Lessons from Labor History: A Seattle Newspaper Strike in 1936

“More Than Just Another Strike”

William E. Ames and Roger A. Simpson, Unionism or Hearst: The “Seattle Post-Intelligencer” Strike of 1936, Seattle: Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, 1978, 175 pp.

Reviewed by Charles Walker

As this is written, Seattle newspaper workers are striking the Hearst-owned Post-Intelligencer (as well as the Seattle Times) and not for the first time. The issues of the current strike are pay and respect. The first time the Newspaper Guild took on the Hearst news chain, the issues were company recognition of their newly formed Seattle local union and, as now, respect.

Unionism or Hearst is a mostly sympathetic account of a victorious struggle by a small band of reporters, photographers, librarians, and newsroom workers determined to join up with the growing mass movement for unionism that arose out of the depths of the Great Depression. Key to the journalism workers’ victory was the support of Seattle’s unionized workers, then grouped together in the Seattle Central Labor Council, AFL.

On the strike’s first day, “The pickets scarcely had time to adjust to their new situation before they found themselves being elbowed aside as the more powerful and experienced labor elements of Seattle moved down from the hills, up from the waterfront, and out of the Labor temple...” Just an hour or two before, the strikers “seemed rather embarrassed as the loyal members [scabs] of the staff reported for work...However, once the longshoremen appeared on the scene, the picket line assumed new character as the Guildsmen [strikers] began taking lessons in striking. If the place were to be closed, people could not be allowed to go inside the building, Guildsmen learned. Longshoremen instructed that when someone started toward the building, pickets had to push forward, bump him, and stop him, asking where he thought he was going.”

“It was no longer some thirty-five members of the Post-Intelligencer staff fighting for the right to organize and protesting that two of their number had been fired for union activities...The enemies of the Guild — Hearst and the Post-Intelligencer — had become the enemies of all Seattle labor.”

For three and a half months, the strikers, greatly reinforced by widespread solidarity, kept the struck paper shut down, and then returned to their jobs after winning union recognition. “We definitely state,” conceded the bosses in a back-to-work agreement, “that there will be no discrimination against any editorial department employe (sic), nor will any editorial department employe (sic) be discharged because of membership in the guild or any other organization.”

Complexities Within the Union Movement — Nothing New

Strike victories are not so simple today. In fact, they weren’t so simple in 1936. The course of the Guild’s strike was shaped by Seattle’s history as a radical labor town, the budding rivalry of craft unionism versus industrial organization, the new Wagner Act (a New Deal concession to growing worker militancy), red-baiting (the Communist Party had recently grown from a relative handful to 6,000 members in the Northwest, according to the authors), and the challenge to Roosevelt’s bid for a second term in the White House.

Back in February 1919, Seattle workers joined together in the nation’s first citywide general strike, an action the bosses termed a “Bolshevik plot.” As a matter of fact, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were a potent force in the Northwest, especially among loggers and itinerant “bindle stiffs.” And yes, there were Communists and sympathizers of the Russian Revolution aplenty. As noted by a labor historian, the head of Seattle’s Central Labor Committee “was an outspoken opponent of the conservative labor policies followed by the AFL; had strongly opposed our entry into the war, and was sympathetic toward Soviet Russia.”

Before striking, Guild members went to the Seattle Labor Council seeking help and happened upon a leader of the “leftist” metal trades who then worked to get the Hearst paper added to the Council’s unfair to labor list. While normally having the support of a leftist would have been the kiss of death, the leader of the Council’s right wing, Dave Beck of the Teamsters Union, was “willing to overlook the mistake.” Later a Guild member said, “We were so naive about trade unionism...They were all brothers, and I didn’t know there was a left wing, right wing; believe me, I just didn’t know it.”

The Teamsters’ Dave Beck — Head of Seattle Labor’s Right Wing

In 1936, Dave Beck was still two decades away from being convicted and jailed on larceny charges. At the time of the Guild strike, Beck was building the power and political influence that would help him win the Teamsters presidency in 1952. “At the hub of the conservative element [in the Seattle Central Labor Council] was the powerful Teamsters Union, presided over by a former laundry truck driver who had strong-armed his way to the most powerful position in Seattle labor. No move was made by the Central Labor Council without the support of Dave Beck and his Teamsters Union.”

“Beck was usually reluctant to involve the Teamsters in strikes; he preferred to persuade businessmen that union and employer had mutual interests.” When Beck and the printing trades seemed reluctant to back the Guild, the Inland Boatman’s Union declared, “We have contracts with the paper, but we believe in industrial unionism, and if these people go on strike we won’t deliver any papers.” “This,” the authors contend, “was the nudge which Beck’s Teamsters needed…This position taken by the Teamsters was an important concession, because usually Beck’s men would recognize only the picket lines of their own craft.”

With Beck roped into supporting the planned strike, only three representatives from the printing trades voted against a motion “labeling Hearst unfair to labor.” Despite their vote, the local printing trades backed the strike, withstanding pressures from their national leaders to “honor” their contracts.

Role of Seattle Mayor

In other cities, Hearst probably would have secured the police to herd scabs, and break up mass picket lines. But Seattle’s mayor, the authors report, had lost the support of his business supporters prior to his reelection. Beck’s support was vital to the mayor’s victory, and in return the mayor not only didn’t interfere with the pickets, he fraternized with them. When appropriate, the police would look the other way; sometimes they brought food to the strike kitchen. However, the writers are certain that the mayor’s loyalty, if that’s what it was, was to Beck, not to the strikers.

Hearst’s plan for breaking the strike was based on “scientific methods,” developed by business after “several decades of labor strife.” “[W]in public support by branding union leaders as subversive and threatening to remove the affected industry from the community if local business interests stood by and allowed radical agitators to (influence) workers otherwise ready and anxious to cooperate with their employers.”

But many of Seattle’s residents were hostile to Hearst before the strike. So hostile that some department store shoppers from across the street on the first day joined the picket line. “All Seattle, at times, seemed to be vying to outdo itself in supporting the Guild. Some 2,500 turned out…for an ‘anti-Hearst, pro-Guild demonstration.’” Hearst failed to take advantage of the cleavages inside labor’s ranks, branding virtually all of Seattle’s unions “as part of a Communist-led conspiracy. Linking Beck to the Communists was ridiculous…But by bludgeoning all labor, Hearst made it difficult for Beck and his allies to bring any influence [to settle prematurely] to bear on the Guild.”

Apparently, Hearst thought that if Roosevelt lost the 1936 presidential race, unions would be on the run. Accordingly, the Hearst newspaper chain championed Al Landon, charging that Roosevelt was taking the U.S. toward Communism. When Roosevelt was reelected in a landslide, Hearst ordered his minions to settle with the Guild. Then to help rebuild the Post-Intelligencer circulation, Hearst hired John Boettiger (married to Anna Roosevelt, the president’s daughter) to run the paper, at least nominally.

Finally, the AFL executive board, headed by William Green, attempted to force a settlement on the Guild. Dan Tobin, the Teamsters president, supported the maneuver, and Beck went along. Green’s betrayal was part of the reason that the next year, 1937, the Guild left the AFL, and joined the CIO. Beck hit back with a raid on the Guild’s members in the circulation department of the Seattle Star. The Guild called a strike, its “members were fired and replaced by members of the Teamsters union, and the second major Guild strike in Seattle was under way.” But that’s another story.