This is part 5 of our series on the San Francisco newspaper strike of 1994
By George Powell
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Well, that opening line has been used before — a long time before the Newspaper Strike of 1994.
“It was a dark and stormy night/day/week.” Not original either. But 20 years after the fact, that brief, intense moment of conflict still resonates with anyone who played a role in the 11-day face-off between disgruntled workers and the sometimes inept managers who were supposedly our bosses.
My role in the affair was that of unit Treasurer, a job I had taken over two years or so before. I signed a lot of checks, but the day-to-day financial operations were handled by Raul, the Guild’s full-time bookkeeper.
My primary job during the strike was to oversee the strike fund the local had built up through careful budgeting by the previous Treasurer and Executive Councils. I also had to act as a liaison between our local chapter and the national Newspaper Guild in the issuance of checks for the strikers from the Newspaper Guild strike fund.
Unless excused, a person had to walk the picket line to receive a strike check. A week’s striking was worth only $200, no matter how much one’s normal pay was (if my memory is correct).
Those checks were printed once a week in the Guild office and mostly distributed on picket lines, although some were mailed. The checks were drawn on a special account and printed on an HP laser printer that was a real reliable workhorse. I’m certain well over 1,000 checks were printed every pay period. Thankfully, the strike was settled after 11 rainy and tension-filled days, so each striker received only two checks.
As for myself, I find almost every memory about the strike hazy in a soft-focus kind of way after 20 years. I only had two or three tours of duty on the picket line, with my responsibilities as Treasurer keeping me indoors and dry most of the time.
But among my fuzzy memories, some things remain clear — the rain, the melting cardboard picket signs, the endlessly inventive chants of the picketers, the boarded-up vans that brought management and a few scabs across the picket lines and into the now fortress-like Examiner/Chronicle building to put out a hollow facsimile of an actual newspaper.
I also remember the thrill of uncertainty as we started the strike, and the resolve of solidarity we experienced after receiving registered letters threatening all strikers with firing if we didn’t report back to work. I didn’t even open mine until I left the Chronicle in 2006.
Vast changes in the newspaper business in the 21st century make it quite unlikely that another newspaper strike could or would take place. But the union is still around, despite constant efforts of the Hearst Corporation to completely neuter it. The legacy of the 1994 eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation by union and management still resonates today.