Organizing the L.A. Times Pressroom

It's tough to imagine what Gen. Harrison Gray Otis -- the bellicose press baron with the steely gaze and a speaking voice once likened to "that of a game warden roaring at seal poachers" -- would make of his family's recent decision to sever the last of its ties with the Los Angeles Times.

The 19th-century publisher, were he looking down upon this vale, couldn't be too happy that his descendants have walked away from the paper he built. At the same time, Otis was a savvy enough businessman that he might at least take some pleasure from the terms of their exit: When all is said and done, his scions will have pocketed about $3.5 billion from their sale of parent Times Mirror Company to Tribune Company.

And yet there's another development at the Times that would undoubtedly elicit no such mixed emotions from the general.

On this, he'd be sour through and through: The National Labor Relations Board last month, in turning back an appeal from the company, certified the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as the bargaining agent for workers at the Times' two printing facilities, in Los Angeles and Orange County. Only a few hundred jobs are affected. But, in its own way, the Teamsters' triumph could portend a bigger comeback for the labor movement around the country.

One of the primary reasons that the union prevailed at the newspaper was a feeling among the employees that they've been asked to work a lot harder without getting much in return; pay increases in recent years have been paltry at best. In this era of stagnating wages and deteriorating benefits -- amid big gains in productivity -- that's a set of circumstances hardly unique to the Times.

It's no wonder that a new batch of research suggests workers across the United States are hungrier than ever for union representation, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute study.

Mostly, though, the Teamsters' success is remarkable historically and symbolically, capping L.A.'s decades-long transformation from a non-union city to one in which organized labor is an unusually potent force.

"This was a long time coming," says Jim Santangelo, a Teamsters' international vice president for the Western region. "That newspaper has always hated unions -- and I mean hate."

Indeed, for more than a century, labor organizers stood little chance of cracking the place. The Times -- owing to the bare-knuckle methods of Gen. Otis and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler -- stood as an anti-union citadel in an anti-union metropolis. The two newspaper titans "fought the unions in a constant ongoing struggle that was nothing short of war," David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be, "mobilizing all other businessmen under their wing, tearing the entire city apart."

Otis went so far as to take his animus to the grave. There, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a plaque calls for "industrial freedom over industrial slavery." Translation: Keep out the union boys (whom he dubbed "industrial excrescence").

Buried next to Otis’ resting spot, meanwhile, are the remains of 16 press workers blown up in 1910 when a bomb went off at the Times' old printing plant. Guilty pleas to the crime by the McNamara brothers -- activist ironworkers who had been defended by the American Federation of Labor, among others on the left -- only served to undermine an already enfeebled union cause.

Decades after Otis's death, when the Depression had emboldened unions all over California and around the United States, L.A. still prided itself on being an open-shop stronghold. The city's business community drew up blacklists, hired labor spies, fired union followers, recruited non-union workers, gave financial aid to companies being struck and exerted financial pressure on employers friendly to labor.

The result was that the city -- which, thanks to the movies, oil, automobiles and airplanes, saw its economy grow feverishly through the 1920s and advance even during the hungry years of the '30s -- continued to lag the rest of the country in union membership. In 1939, just 17 percent of nonagricultural workers in L.A. were organized, compared with 29 percent for the U.S. as a whole.

Yet Los Angeles is all about second acts and makeovers, and such was the case here. Inspired by none other than the Teamsters, which started to make inroads in organizing truck drivers around the region, unions in L.A. eventually began to find their footing through the 1940s and into the '50s.

Ruth Milkman, director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, points out that most of the unions making strides in Los Angeles at the time were part of the AFL, as opposed to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Less militant than their CIO counterparts -- and thereby more suited to L.A.'s conservative climate -- the AFL unions preferred to win recognition by having their leaders negotiate directly with employers, rather than spurring mass job actions among the rank-and-file.

"There was kind of a euphoric period after World War II," Milkman quotes a Service Employees International Union official as saying in her book L.A. Story. "There were boom times, and the attitude was, 'Okay, we don't want labor war, we want labor peace. And we were in the AFL. We weren't a threat like the CIO."

