Reporter retrospective on 1994 strike

This is part 2 of our series on the San Francisco newspaper strike of 1994

San Francisco newspaper workers have staged only a couple of strikes during the past 80 years, and they had a sort of accidental quality. In 1968, a few roving pickets from a Mailers Union strike at the Herald Examiner came up from LA, and somehow got a two-month strike going at the SF metros. Guild members carried signs declaring solidarity with the LA mailers, but legend has it that even while they kept marching round and round, journalists and front-office workers kept asking one another, “What’s a mailer?”

In 1994 the issues that drove us out into the rainy streets were even more obscure. The publisher’s man of that hour, Jim Hale, was a decent sort who brought an East Texas downhome charm to the senior management. But he could sound like a redneck parrot when his voice came over the radio, telling an interviewer the company was only trying to deal with the problem of “too many Teamsters.”

“Too many Teamsters! Too many Teamsters! Squawk!”

1994 pickets outside Chronicle building. Photo by Nancy Wong, 1994
1994 pickets outside Chronicle building. Photo by Nancy Wong 1994.

We mocked him for days, marching round and round, convincing ourselves without too much trouble of the essential moral failing and shallowness of the management position. Truth be known, a lot of us were just as clueless.

Tommy McGrath, the Teamsters senior West Coast officer, and a really good guy, gave me a hard time one night, when he saw a sign that one of our Teamster shop stewards had posted on the strike headquarters door as a means of warding off break-ins, since we were stashing a lot of rock-and-roll equipment and supplies inside: “Thieves, Note — If you think the cops are tough, try messing with the TEAMSTERS!”

Tommy thought that message was inconsistent with the image the Teamsters were trying to project those days, so we removed the sign. I got a laugh out of him a few days later, though, when I told him we replaced the sign with one reading: “Thieves, Note — If you think the cops are tough, try messing with THE NEWSPAPER GUILD!”

There were, in fact, serious conflicts in the pressroom and distribution system, and the mailers (by this time we had figured out these were the people who assembled the papers and preprinted inserts into bundles for delivery) still had legitimate issues twenty-six years after the 1968 strike.

Our own newsroom librarians had a real beef, too, arguing righteously that they deserved full newsroom status and upgrade to the same pay grade as reporters, editors and photographers. And yet the key question for a lot of Guild members, as we all signed up for picket duty in the weeks leading into the ‘94 strike, was: “Will there be Port-a-potties?”

We had been hearing about the Teamsters and Pressmen troubles and all that, and how the company was trying even to whack all the paperboys, who still threw the dailies from their bikes in those days. But who knew any actual details? For the Guild, the strike was all about solidarity and defending the idea that thugs and corporate guys weren’t gonna push us around.  The impression that we were in a kind of comic book-superhero struggle, good-vs-evil, was reinforced by the arrival of the “notorious union-busting Tennessee law firm” King & Ballow, representing the company, and even more chillingly, a few days before the strike deadline on Halloween, the appearance of Huffmeister goons, imported from Detroit in riot gear.

[infobox title=’A Night to Remember’]There’s still time to R.S.V.P. for Friday’s “Remembering the 1994 Strike” reception.
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We filed a labor board charge when the company tried to back out of joint bargaining, another sign they were up to no good, refusing to play by the rules. We got the board to agree that the company had to continue dealing with the unions all together on the economics, through the Conference of Newspaper Unions. We put out a CNU bulletin every week thumping the “bosses” and proclaiming the truth of our position. We were the good guys!  We made a Western movie poster for Labor Day, featuring Linda Frediani, Susan Sward and Sally Lehrman, as our union “bad girl” gunslingers in black hats, which was a way of saying we were the good guys fighting the real bad guys.

It was a lot of symbolism. The trouble with symbols, of course, is that they lack substance, and staying power. I knew from the start that we’d be in trouble if our strike dragged on very long. We could win a sprint but not a marathon.  I was telling our negotiators I couldn’t be sure how long our picket lines would hold up. If I remember correctly, Doug Cuthbertson, chief negotiator for the Guild and the CNU, also thought the strike had to settle quickly or we’d risk doom.

