Sun Nov 13 19:25:03 PST 1994

Winning the good fight

It may sound immodest, but it's true: We won a rare victory for American labor

By Rob Morse
Special to the Free Press

SAN FRANCISCO -- At Hanno's and the M&M, the city's newspaper bars, it was smiles and beer all around. Newspaper workers danced inside the bars and on the streets outside celebrating the tentative settlement of the strike early Saturday morning. Teamsters hugged reporters. Printers hugged circulation clerks. We had bonded the hard way, on picket lines at midnight, with the fear of unemployment in our guts.

It sounds immodest to say, but we have won a rare victory for American labor, beating the $50-an-hour goons, the imported scab reporters and the union-busting law firm that thought we would scatter at the first flurry of fake registered letters threatening termination. And all we wanted from the start was fair treatment.

As I walked by the newly opened, unpicketed main gate of the newspapers on Saturday, I stopped to shake the hand of a smiling San Francisco police officer. These folks were great during the strike. One police captain gave a set of his captain's bars to a female picket captain. This woman vowed there would be no violence on her line and became famous for shouting, "I've got PMS and I've got a bullhorn. Now listen up."

At the main gate a Huffmaster security guard was standing with the San Francisco police officers. The Huffmaster was smiling as much as we were. He was probably very happy that he wouldn't have to listen to the Beethovens of the bullhorns anymore. The Huffmaster shook my hand too. (And now get out of here, or we bring back the bullhorns.)

As I walked past the main door of the Examiner I smiled at our regular, low-paid security guard. The security guard threw a fist in the air. This is a time in our lives to treasure.

It isn't hard to count the heroes. It comes down to 2,600 minus eight. According to the union-busting textbook, 2,600 union members were supposed to come unglued, starting with the Newspaper Guild, at the first mention of replacement workers. Only eight members came unglued and crossed the line. They probably were in some sense unglued in the first place.

The biggest hero of the strike, Herb Caen, said it himself: "How do you replace a 78-year-old dotty columnist who is paid peanuts?" You can't replace Caen, who went out front for his fellow newspaper workers every time. It was his signature on the letter of solidarity by columnists that may have broken the resolve of management. As well as the fact that they couldn't get the newspaper out in any weight or numbers.

Other heroes include those in Bay Area communities who refused to accept the scab newspapers. These ranged from owners of little corner stores, who can barely speak English, to the owners of sophisticated coffeehouse/bookstores. Last week scab drivers tried to drop off free bundles of Chronicles at the Mill Valley Depot bookstore, and even tried to pass them out to people drinking coffee. "We kicked their butts out of here," the woman behind the counter said.

Bay Area readers demanded the strikers' newspaper, the Free Press. The paper was snapped up everywhere it arrived. The electronic version of the paper, put online in an amazing 18 hours, was being read by 77,000 readers a day as of last Wednesday, and was written up in major papers like the Boston Globe and the New York Times.

Management's electronic versions of the scab newspapers were pale ghosts of journalism, recycling AP wire copy. The Free Press had the soul of the Examiner and the Chronicle, the writers and editors who can't be replaced as easily as spare tires.

Another hero, Mayor Frank Jordan. After his fight to solve the newspaper strike, and save part of the soul of San Francisco, it will be very hard to vote against him when the election comes around. We'll still cover him fairly and toughly. We will take no more cheap shots.

Finally, we should give some credit to the members of management who stayed in the building and tried to put out the papers. That was their job, and it couldn't have been pleasant, given their small numbers and the bullhorns outside. We have to go back in the building and start life anew with them. As one Guild member told me, "I can always look at my supervisor with this little smile."

But let's not rub it in. It's time for a new kind of peace in the halls of the San Francisco newspapers.

As for those who were scabs, though, the hell with you.

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