Untwisting the Modern History of Inequality in America
No single event has made the United States the world’s most unequal developed nation. But few events have done more to hasten that outcome than a 1975 strike at the Washington Post.
Research & Commentary
June 21, 2017
by Fred Solowey
Editor’s note: The “winners,” the old adage goes, get to write history. And if those winners happen to own a major daily, that history can become enormously difficult to correct.
Last week, to mark the 100th birthday of long-time Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, the paper retold the Post’s take on the “most gripping, resolute moment” in Graham’s entire life: the strike of the paper’s pressmen’s union that began in October 1975. That strike marked a turning point in American labor relations — and helped speed the inequality that now so defines today’s United States. Before the Post pressmen’s strike, no respectable business in America would ever consider replacing striking workers with permanent substitutes. But that’s just the course that the Post — then an acclaimed symbol of American liberalism still basking in the afterglow of Watergate — chose to take against its striking pressmen, shattering careers and lives in the process.
A few years later, in 1981, Ronald Reagan pulled the same maneuver on striking air traffic controllers. The response from the institutions of mainstream liberalism would be remarkably muted. That mainstream had accepted the Post replacing strikers. It could hardly turn around and attack Reagan for copying the Post. The result? Employers nationwide had a green light to bust unions, and the labor share of the wealth the U.S. economy was creating would sink to modern record-low levels.
The history of the pressmen’s strike the Post told last week glosses over all this context. In the Post’s telling, the pressmen’s strike becomes an epic battle against labor goons who trash printing presses, ending in victory for a champion of press freedom who “stood up against people who literally thought they could push her around.”
Veteran labor journalist Fred Solowey experienced the Post pressmen’s union struggle first-hand. He penned this letter below in response to the Post’s strike coverage last week. The Post has not yet printed the letter.
To the editor:
No matter how often the Post’s official and self-serving account of the pressmen’s union strike that began in 1975 is regurgitated into print, it remains a fabrication worthy of Donald Trump. Michael Rosenwald’s article on the website Thursday evening and in the print edition on Friday continues this long tradition.
Katharine Graham had decided on the priority of profit-maximization and that meant that its most militant union — Pressmen’s Local 6 — had to be neutralized and its good contract gutted. The oft-asserted idea that the Post did not want a strike is belied by it contracting with a training school for scabs in Oklahoma. The school had been set up to facilitate the wave of union busting in the newspaper industry that the Post was joining.
Graham not only received cooperation from the government to help it beat the strikers by waving air-space restrictions (helicopters also being used to usher in scabs, by the way, not just printing press plates), but Graham got additional, virtually unprecedented — and blatantly improper — help in another way: A grand jury was convened and over 100 strikers were subpoenaed during the months after the strike began with the aim of destroying solidarity and unity among the strikers. An employer actually seeking resolution in a labor dispute would never have used its power that way.
The ostensible purpose of that grand jury was to investigate a conspiracy to do millions of dollars of damage to the presses. Indeed, a number of strikers finally were indicted, one facing seven felony charges and a possible 42 years in jail. But it turned out that the damage was minimal, and the presses were up and running in a few days.
As industry experts explained to me back then and since, had the union really wanted to seriously damage the presses, it would not have been hard to do so.
What happened that night was the release of pent-up frustration by a group of working men (more racially diverse than the newsroom, by the way) in the crosshairs of a greedy corporation that increasingly churned out an anti-union publication.
Though it has largely been forgotten, it was this strike that really set the stage for what many have seen as a turning point in U.S. labor relations, the PATCO strike and the use of scab permanent replacement workers.
Graham and her crew beat Ronald Reagan to the punch by several years.