Less than a week into it, the rain was coming down in sheets day and night in one of the wettest Novembers since the Jurassic. I invested in a high-quality yellow rain coat and pants, and high plastic boots, from a camping supply store on Market Street.  From the same store, on a whim, I bought a few hundred hand- or foot-warmer things used by hunters – you’d break the pouch and drop the thing into your boots, and some sort of chemical reaction turned it into a little heater for 20 minutes. I gave these out like Halloween candy on the picket lines.

One night at Hanno’s, I brought a roll of red plastic tape, and asked a woman to help me tear off pieces to spell out “ON STRIKE” on the back of my raincoat in big letters.  After that, I was a walking yellow picket sign. The cockeyed red lettering looked like something Johnny Rotten might have worn.

I recall being summoned to an important meeting at the strike headquarters, organized by a few of the more prominent newsroom members. They had started wondering what the strike was about.  I told them it was about “solidarity” but they weren’t so sure. Some Examiner staffers suspected a setup by the morning paper staff, which the Examiner patriots reckoned were dominating their union. They thought we were using the strike as a means to kill the Ex, which came out in the afternoons and was definitely shaky in terms of finances and circulation.

[quote align=’right’]Some of us would go out every day and gather up any scab papers we could find, pulling them off store shelves and out of the racks, even now and then out of people’s hands if anybody dared to be seen reading a scab Chronicle or Examiner on a street waiting for the Muni. [/quote]

I walked into that meeting in my yellow punk-rock raincoat, sleep-deprived, quick-trigger frame of mind, my eyeballs hanging several inches out of my head, floppy unwashed hair dripping down my face. Someone who looked much better rested than me said something like, “Hey, we’ve been on strike for five days — I don’t think we can hold out much longer!”

He might have been joking, but then somebody else solemnly declared within a few feet of my solidarity-forever-soaked ears, “I won’t be the first one to cross the picket line, but I damn sure won’t be the last one, either.”

“Don’t worry, motherfucker, there’s no chance of that. You won’t be the last one to cross. Why I oughta…”

I was probably leaning into the wrong breeze there. Larry Hatfield, the Ex rewrite man, a big wheel in the Guild national organization at that time, grabbed me by the collar of the raincoat and forced me out of the room before I could do any serious damage. He ordered me to go home and take a nap.

It just kept on raining, and we kept on striking, into our second week.

This clipping is from the San Jose Mercury News dated November 3, 1994. It shows San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen walking the picket line near 5th and Mission in San Francisco during the newspaper strike of 1994. Photo by Jason M. Grow – Mercury News.
This clipping is from the San Jose Mercury News dated November 3, 1994. It shows San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen walking the picket line near 5th and Mission in San Francisco during the newspaper strike of 1994. Photo by Jason M. Grow – Mercury News.

The death, one rainy night, of Kent Wilson, a Teamster, apparently electrocuted during an attempt to cut power to a scab location on the Peninsula, showed how serious some people were.  This was surreal to a lot of us in the Guild. We weren’t expecting anything of the kind. One night Bill Wallace, who was president of the Guild local at that time, gave a speech on Mission Street to a sea of strikers and TV cameras. I encouraged him to call a moment of silence for Brother Wilson. As the crowd fell into a stunned quiet, the TV lights lit up the scene, the streets all wet and so were people’s faces, from the rain and the tears. It was the most powerful few seconds of the whole ordeal, for me, and I still can’t say exactly what it meant. Kent Wilson paid way too high a price. We all want his family to know we will never forget his commitment to his colleagues and to the union.

In the Guild, the stakes seemed lower, and tactics obviously tamer. We put out the strike paper and played around with the new thing called “the Internet.” We walked around buildings, milled around the strike headquarters, yelled at the scabs going in and out all day in vans with plywood covering up the windows.

Some of us would go out every day and gather up any scab papers we could find, pulling them off store shelves and out of the racks, even now and then out of people’s hands if anybody dared to be seen reading a scab Chronicle or Examiner on a street waiting for the Muni. Then we’d haul the papers back to the strike headquarters around the corner from the union offices on Natoma, and dump them out front. Gray soggy newsprint started melting together into an undifferentiated mound, growing like a giant piece of moldy cheese as the strike went on.

