Union Response to Changes in Printing Technology: Another View

By Eisen, David J. | Monthly Labor Review, May 1986 | Go to article overview

Union Response to Changes in Printing Technology: Another View


Eisen, David J., Monthly Labor Review


Union response to changes in printing technology: another view

In the July 1985 issue of the Review, Michael Wallace presents a three-nation comparison of union response to the massive technological changes in the newspaper printing industry over the last two decades.1 Professor Wallace contends that the historical craft orientation of U.S. printing unions and the resulting fragmentation of the labor movement in the industry have seriously impaired workers' ability to deal on an equal footing with management concerning the changes. He asserts, moreover, that a belated wave of mergers between the unions over the last 10 years has done little to give labor the appearance of a united front on the technology issue, citing in particular what he describes as a continuing jurisdictional stuggle between The Newspaper Guild (reporters and other nonmechanical workers) and the International Typographical Union (typesetters) over the computerized setting of type. He concludes by describing labor relations patterns in the British and West German newspaper industries where, he claims, more farsighted unions took the decision at much earlier stages to consolidate or cooperate, and thus maintain their traditional control over the allocation of work.

The Newspaper Guild takes issue with Wallace on issues of both fact and interpretation:

Composition of the Guild. Wallace states that The Newspaper Guild is composed of "reporters, editors, and a few other white-collar workers.' As a matter of fact, close to half the Guild's members are "other white-collar workers.' The union has included advertising, circulation, business office, and other noneditorial employees since 1937 and actively seeks to represent them. On the other hand, Britain's National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which Wallace says "more than its U.S. counterpart, the Guild, seeks a broad-based membership of all white-collar workers in the industry,' is, in fact, entirely limited to reporters and editors. Of course, in view of Wallace's mistaken conception of the Guild, his further statement that each of the three U.S. newspaper unions, including the Guild, "continues to be organized along occupational lines,' is also incorrect. The Guild is an industrial union, and the Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU) is approaching that status.

Merger efforts. With regard to merger activity, Wallace states that the International Typographical Union (ITU) "was twice unsuccessful in completing merger negotiations with the Guild.' Aside from the fact that there was only one such attempt, extending over several years, the statement seems to suggest that the Guild was the unwilling party. As a matter of fact, the Guild sought energetically to bring about a merger and had approved it by convention in June 1983; the plan fell apart when the ITU Convention unexpectedly refused to do likewise 2 months later.

There are other, less consequential errors in Wallace's discussion of merger efforts: the incumbent president, Joe Bingel, was "voted down' in the ITU's 1983 election but the Teamsters merger proposal was not on the ballot, except inferentially. And it was not the National Labor Relations Board but the Labor Department that stepped in to void the election; the NLRB has no such authority.

Guild-ITU conflict. More disturbing is Wallace's notion that "differences among journalists and composing room workers over jurisdiction of cold-type technology remain a point of friction between the Guild and the ITU.' There have been such differences in a few shops, where the issue has gone to arbitration, but they have not had any effect on relations between the two unions on the international level and played no role whatsoever in the breakdown of merger efforts.

This questionable evaluation carries over into Wallace's analysis of the impetus for merger negotiations. He states: "The printing unions, particularly the ITU, were slow to react to the changes wrought by the new technology and, as a result, turned to mergers out of desperation after questions of jurisdiction over the new technology had already been decided by publishers on a plant-by-plant basis. …

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