The legacy of the great San Francisco newspaper strike of 1994
This is part 4 of our series on the San Francisco newspaper strike of 1994
Back in 1994, I was the relatively young, 30-something secretary-treasurer of The Newspaper Guild international union. In office just over a year, my responsibilities had little to do with the day-to-day operations of the strike. My main job was to make sure that striking Guild members received their rather meager weekly strike benefit checks, which averaged around $100, if I remember correctly.
Then-Guild President Charles Dale, a great champion and veteran of labor-management relations in the Bay Area, was the principal officer and TNG operative at the strike. To say he took the San Francisco newspaper strike personally is an understatement. He felt that struggle in his bones. (Chuck Dale retired to the Sacramento area in 1995; he passed away there in 2007.)
As secretary-treasurer, my interaction “on the ground” was fairly limited. I did make a trip to the picket line and attended one fruitless bargaining session as an observer. But my work was administrative — important to strikers — but administrative nevertheless.
What I remember more clearly, having become the Guild’s international president a year later, is what came after the Great San Francisco Newspaper Strike of 1994. The legacy of the last successful strike at a major metropolitan daily newspaper was, in my opinion somewhat mixed.
First, the solidarity demonstrated at the bargaining table and on the streets of San Francisco inspired the international unions involved to form a national level council of newspaper unions — the Newspaper Industry Coordinating Committee, or NICC. NICC fostered cooperation among the Guild, International Typographical Union, Teamsters and Graphic Communications International Union (pressmen) that had never occurred on a national level.
For years after the San Francisco strike, representatives of the national unions representing newspaper workers met every month to coordinate resources and strategies in a changing newspaper industry. Struggles in cities like Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Toledo, Denver and even Manchester, NH, (to name a few) were now on the radar of every newspaper union, whether that union had a local there or not.
Another aspect of the SF strike legacy was not so apparent in the immediate aftermath of the struggle. Because union solidarity and coordinated bargaining had worked so well in the Bay Area, there was an unrealistic expectation that its success could be replicated in other cities with newspaper owners who were determined to housebreak or bust their unions. But other cities were not San Francisco, and other local unions did not have the solidarity built on years of coordinated collective bargaining that was the hallmark of the Bay Area negotiations table.
So when, for example, a strike was launched in Detroit a year later, the unions did not have the same level of unity and trust, and the companies’ resolve to break the unions in the Motor City was much greater than in San Francisco. (The Detroit News and Free Press also ran a joint operation similar to the Chronicle and Examiner.) The results there were just short of disastrous. Neither the workforce nor the newspapers could recover from the damage of that strike.
Still, the most important aspect of the 1994 strike’s legacy, in my opinion, was the realization on the part of The Newspaper Guild that the combination of new technology and media consolidation was just too daunting for a little international union of 35,000 members to take on all by itself. We had to not only coordinate with the other unions in our industry, we had to join forces with them. In 1995, the Guild’s membership voted overwhelmingly to merge with the Communications Workers of America, following the International Typographical Union which had done so years earlier. Today, we are The Newspaper Guild-CWA. Still fighting for fairness and dignity like we were in 1994.
Linda Foley was secretary-treasurer and then president of the Newspaper Guild and vice-president of the Communications Workers of America from 1993 through 2008. She was a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky before turning to full-time work at the Guild in 1984. Foley is now president of the Berger-Marks Foundation.