Labor Day Remembrance: “You Do Not Touch the Type”

In the 1960s publishing was very different—hot type, composing rooms, and unions. In 1965 I left UPI to edit a paper in Warren, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, and during that first week I was in the newspaper’s composing room, learning how to help lay out page one. I saw a change that should be made and touched a line of the type on the layout table.

The composing room, noisy from all the linotype machines, went dead silent. “You do not touch the type,” a voice said.

In 1966 I moved to San Jose, California, to edit a group of six weeklies. They were printed on offset presses.

When it came time to lay out the papers, we went into a room where the walls were essentially bulletin boards and all the stories, strips of paper, were pinned to the wall. We walked around taking stories off the wall and putting them on layout pages. If we wanted to cut a story, we took a pair of scissors and did the cutting.

It often took until 3 in the morning but we laid out six papers, fueled by pizza and soft drinks, with the production costs so low it’d be like buying a bicycle instead of a car.

The first shots in journalism’s war to get rid of unions were fired in 1962-63 in New York City. Here’s a Vanity Fair story from 2012 headlined “The Long Goodbye: Fifty years ago this month, striking printers shut down seven New York City newspapers. The strike would last for 114 days and helped to kill four of those newspapers. ‘This was an absolutely unnecessary strike,’ recalls Tom Wolfe, who worked for the doomed Herald Tribune. Deep down it was about technological disruption—a foreshadowing of dislocations that roil the newspaper industry in our own time. As a newspaper town, New York was never the same again.”

The battle to take away labor’s power to shut down a newspaper than moved to Washington. Here is a Huffington Post story, “Wash Post Busted Pressman’s Union in 1975. Why It Still Matters Today.” That story is much more sympathetic to labor unions than this look back at the 1975 strike written by the Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald: “Katharine Graham was burned in effigy, but refused to give in during a violent strike.”

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