Memories of a Wisconsin Union Scab
When debate turns to unions, as it has of late because of the ugly battle in Wisconsin, I remember my own Badger State experience with organized labor.
It was not a pleasant one. It left a bad taste in my mouth that is still there all these decades later, contributing to the decidedly mixed feelings I have about the whole subject of unions, whether they represent public or private workers. I touched on the episode years ago in another column but can't resist revisiting it.
In 1967, as an Army veteran, a newlywed and a recent graduate from Southwest Missouri State College, I was excited as I set off for my first real job as wire editor - the guy who handled the Associated Press news - with The Janesville (Wis.) Gazette.
I was in for a surprise.
I remember Janesville as a pleasant town of 50,000 Germans and Swedes - who spoke like characters from "Fargo" or "A Prairie Home Companion" - sitting astride the Rock River, not far above the Illinois line.
The area abounded in corn-fed white-tailed deer, which I spent many hours hunting with bow and arrow. More to the point, that whole part of the state, which also included Madison and Milwaukee, was and is strong union territory.
In the job interview, they neglected to mention one minor fact: The family-owned Gazette had reached an impasse in negotiations with the International Typographical Union, which represented composing room employees. This was in the tail end of the "hot type" days, when most papers were still produced in an old-fashioned, labor-intensive way that hadn't advanced much since Gutenberg.
We worked on the second floor of an old downtown building. One day at midmorning, we news types heard a peculiar sound: the noisy clompety-clomp of dozens of printers hurrying down those wooden steps and out onto the broad sidewalk. Dozens of strike signs materialized, and soon we could look down on a genuine picket line all the way around the building.
Some nightmarish moments ensued.
Determined to break the union and not to miss a day of publication, the company pressed my nonunion news colleagues and me into service. For the first week, I spent mornings editing news, writing headlines and laying out pages - then put on an apron and spent my afternoons in the composing room, helping assemble lead type slugs into amateurish-looking pages. Others in different jobs performed similar double duty.
Then the company escalated the war by bringing in a squad of highly paid, well-trained, bull-necked goons from a strikebreaking outfit in Oklahoma to take over the composing room function. These guys were a scary bunch, but at least their provocative presence allowed us to go back to being full-time journalists.
But we were still "scabs," and that's the hostile epithet the strikers screamed in our faces every morning as we crossed their lines.
To make things worse, this came at a time when the big General Motors plant in Janesville shut down its assembly lines for a few weeks to change over from producing one model of gas-guzzling Chevys to another. This freed up hundreds of UAW members to come down and noisily reinforce the ITU picket lines.
Now we scabs had to confront not just dozens of threatening, unruly marchers but hundreds of them. For a while, things got so hairy that the company considered flying us onto the top of the building by helicopter.
Then there were the illegal "secondary boycotts" that the union resorted to. The main such tactic I recall: In an effort to discourage advertisers from doing business with The Gazette, strikers would get their wives to go to supermarkets, fill grocery carts with frozen foods, and then leave them in the aisles to thaw.
And get this: The sticking point wasn't money. The negotiators had agreed on wages. Rather, the union insisted that the contract had to include a make-work "bogus type clause." Under it, the company could use ready-made ads that came in from national agencies - but only after the printers had been paid to create duplicates of them, setting the type, making the engravings, assembling them, proofreading them, and then dumping them in the "hell box" to be melted down again.
The union lost, as it deserved to. Though picketers persisted for a year or two, their numbers ultimately dwindled to two or three bitter sign-carriers huddled against the snowy subarctic wind.
And then, mercifully, they were gone.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, "Death of a Pinehurst Princess," is available at The Country Bookshop and other locations.
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