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1994 San Francisco news strike pushed limits and ushered in online media

This is part 1 of our series on the San Francisco newspaper strike of 1994

By Larry Hatfield

When San Francisco newspaper old-timers (think David Perlman, Carl Nolte, et al), refer to The Strike, they’re talking about 1968. That two-month affair, had its roots in the 1965 competition-killing deal that resulted in the Hearst-owned Examiner moving to evenings and the DeYoung-owned Chronicle taking sole possession of the morning (except on Sunday when a schizophrenic hybrid was produced). The vestiges of San Francisco’s rich history of multiple newspapers disappeared in a profit-driven coup that created a “joint operating agreement,” one that served as a template for the monopolization of newspapers in other American cities.

But the strike of 1968, which actually started when strikers at the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Herald Examiner threw up picket lines in San Francisco, also produced something of a revolution in newspaper and union relations. It established the concept of common expiration dates among newspaper unions and heralded an era of relative labor peace in the industry. If relations were not especially friendly, they were at least relatively cordial.

solidarity-iconThat ended, possibly forever, in what younger old-timers (think Chuck Nevius, Ross and Matier) at the Chron, now refer to as The Strike. That one, in 1994, was characterized by vicious union-busting, anti-worker tactics that still sour newspaper owner-worker relations today — and, some would argue, served as a template for how to help kill an industry. It was shorter, only 11 days, but far more bitter than 1968.

To the public, the “issues” in the 1968 strike appeared simple: The unions sought a 3 percent raise, but management offered only 2.46 percent over four years’ time. But it was far more complicated than that. For one thing, members of the Ex-Chron’s eight unions had been working under a de facto wage freeze for well over a year as management negotiators deliberately dragged out negotiations. But beyond compensation, issues had been festering since the 1965 JPA. The reason for that pact and the reason for the newspapers’ near-refusal to bargain remained the same: The Hearsts and the DeYoungs wanted to make more money and to do so on the cheap.

Among the Ex-Chron demands: elimination of 150 Teamsters, including replacing union drivers with “independent contractors” at much lower pay; dismantling the youth carrier system, by replacing hundreds of kids; converting full-time jobs to part-time low-wage jobs with reduced or no benefits; across-the-board cuts and freezes in wages and benefits; and unlimited “flexibility” to change hours, schedules and work assignments. The papers also wanted to keep newspaper librarians, many of whom held advanced degrees, at wage levels substantially lower than reporters, photographers and editors; to take away collective bargaining rights for janitors, and to require reporters to take photos on assignment. Underlying these demands were also plans to reduce or eliminate the jobs of printers, pressmen, mailers and other union workers.

For its part, the eight-member Conference of Newspaper Unions (compared to 15 unions in the 1968 strike), opposed “unjust” job cuts, and the elimination of the youth-carrier program. The conference sought protections against mass layoffs should one of the two papers be closed and called for the elimination of gender and racial bias in the workplace. That was in addition to improved pay and benefits. The unions also sought what one management negotiator called “pie in the sky” demands for increased workplace safety and a progressive family leave policy.

For the first many months of the so-called negotiations in 1993 and 1994, the Ex-Chron’s side was handled by its in-house labor relations people and the Littler, Mendelsohn law firm of San Francisco. Although some of the less kind union folks referred to the firm as Hitler, Mengele, Fascist and Vichy, the firm had long advised the Ex-Chron and had for the most part been reasonable. Well, if not reasonable, at least it wasn’t all no give, all take.

