Stopping the Press in Pittsburgh: A City Remembers Its Labor Past

By Gibbons, Russell W. | Commonweal, September 11, 1992 | Go to article overview

Stopping the Press in Pittsburgh: A City Remembers Its Labor Past


Gibbons, Russell W., Commonweal


Pat McDonough, a Teamster delivery driver for the Pittsburgh Press, smiled as he marched past the downtown building that housed the 108-yearold newspaper. The Press had not been published since May 16. The masthead from newspaper pioneer E.W. Scripps, known to millions in a dozen cities by its lighthouse logo, stood out in the night as thousands of strikers and their supporters encircled the block: "Give light and the people will find their own way."

"We're finding our way, all fight," said McDonough, "and it won't be back into that place until we have a contract."

The 5,000 who, along with McDonough, massed July 26 at the Press building surprised the organizers of the Pittsburgh Newspaper Unions Unity Council, a sometimes disparate in gathering of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and ten other unions representing 1,250 members. Two nights later, perhaps 10,000 people attended a prayer vigil which turned into a "strategic victory" rally when the newspaper announced it was stopping the publication of a nonunion edition it had trucked in from out of town. These were dramatic events for union workers and sympathizers in their battle with one of the nation's largest newspaper chains.

What happened in the forty-eight hours between the first and second demonstration in the center of this city that has symbolized industrial power for much of this century was remarkable even to cynical business observers. "A Strikebreaking Bust" headlined the weekly Pittsburgh Business Times. It went on to say that the Press' s "replacement worker gambit collapsed under pressure from a surprising display of union clout...and overwhelming public support for the strikers... [and which] most observers considered a stunning victory for labor."

Labor in Pittsburgh, and most other urban centers of manufacturing, has not enjoyed many victories in recent years. Unions such as the steelworkers' and the miners' have taken especially hard hits in the Reagan-Bush decade, a period in which core manufacturing industries declined dramatically in states like Pennsylvania. And during the past year Pittsburgh has experienced two other significant strikes--a three-week strike by Transit Authority bus drivers and a six-week strike at Giant Eagle, the area's largest grocery chain.

Those two work stoppages had mixed results. The public responded with sympathy and support to the grocery clerks and meat cutters, helping them to win a new contract. However, bus drivers gained little support and received a critical blow as the newspaper walkout approached its confrontation. A judge ordered 2,700 transit drivers and mechanics back to work in April, and on July 30 the State Supreme Court upheld that ruling, saying that binding arbitration was not required. They are still working without a contract.

At the Press, management turned to a badly-conceived and crude strategy of bringing in outside replacement workers to drive the routes of 600 Teamsters, who along with most of the other Press unions had been working without a contract since last December. Advertisements placed in Boston newspapers promised $15-hourly wages "for temporary work in a labor dispute." More than a hundred replacement workers were transported to Pittsburgh and housed in suburban motels.

The tactic, reported every day on local television and radio, cut into the raw nerve of the Pittsburgh area, still experiencing the aftershock of the almost total shutdown of the Western Pennsylvania steel industry and the erosion of thousands of other manufacturing jobs in the past decade. "Everyone knows someone who lost a good job, and many of them experienced it in their own family," says labor economist Edmund Ayoub of Duquesne University. "Public revulsion of bringing in replacement workers--and they are called scabs here--was just too much to take."

This scenario, serious though it is to the Pittsburgh economy, took on an almost comic opera aspect with the daily bungling of the parent E. …

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