Sharp-witted Guild negotiator Fred Fletcher dead at 96

Fred D. Fletcher, longtime leader of the Newspaper Guild’s San Francisco-based local and architect of some of TNG’s strongest contracts, has died after a long illness.

Fred D. Fletcher at the 1969 Convention of what was then known as the American Newspaper Guild. (Photo: Doug Cuthbertson)

Mr. Fletcher was 96. He and his wife, Helen Shane, lived in Santa Rosa, 50 miles north of San Francisco, where he started work as a reporter at the Press Democrat in 1948 following a stint at the Daily Olympian in Olympia, Wash.

He was a tough negotiator known for thorough preparation and a no-nonsense demeanor. He was a UC Berkeley graduate with a degree in philosophy. He was an avid Mark Twain reader, and wrote a scholarly take about Twain’s account of a craft union of riverboat pilots in Life on the Mississippi. His literate and often barbed letters to managers and members continue to inspire Guild officers when one is rediscovered in old files.

“I request a clear explanation,” he demanded of one disgruntled member. “If you don’t offer such an explanation, your letter might be regarded as a cheap shot solicited by … while trying to extricate himself from the embarrassing situation he so unbelievably worked himself into the day before.”

One Oakland Tribune industrial relations manager sent Mr. Fletcher this note upon the manager’s retirement: “I will surely miss the wrestling bouts we’ve had from time to time and it worries me a bit that without them you may lose your customary sharpness. However, that is your problem.”

He loved the Sierra and the sea, and the grand tradition of organized labor. At union functions he was fond of reciting the 19th Century poet John Hay’s “Jim Bludso of the Prairie Belle,” about a riverboat captain who “weren’t no saint,” but fought to save his crew from a fire, and perished in the flames:

“He seen his duty, a dead-sure thing,—
And went for it thar and then;
And Christ ain’t a going to be too hard
On a man that died for men.”

Starting in 1962, Mr. Fletcher served as executive secretary of the former San Francisco-Oakland Newspaper Guild, which, after a series of mergers, is known today as the Pacific Media Workers Guild. He led the local through a rocky period of newspaper consolidation in the 1960s. A 52-day strike in 1968 forged a lasting period of union solidarity in the Bay Area newspaper business. He retired in 1980. That decision was “not negotiable,” as he put eloquently in a letter to Guild members dated August 26, 1980.  (See below.)

In an obituary by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carl Nolte, Doug Cuthbertson, Mr. Fletcher’s successor, called Mr. Fletcher “a brilliant negotiator, and, for me personally, an inspiring teacher. He won dozens of benefits in our newspaper contracts, solid conditions that people take for granted today, but were difficult to achieve at the time.”


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3 thoughts on “Sharp-witted Guild negotiator Fred Fletcher dead at 96

  1. Carl,
    Thank you for the articulate, no-nonsense article on my step-father, Fred Fletcher. During the more than 50 years I have known him, I cannot count the number of deep thoughtful discussions we shared about the current events of the time and the direction things might be going – locally, nationally and globally. In his last year his mental acuity had declined such that I believe he was not completely aware of what was going on in our country and indeed our world. I count that as a blessing, as if he were aware, I believe he would have been deeply and terribly disappointed.

  2. Mr. Fletcher’s legacy shall live on as long as I do because I am able to live a relatively comfortable life thanks to the benefits I reaped through the San Jose Guild, once known as Local 98. I was honored to be on bargaining teams over more than two decades in which historically major benefits were won. Fred’s indomitable vision and masterful bargaining skills, including turning off his hearing aid when certain company managers were spouting vitriol, as well as his ability to herd other newspaper craft union leaders to join unprecedented kinship to negotiate together as a stronger unit. He was one of a kind and I was fortunate to know and learn from him. Condolences to Helen.

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