The Long Good-Bye: Fifty Years Ago This Month, Striking Printers Shut Down Seven New York City newspapers.The Strike Lasted for 114 Days and Killed Four of Those Newspapers. New York Was Never the Same Again « Sigmund, Carl and Alfred
New York City newspapers and journalism looked a lot different in 1960 than it does now. In that year 17,000 printers of 7 newspapers went on a strike that was to last 114 days.
The strike was a classic example of unions versus the corporate powers that be. Each side was willing to fight to the end to defend it’s turf but in fact the strike had a lot to do with new technologies. Computerized typesetting was to inevitably change the industry.The unions were trying to delay the inevitable.
When the strike was over a whole new crop of younger journalists were to emerge and change the face of journalism, not just in New York but throughout the nation. TV news was to gain new credibility. Whereas newspapers once were the primary source of news (many papers published both morning and afternoon editions), the strike helped supplant the credibility and immediacy of TV news.
How will history recall the strike? The author Tom Wolfe said, ‘This was an absolutely unnecessary strike.’
A little more than two hours after midnight on December 8, 1962, hundreds of printers walked away from their clattering Linotype machines and their rumbling presses and departed en masse from The New York Times’s block-long composing room, on West 43rd Street. Everything they deemed essential—typewriters, adding machines, a public-address system, manila folders stuffed with union documents—was packed into cardboard boxes and carted away to strike headquarters, in Greenwich Village. The printers, most of them second-generation Irish, Italian, and Jewish men in their 40s, belonged to Local No. 6 of the International Typographical Union (I.T.U.), a confederation better known by its historic nickname, “Big Six.” The Times was shut down, and within hours so was every other major newspaper in New York City.
One of the most dramatic and vexing strikes in American history was under way. The showdown of 1962-63 pitted around 17,000 newspaper employees—pressmen, photoengravers, paper handlers, reporters, elevator operators, office boys—against the owners and publishers of seven New York City newspapers, who were determined to curtail the influence of Big Six and nine other clamorous unions. Over the next 114 days, 600 million newspapers would go unprinted; newspaper-obsessed New Yorkers would be forced to navigate their metropolis without them. President John F. Kennedy would denounce the president of Big Six, Bertram “Bert” Powers, who spearheaded the strike; the Publishers Association would be shaken by the defection of its only woman, Dorothy Schiff of the New York Post; and the newsgathering abilities of local TV stations would grow in size and sophistication. The strike would put a decisive end to New York as a boisterous newspaper town, one that in the 1920s had possessed 19 dailies.
For some New York newspaper veterans, even a brief mention of the episode is enough to summon rage and melancholy. “This was an absolutely foolish strike,” says Tom Wolfe, who was a reporter at the Herald Tribune at the time. “There was a stubborn union leadership that was not going to give in, no matter what. So they managed to kill off four newspapers out of seven.” Jimmy Breslin, then a Tribune columnist, says, “Bert Powers was fucking crazy! He disliked newspapers.” If the strike hastened the decline of newspaper culture in New York, it also changed the landscape of literary journalism: the void created by the news blackout helped to launch and solidify the careers of Gay Talese, Nora Ephron, Pete Hamill, and Wolfe himself. “The freedom that came with that strike,” says Talese, who was then a 30-year-old Timesman, “made me, for the first time, know what it was like to be a writer rather than a reporter whose life was owned by the Times.”