The Seattle strike proved the truth of Broun's 1933 statement that "The fact that newspaper editors and owners are genial folk should hardly stand in the way of the organization of a newspaper writers' union ..." In fact, when it came to unionization, newspaper editors and owners weren't too genial.
The Great Depression
Seattle in the mid-1930s was a restless city. It felt sharply the grip of the nationwide depression. Nearly all who were employed had seen their paychecks cut severely, and employees daily faced the possibility of losing their jobs.
Such threats proved a boon to labor organizing. Business watched the rise of labor with alarm and stoutly resisted such New Deal legislation as the National Industrial Recovery Act and the National Labor Relations Act, both of which helped secure the position of unions.
Thirty-five Hearty Souls
Newspaper writers were some of the earliest private sector white-collar workers to recognize the effectiveness of unionization. In Seattle, about 35 hearty souls organized, despite the likes of William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) -- first class red baiter, witch hunter, and union hater -- telling them they were too professional for unionism. They figured that a union would actually protect that professionalism.
In fact, it was issues of professionalism that helped spur the small group of Seattle Post-Intelligencer writers to organize and strike in August 1936. (The strike lasted from August 19 to November 29, 1936.) So-called efficiency changes by management had resulted in dismissal of experienced workers who were then replaced by inexperienced, but cheaper, workers. Wage rates varied among equally skilled reporters, reflecting, at times, discrimination based on politics or on age. What seemed like arbitrary assignments and switches of assignment merely to boost circulation and advertising schemes caused real irritation among the editorial and photography workers at the P-I.
Among the Guild members most active in the 1936 strike were these three men:
- Everhardt Armstrong was an experienced and well-paid reporter whose sympathy for the cause of labor nevertheless earned the animosity of management.
- Richard "Dick" Seller was a young reporter considered a "comer," who was reassigned to the night police beat, an assignment typically given to the young, single, and carefree, shortly after he got married. Seller sat on the fence for a time but eventually became president of the Seattle chapter of the American Newspaper Guild.
- Frank Lynch, chief photographer. The Hearst management became extremely interested in his rather disorganized photography department when his membership in the American Newspaper Guild was discovered. He was fired.
By acts of arbitrary and capricious dismissal, familiar words to trade unionists these days, the Post-Intelligencer management set off a strike that would lead to actual recognition of the Newspaper Guild as the bargaining representative for editorial employees.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer strike settlement was the first time the guild had forced Hearst to grant union recognition. The national union leadership reckoned Hearst would decline to grant any union recognition until a nationwide strike on all his papers forced his hand. The pitifully weak Seattle local accomplished the task fewer than seven months after its chartering.
The union also gained a 40-hour week, at first in a six-day week, but within the year, in a five-day week.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer strike involved lots of union solidarity when longshore workers, lumber workers, metal workers, and teamsters joined the picket lines. There were enough picketers to completely surround the P-I building in downtown Seattle, which stood across the street from Frederick & Nelson's Department store. These workers who supported striking newspaper writers made the band of 35 reporters into a much stronger force. Teamster leader Dave Beck provided additional support by threatening that teamster drivers would refuse to deliver newsprint for the newspaper to be printed on.
The Post-Intelligencer attempted to get its editions published at The Seattle Times, but at the Times the unionized typographers prevented that from happening. The P-I did not print from August 19, 1936 until late November.
The writers, like other striking journalists down through the years, published their own newspaper during the strike. The Guild Daily was a full newspaper and of course it lost no opportunity to make points. For example, about a month and a half into the strike, its September 21, 1936, issue quotes Citizens' Committee chair Marcus Rohls urging the citizens of Seattle "in considering the merits of the present newspaper strike keep in mind that collective bargaining promotes industrial peace, and it is the denial of it that interrupts industry ..."
The issue gleefully notes that "President Franklin D. Roosevelt leads Gov. Alfred M. Landon of Kansas by better than two to one in the tenth and final tabulation of the Richfield Oil Company's test ballot of Pacific Coast presidential sentiment." Landon was Hearst's candidate.
The issue also reports community support from the People's Theatre Players who were presenting Clifford Odets' hit play Waiting for Lefty at Independence Hall on 41st Street and University Way in the University District.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected in early November 1936. After this, and seeing no help coming from any direction, Hearst and his labor relations man sat down and made a deal with the American Newspaper Guild.
History Was Made
The 1936 strike by journalists at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was the one of the first significant and successful strikes by journalists in our country. It taught the young white-collar unionists a lesson of solidarity with other unions.
This strike is one of those historic events reminding us of our state’s strong labor history and that white-collar workers as well as blue-collar workers have always been part of the struggle for better working conditions. In the 1990s, the Newspaper Guild merged first with the Typographers and then with the Communications Workers of America, likely and reasonable matches.