But that changed when the notorious King & Ballow law firm of San Diego and Nashville was brought in to advise Chron and Examiner management. King & Ballow, was usually described as union-busters, hired guns and worse. The firm had dozens of lawyers and represented more than 500 media corporations, including such anti-worker outfits as Capital Cities/ABC, Copley, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Kansas City Star Co. They were the Rasputins behind the costly New York Daily News strike and helped the Chicago Tribune break several craft unions in a 1985 strike. Senior Partner Robert Ballow and Chronicle Agency President James Hale were long-time friends. As negotiations continued to stagnate, that “advice” included the hiring of Huffmaster security guards and the erection of chain-link fences around the Examiner and Chronicle properties. Hale, whose stamp of approval was on those provocative moves, said after the strike started that he was “shocked at the anger on the picket lines.” Ballow denied being a union-buster, saying, “I really have a lot of compassion for the working man. I don’t like to see him get ripped off by the employers or the unions.”

As an aside, my favorite story from the strike involved a 70-ish Filipina whose name I don’t remember but had been at the agency for many years. Being a working woman, she presumably was not one of those who had Ballow’s compassion. I encountered her one rainy morning at the corner of the Examiner building staring up at the third-floor office windows where a clutch of Examiner executives were peering down on the picketers. “Larry, she asked, “why they build these damned fences and why they have these goons (security guards)?” I told her I guessed it was because they thought we were dangerous and probably violence-prone and also to keep us from our jobs. “You mean they don’t want us to do our jobs?” she demanded. I said not all of us, but a lot of those jobs held by drivers, mailers and paperboys. She pondered this, then said, “So if we stay on strike, they gonna want our jobs, too?” I said it was possible. “Why are they doing this?” she demanded. I responded, “Well, because they’re just not very nice people.” She was perhaps 5’2” tall, small in build and very demure, but she seemed to grow as she rose to her full height, put her angry face up into the driving rain, raised her fist and shouted, “You motherfuckers!” I wondered if I should take her to explain to Jim Hale about anger.

The strike started on Nov. 1, putting 2,600 workers off the job. Acts of violence included bricks being thrown through the windows of cars driven by scab carrier and a Teamster who was electrocuted, apparently while tampering with a transformer box near a picket line in Mountain View. There was a heavy police presence at 5th and Mission and other newspaper sites. One of the cops offered to join the picket line in front of the Examiner if I could just get Steven Schwartz to “shut up.” Schwartz, a Chronicle reporter, was many people’s worst nightmare as a picket line heckler. He unleashed a bewildering arsenal of poetry, songs, chants, expletives, insults and other off-color commentary at the Examiner’s office suite, including some deeply personal and explicit remarks about Executive Editor Phil Bronstein’s sex life. At one point, the battery on his bullhorn gave out, but Schwartz continued his harangues without it. “His volume didn’t even go down,” the same cop moaned.

On the third day of the strike, Mayor Frank Jordan called both sides and federal mediator Clarence Washington to his office and demanded the parties negotiate until a settlement was reached. It was perhaps Jordan’s finest hour. But the mayor was on a trade mission to Southeast Asia, when the strike ended early on the morning of Nov. 12.

The 1994 strike was remarkable for a variety of reasons, the most profound of which may have been that it was a seminal event in the development of online media. Both sides made significant contributions. On management’s side, the Ex’s head of development, Chris Gulker, relaunched his Electric Examiner, which he had been working on for months and was to formally launch at the end of November. It was rechristened The Gate, which is now the highly successful SF Gate. The Conference of Newspaper Unions created one of the most successful strike papers in labor history in the San Francisco Free Press, which was self-described as “the soul of the Examiner and Chronicle.” The first edition was on the streets within hours after the strike started and remains the model for strike papers. It was shepherded by the Examiner’s Bruce Koon, now at KQED Radio, SF Weekly’s editor Marcelo Rodriguez, production genius Dave Winer and others.

The Free Press lasted 10 editions, although in its very first, the lead editorial was headlined “We Hope This Is Our Last Issue.” “Right now it’s hard to concentrate on creating a new publication from scratch, especially one that may not be around very long. But we know we have to try. And with the help of folks like Herb Caen and Rob Morse, we know we have a shot at creating some of the best daily journalism the Bay Area has seen in in a long time,” the editorial said.

