. Just when the union needed all its strength, its finances were drained to pay for legal defense, as some 90 pressmen were subpoenaed to testify, many facing the possibility of years behind bars.
“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,” Jimmy Dugan recalled on the twentieth anniversary of the strike.
“This is no Grand Jury,” a striking pressman said at the time. “This is a Graham Jury.”
‘It might get someone killed’
With the pressmen weakened from having to fight off both a grand jury investigation and the Post, other publishers – who had their own pressmen to deal with – urged Graham to finish them off.
Two days into the strike, Graham met with her fellow publishers in Reston, Virginia at the headquarters of the American Newspaper Publisher Association. According to Graham, the publishers offered to help but only if she was prepared “to go all the way, by which they meant, did I intend to ‘bust’ the union and never let its members back.”
Graham claims she demurred, but her fellow publishers had already proven helpful. The so-called “scab school” in Oklahoma City, for example, was “supported by the dues of 200 member newspapers that may take advantage of its management and technical training courses,” New Times reported. This is where Graham sent nonunion Postemployees to train. Additionally, shortly before the strike began, Graham “sent several people down to the Miami Herald to brush up on their production skills,” she later recounted.
Meanwhile her fellow publisher friends continued to check in with her throughout the strike. “You just have to keep up the steady pressure, like leaning on a gate to gradually shut it,” Chicago Tribune publisher Stan Cook advised.
The day after the strike began, another friend and fellow publisher, Arthur Sulzberger of The New York Times, was in D.C. having lunch with Joe Allbritton, the publisher of the Washington Star, the Post’s only major competitor. Sulzberger denied he was in D.C. to pressure Allbritton to join forces with the Post crush the pressmen by printing the Post on the Star’s presses.
“Of course, I didn’t advise Mr. Allbritton what to do. He didn’t ask my advice… and I’m not in any position to give advice,” Sulzberger told a reporter. It was just a friendly lunch, the day after the strike began, and the Times publisher just happened to bring up the following: “I told him about the New York situation in which the unions learned to whipsaw the papers until they [the papers’ owners] learned to work together.”
While Sulzberger denied pressing Allbritton, Graham didn’t. “On the morning of October 2, Mark [Meagher] and I went to see Joe Allbritton to propose the idea that the Star print the Post on its presses, which would, of course, have resulted in that paper’s being shut down, too,” Graham wrote.
Had the Star printed the Post, the Star’s pressmen were expected to strike in solidarity with the Post pressmen. And a stoppage could have put the Star, which was facing financial difficulties, out of business.
Still, Times columnist James Reston thought the Star should print the Post “even if they had to go down together.” Allbritton, however, thought differently and continued publishing only the Star.
Meanwhile, the Times’ demonstrated further solidarity with Graham by voluntarily foregoing increasing D.C.-area readership during the strike. “The Times has agreed not to increase its circulation in the Washington area during the strike,” the Times reported.
The Star also coordinated with the Post, although not as extensively as the Times. Graham recalled when she got word the Star was set to publish the name of a printing company that was publishing the Post during the strike, “I called Joe immediately and suggested that if this was so it might get someone killed.” And Allbritton acceded to Graham’s demand.
(Despite the Post’s repeated depictions of the pressmen as violent, the only loss of life that resulted from the strike was the suicide of pressman John Clauss. The Postsuggested his death was due to his fear of what his own union would do if he crossed the picket line. But Clauss’ widow disputed that and instead blamed management for her loss. “He wasn’t afraid of his own union,” Carolyn Clauss said.)
The only ones not surprised by the extent of Graham’s coordination with other publishers throughout the strike may have been the pressmen themselves, who had watched similar (although smaller) efforts take place across the country.
“Locals in Dallas, Kansas City, Miami, Portland and Los Angeles had already been busted,” Philip Nobile reported in the New Times magazine. The Post pressmen “felt that their walkout was the last stand against the American Newspaper Publishers Association ‘conspiracy’ to seize control of the nation’s pressrooms at any price.”
The pressmen’s strike took place over forty years ago yet the Post is still hard at work crafting a narrative at odds with the facts. The Post continues its efforts despite the fact that the paper not only won, but the Post’s pressmen have been all but erased from history – there’s not even a Wikipedia entry for them or the strike.
The Post’s most recent revisionism came in June, on what would have been Graham’s 100th birthday if she were still alive. The Post’s hagiographic account – headlined “Katharine Graham was burned in effigy, but refused to give in during a violent strike” – portrays Graham as a heroine, not a strikebreaker.
“Her fierce leadership during the pressmen’s strike – stuffing newspapers, commanding helicopters, playing hardball at the negotiating table – is perhaps the most gripping, resolute moment in her life,” hailed the Post.
In response to the Post story, labor journalist and pressmen ally Fred Solowey wrote an op-ed which the Post didn’t publish. “No matter how often the Post’s official and self-serving account… is regurgitated into print, it remains a fabrication worthy of Donald Trump,” writes Solowey.
Graham wasn’t a reluctant warrior, writes Solowey, but someone who carefully planned to bust the pressmen’s union. “The oft-asserted idea that the Post did not want a strike is belied by its [pre-strike] contracting with a scab school.”
In its latest account, the Post also plays the race card once again.
A couple months into the strike, “Seven hundred people lined up for job interviews… including many African Americans, whose skin color was not previously represented in the pressroom,” the Post wrote in June.
The pressmen – who largely determined who worked in the pressroom – did indeed lack diversity. But so did the Post. In fact, writes Solowey, the pressmen’s “affirmative action record was better than that of the newspaper’s.”
Over forty years ago, as he picketed outside the Post, a black photographer called the Post’s selective concern for diversity “fascinating.” “How come all those liberals [at the Post] never said a word about this being a racist union until [now],” when doing so is “helping Kay Graham break a union and weaken all the other unions,” the unnamed photographer told The Village Voice’s Nat Hentoff. “Most of them don’t give a s**t about racism unless they’re covering a story somewhere else where they can make judgments on everybody but themselves.”
The pressmen’s strike was a watershed moment, and this was understood at the time, even if it has since been erased from history.
“Other publishers and corporations across the country are watching to see if a ‘liberal’ employer can actually get away with destroying a union in the media spotlight of the nation’s capital,” a Local 6 pamphlet noted at the time.
Among those watching the strike play out was a governor in California. Six years later, as president, Ronald Reagan would go after the air-traffic controllers’ union. When Reagan did so, it may have been with the understanding that, as with the pressmen, the big papers were unlikely to condemn his union busting.
“We often hear about Ronald Reagan [and the] air traffic controllers [and how] he busted the union in 1981,” said Hanrahan. But the Post “wrote the template for that in 1975.”