Before long, Milkman notes, "organized labor was well established in Los Angeles," even though in many circles it still had a "lingering reputation as an open-shop city." Hundreds of thousands of workers in construction, aerospace, janitorial services and other sectors were now carrying union cards.

In 1955 (the year the AFL and CIO merged), 37 percent of workers in Los Angeles were unionized, eclipsing the national mark of 33 percent. It was no fluke, either: The metro area would keep outpacing the United States in union density, year after year after year, straight through to this day.

Still, if there was one notable exception, it was down at First and Spring streets at the Times, where the legacy of Gen. Otis and Harry Chandler loomed large.

By the 1960s, Harry's grandson, Otis Chandler, had taken over the paper and wooed some of the most talented journalists in the country westward, elevating the Times into the top ranks of American newspapers. But when it came to dealing with unions, the bottom line was the same: The paper shunned them.

"The editorial position changed -- but not the labor policy," recalled Bill Torrence, who went to work in the Times' pressroom in 1949 and later became an organizer for the then-powerful International Printing Pressmen and Assistants' Union of North America. "They fought us tooth and nail."

Torrence (who passed away in March at the age of 79) explained that the Times didn't just use sticks. It kept the troops in line, in part, by paying better than other newspapers (though it wasn't as generous when it came to compensating for overtime). Finally, said Torrence, "we told the guys, 'Hey, we're not mad at the Chandlers. They're pretty good people. But what the hell is wrong with sitting down with them once in a while?' That's how we won."

Yet that victory, in 1963, turned out to be short-lived. Pressmen at the rival Herald-Examiner soon threatened to go out on strike, and it was made clear that those at the Times would be asked to financially assist their union brethren during any walkout. Though a work stoppage was avoided at the eleventh hour, the episode seemed to highlight what the Chandlers had always warned their employees about: The union was bound to take more than it would give. The timing, said Torrence, was "a debacle." The Times' workers voted to decertify the union the very next year.

Those in the press operations unionized one more time, in 1967. But they again reversed course in 1970 -- and that was that. For the next 30 years, no union could establish so much as a toehold at the paper. Not that they didn't try. From 1990 to 2002, six attempts were made to organize, but the results were invariably the same: The union was trounced each time.

By then, of course, the labor scene in America had changed dramatically. Bedeviled by the hostile atmosphere created by the Reagan administration, the harsh realities of globalization, and its own missteps, the labor movement found itself shoved largely to the sidelines of the economy. Today, only about 7 percent of the private workforce in the country is unionized, down from 24 percent in 1973.

Yet there are a few locales where organized labor can't be ignored -- the most prominent among them being Los Angeles.

It is here, in the city that author Mike Davis has called "the major R&D center for 21st-century trade unionism," that some of the most aggressive and innovative organizing drives of recent years have been undertaken among janitors, hotel workers, dry-wallers, and others. In 1999, the SEIU won what the union's president, Andy Stern, has described as "the largest organizing election in modern labor history": that of 74,000 homecare workers in L.A.

The upshot is that 14.5 percent of all employed wage and salary workers in the area were union members in 2006, well above the 12 percent for the entire United States. In the private sector, the figure for L.A. was 8.5 percent -- more than a full percentage point higher than union membership in the country as a whole.

One key in Southern California has been the mobilization of immigrant workers, especially Latinos. Milkman, among others, believes that this bodes well for unions across the nation, as more and more communities see an influx of foreign-born workers (the possible effects of immigration reform legislation notwithstanding).

In the meantime, L.A. has been at the leading edge of another important trend: "The center of gravity" in the labor world, as Milkman puts it, has drifted away from the old manufacturing unions of the CIO to those born out of the AFL. The latter, she says, are active in industries relatively insulated from the dangers of global trade (construction and services, for instance) and wield "a broader strategic repertoire" than those with roots in the CIO.

"If there is any hope ... for a major upsurge of labor movement activity of the sort that took place in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s," Milkman writes, "it is likely to come from these former AFL unions."