Ken Howe, a business writer who later went into the management, and still later moved to Hong Kong, was particularly good at feeding the newsprint pile. Very few scab papers escaped our cleanup crews. We told the police we were picking up trash to beautify the city. They gave us no trouble.

We blew whistles, and I played a lot of harmonica. Peter Sinton had a mirror he’d use to torment the scab camera crews, bouncing lights back at them when they  were trying to record our picket line shenanigans. We stuck coffee cups into the chainlink fences to spell out messages like “Contract Now.”

Herb Caen and the other columnists, every last one of them as I recall, were solid for the striking unions, and may have been our single greatest contribution to the ultimate victory of a return to work after only 11 days out.

Mayor Frank Jordan was a great help, although you’d have to ask someone else what exactly happened at City Hall to settle the strike. For me, it was all in the streets. I was listening at the time to a lot of Michelle Shocked, who put out a record called “Short Sharp Shocked.” I thought those three words pretty well summed up that whole strike for me.

Strikers pushed cups in the Chronicle fence to spell out “Contract now.” Photo by Nancy Wong, 1994

There were some special moments. On the night of the November 1994 election, for instance, I remember getting an urgent call to come down to strike headquarters, because the crew putting out the SF Free Press, our strike paper, was having a problem with the Macintosh computers or something. They were trying to put out the Election Special. I got down there and it appeared the computers were frozen, and nobody had done a “Save” for quite some time. Tyra Mead was not too happy. Somebody else got upset with me when I read her San Francisco election story and voiced a criticism about insufficient coverage to the pro-union candidate who had lost the race for supervisor.

We wound up losing the whole edition and had to start over from scratch. After a couple hours, I remember we ended up with a very modest little publication that still had more news in it than the morning Chronicle, since we had actual reporters and they didn’t. I took a bunch of the papers up to the Castro and handed them out to the commuters at sunrise. Actually, the sun didn’t rise because it was raining, I think, but I remember taking the train back downtown, to Powell Street, and when I came up, the entire street, from Market to the Chronicle-Examiner main building at Fifth and Mission, was jammed with people yelling and chanting. It was a combination of the strikers and people upset about passage of an anti-affirmative action initiative that year. We had all the students and people of color on our side.

Some glass windows were broken. A couple of newspaper delivery trucks were set on fire. A few flat tires. Some pushing and shoving. No idea how any of that happened, or why. I was against violence then, and am against it now. There are periods in history when the emotional state of people gets difficult to keep in check. We tried to conduct ourselves in a manner befitting the great tradition of righteous working class revolt in this country. For the most part, I’d say we did fairly well. One person, a few days into the strike, told me, “I’m tired of being angry.” I told her, “Stop being angry then, and have a good time. It’s a privilege to have a union and the opportunity to be on strike for a good cause.”

That’s a speech, but what the hell. We sometimes have to give a speech.

Carl Hall, a couple of decades ago, warms up for Solidarity Forever. Photo courtesy the subject.
Carl Hall, a couple of decades ago, warms up for Solidarity Forever. Photo courtesy the subject.

One last thing. The  food for us strikers in 1994 was outstanding. I remember eating a lot of delicious stuff and usually had no idea what it was, since my plate often would be floating in rainwater while I was eating. Greens Restaurant at Fort Mason, where my friend worked as a waiter, was a generous donor, but I think the food writers must have made it clear to every decent place in town that they’d better pony up, and no second-rate fare would be acceptable. Somebody managed to get some big insulated containers that allowed us to deliver delicious hot restaurant meals to the Army Street and Richmond production centers. I heard later some people in the more remote locations never got fed, and I felt bad about that. I think I gained quite a few pounds. The veggie chili was terrific. And yes, there were Port-a-potties.

Carl Hall is now Executive Officer of Pacific Media Workers Guild, having retired from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009 where he was last a science writer.  You can now find Hall marching in the back alleys of the Chronicle building or at the latest third wave coffee shop.  He hopes you’ll come to the anniversary party at the Guild.  Details here.

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