And it was. Using rented server space from a local ISP, it had several scoops, including an early one about Sen. Dianne Feinstein being falsely accused of employing an illegal alien in the 1980s. Besides Caen and Morse, it also carried the struck papers’ top bylines – Debra Saunders, Carl Nolte, Eric Brazil, Jon Carroll, Joshua Kosman, C.W. Nevius, Bruce Jenkins, Cynthia Robins, Patricia Holt, Mick LaSalle, Rachel Gordon, Stephanie Salter, Ray Ratto and many others.

The success of the online versions led to some of the newspapers’ best talent to defect to the Web, including David Talbot, who later founded Salon. He said the Free Press had convinced him of the potential of the new medium. Gulker, also left for the Web and later died of a brain tumor.

The Chronicle and Examiner continued to publish a watered-down, wire service-sated version of each paper through the strike. Hale claimed the Chronicle was producing 350,000 editions daily and the Examiner 100,000. No one believed those numbers, which were thought to be vastly inflated. If that many papers were being published, many of them were not being read. For instance, on another rainy morning, a reporter who shall remain nameless, stopped at a Chronicle box near his home and placed the few Chrons in it on top for the box. When he turned around, a San Rafael cop was getting out of his squad car right behind him. “That’s not the way to deal with scab papers,” the cop said, walking over and pitching the whole pile into the rain-filled gutter.

Caen, who regularly took his picket line duty, said the strike “smells of union-busting.” He and other top byliners, including Art Hoppe, Salter, Ratto, Morse and Chris Mathews threatened to quit. Hale and the Examiner’s Willie Hearst, said from “Fort Willie” that they “would be heartbroken and saddened” if that occurred. They were surprised such a threat would come from such people, they added.

Support came from many others. Many of the city’s leading restaurants regularly provided food to the strike kitchen. A large group of ecumenical leaders bought a full-page ad in support in the Free Press. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown and other politicians walked on the picket line. Brown got the Free Press’ endorsement. Readers inundated Agency switchboards to cancel subscriptions. Advertisers dropped out. There has never been a credible estimate of how much money the newspapers lost but their losses in credibility and good will was at least as steep as the lost revenue.

Some of the support in the Guild was somewhat shallow. At one point, a group of some fairly prominent reporters and editors demanded a meeting with Guild bargainers in what one of them later characterized as “a little woodshedding.” Although none of them actually came out and said it, the underlying purpose of the meeting was to question why the Guild was supporting truck drivers and paperboys, ostensibly at the high cost of our jobs. The Guild negotiating team held firm and unity among the unions prevailed.

When the strike settlement finally came, neither side could credibly say it won. Each got some of what it wanted but not much. Jobs were saved but most of them are now gone, as is one of the newspapers, the Examiner. While the Chronicle welcomed its people back with toasts and speeches, elsewhere in the 5th and Mission complex, there were firings and disciplines. Scabs remained inside. So did the Wackenhuts. Both were calculated insults to the returned union workers.

As Chron reporter Ed Epstein wrote in the Guild newspaper Ralph: “It’s clear that management planted the seeds of ill will and then reaped a whirlwind that cost it millions of dollars, damaged the papers in the public’s eyes and made hundreds of Guild members (and other union members) who were wishy-washy about their union into militant advocates for organized labor.

“I have wracked my brain to conjure up what management got out of forcing us to go on strike. . . .”

Among the things management DID get: a thoroughly demoralized work force; a work force not big enough to produce the paper the Chronicle would like to be; a dead Examiner; a broken labor relations policy, and a relationship with workers and their unions that may never be repaired.

Larry Hatfield was the International Vice President of The Newspaper Guild at the time of the strike.

Pacific Media Workers Guild

Pacific Media Workers Guild

We are the Pacific Media Workers Guild, Local 39521 of The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America. We represent more than 1,200 journalists and other media workers, interpreters, translators, union staffs and freelancers.

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