In the end, though, any true union revival in America is going to need to be stoked by more than a demographic shift or a reshuffling of the status of different unions. It's going to require, above all, a labor force that is eager to be organized -- so eager that it's willing to endure the employer intimidation that inevitably comes with most any union campaign.

The good news for labor advocates is that things may well be headed in that direction. In February, the Economic Policy Institute released a study by Harvard's Richard B. Freeman with a promising conclusion: "Workers want unions more than ever before." Specifically, Freeman found that a majority of non-union workers in 2005 would have voted for union representation if they could have -- up from about 30 percent in the 1980s and 32 to 39 percent in the mid-1990s.

And who can blame them? Output per hour of work soared 20 percent between 2000 and 2006. But when adjusted for inflation, wages rose by only 2 percent. Given that unionized workers make substantially more on average than do non-union workers ($833 weekly versus $642), who wouldn't want to sign up?

It is this sort of calculus that evidently swayed many of the workers at the Times.

The battle there was hard-fought. Although a Tribune company man, the new publisher of the paper, David Hiller, would have made Gen. Otis and the Chandlers proud with his vigorous anti-union crusade. In a video sent to pressroom employees in late 2006, he painted a bleak picture of how unions have fared throughout the newspaper industry in the last 15 years, pointing to a number of strikes and bitter contract negotiations that yielded no improvements for workers. He even, not so subtly, raised the specter of violence, as the video flashed on a delivery truck set ablaze at the Detroit News in the mid-1990s.

The company argued in one flyer distributed to workers that bringing in a union would foster an unwanted "us versus them environment," which "saps the energy of an organization and the morale of its employees." It also cautioned that having the Teamsters at the table was no guarantee of a fatter paycheck. "While you could end up with more," the company told those in the pressroom, "you could also end up with less (and be paying union dues)."

It added: "Without a union, you've already got the best wages and working conditions up or down the coast. When was the last time someone left here to go to a union job because it paid better?"

But ultimately, a majority of workers decided that they could, in fact, do better.

Ronnie Pineda, who has been with the Times since 1978 and has been a vocal union supporter, says the company has slashed employment at its printing plants to about 285 from 700 in the last seven years (with about 50 of the cuts coming from the shuttering of one location).

As a result, those remaining have had to pick up the slack. "It essentially equates to the work doubling," Pineda says. "We've got to hang more plates. We've got to push more rolls."

The extra workload has not only increased the likelihood of injury, Pineda adds, it has come without much to show for it: Wages have crept up a mere 7.5 percent since 2000, while employees' out-of-pocket costs for medical insurance have climbed. (A spokeswoman for the Times would neither confirm nor refute the employment and wage figures Pineda provided.)

The vote last January at the Times -- where job security was also a crucial issue, given the paper's impending sale -- was 140-131 in favor of the Teamsters. The company appealed, alleging that Pineda, for one, had acted in ways that "interfered with the exercise of the employees' free choice" during the election. In March, an NLRB hearing office found nothing to support those claims. The Times then appealed to the full labor board in Washington. Last month's decision means the newspaper is now out of options; the general's ghost has been exorcised at last.

"The Times was always the beacon for anti-union employers," says Marty Keegan, the Teamsters' lead organizer in the campaign. "This win is monumental."

To be sure, the pressures against organized labor remain immense. The Republican-dominated NLRB has issued a string of anti-union decisions in recent years. Change to Win -- the labor federation that broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005 in a bid to organize workers in a more focused and effective way -- has been beset by intramural squabbling. Even in Los Angeles, unions have suffered their share of defeats, the most notable being the concessions wrested a few years ago by the supermarket chains from the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Despite some real progress, "we've got a long way to go," says Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

No doubt that's true -- and it will continue to be true across the country even if a Democrat seizes the White House in 2008 and even if the pro-labor Employee Free Choice Act is revived down the line. But as the struggle goes on, those spearheading America's union movement should take some solace in this: The Teamsters are now sitting inside Gen. Otis' shop.

Which is to say, anything is possible.

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