WBNG History; Sun Newsroom Vet Reflects on Guild’s Depression Roots

It was a cold, late-winter Sunday afternoon, when some 45 newsroom people gathered on March 11, 1934, in a room at the Lord Baltimore Hotel on Baltimore Street, to lay the foundation of what eventually grew into the Baltimore Newspaper Guild.

Against the backdrop of the deepening Depression and with business off, Sunpapers’ management cut employee wages by 10 percent.

Some workers were furloughed with the promise of being rehired when business conditions improved.

Journalists at the Hearst-owned Baltimore News were worse off. They were asked to accept pay cuts of up to 19 percent.

It was a restless group that gathered that afternoon to discuss establishing a union. They were motivated by the economic hardships placed on them by the very newspapers they had worked for.

Dan desouza, president of the recently formed Washington Newspaper Guild, addressed the group, as did John Milligan, chairman of the Washington Times Guild Unit. Col. Beverly Ober, executive officer, first division of the National Recovery Administration, which had been created by Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal administration, said a few words.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the group selected James F. King of the Baltimore Post interim president with Thomas M. O’Neill, of The Evening Sun, as temporary secretary, and with 35 signing Newspaper Guild membership cards.

Meeting again on March 26, 1934, in the rooms of the Press Club, 44 members representing The Sun, The Evening Sun, the Baltimore Post and the Baltimore News elected permanent Guild officers. Ernest von Hartz was elected president; Clinton Johnson, vice president; H. Bowen Smith, secretary; and Henry Jarrett, treasurer. The executive committee was composed of George Ruark, Robert L. Thompson and Frances Turner.

The first action of BNG was to send a telegram to Heywood Broun, president of the American Newspaper Guild, forerunner of the Newspaper Guild, notifying him of the dismissal, on 12 hours’ notice, of 30 editorial employees of the Baltimore Post, which had just been sold by the Scripps-Howard chain to the Baltimore News. Only six were rehired.

The union was expanding, and in 1935 established a unit at the Afro-American, where nine members elected William Mitchell unit chair.

The National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in 1933 but declared unconstitutional in 1935, mandated a five-day workweek and the Guild wasted no time pressuring Baltimore newspaper publishers to accept the plan.

After the failure of the act, the Sunpapers was the first Baltimore newspaper to impose a six-day, 40-hour workweek. The News-Post followed a week later with a six-day, 48-hour workweek.

While not bringing more pay or benefits, the longer workweek did bring increased union membership and activism.

Despite winning a representational election at the Sunpapers in 1939, the ANG was unable in bargaining to obtain an acceptable contract.
After World War H, the Guild renewed its organizing efforts. Employees at the News-Post organized a management-controlled company union.

“The Guild sought better wages, improved working conditions, and a pension system. The company policy and tradition had been to deal with employees in a paternalistic way in sickness and old age. Pensions were granted by the board on an individual basis ‘in accordance with each case,’ wrote Harold A. Williams, former Sunday Sun editor, in his book, “The Baltimore Sun: 1837-1987.”

Richard K. Tucker, a former Evening Sun reporter, told Williams, “The unwritten attitude often was for you to be working here will look good on your resume – you should think of the paper as doing you a favor. If some other paper were to offer you $10 a week more, goodbye. Just don’t come back and expect The Sun to hire you.”

In January 1949, the National Labor Relations Board ordered an election for newsroom employees at The Sun. Executive editor Neil H. Swanson, in a letter to employees, urged them to reject the Guild.

This tactic backfired. News-side employees voted to be represented by the Guild. Local 54 was established.

“Starting salary for reporters, copy editors, and photographers was set at $40 a week, $87.50 after four years,” according to Williams.

In 1952, another representation election added advertising, promotion, circulation, building and maintenance and other departments to the Sunpapers unit.

Aseminal year for both the local and the Sunpapers was 1965.

By April 1964, the Baltimore and Washington locals had already combined forces. In advance of 1965 negotiations, The Sun questioned the Washington local’s right to represent Sun employees. The Washington local claimed bargaining rights before the labor board and was upheld.

Relations were not good as The Sun and the Guild began bargaining. On April 15, 1965, the Guild’s contract expired, and employees invoked the time-honored principle of no contract, no work.

The company had no new contract offer on the table – a tactical mistake. In effect, it dared the union to walk out.

With a whoop and a holler, across Calvert Street in a street-level room at the former Loyola High School, Guild members didn’t just walk; they ran over to the newspaper’s sidewalks and formed large picket lines. They were joined that weekend by former Sunpapers people from all along the East Coast.

It was the first strike in the company’s history. Two days later, when other unions refused to cross Guild picket lines, publication ceased.

Ernest F. Imhoff, then a striking Evening Sun reporter who also was a stringer for Newsweek, furnished information to the magazine that resulted in a May 3, 1965, story.

Imhoff’s reports helped lift the curtain and give readers nationwide an inside view of an industry much glamorized by Hollywood yet indifferent to its workers.
“The Baltimore Sun is rightly regarded as one of the best newspapers in the nation,” wrote Newsweek.

“But The Sun has another, less publicized side. Despite a net worth of more than $20 million, The Sun’s prestige over the years has been matched by management’s reputation, among many staffers, for penuriousness. There is no employee medical program; company lifeinsurance policies pay only $300; and even to park on the paper’s lot costs an employee $9 ‘a month. ‘They treat us,’ said one editorial-page writer last week, ‘with calculated contempt.”‘

Aturning point came early in June, when national leadership of the ITU (the composing room) withdrew the Baltimore chapel’s travel cards to work in other cities. No longer able to work at other papers, the printers crossed the picket line; the Sunpapers resumed publication.

Unexpectedly, the Baltimore public, mostly inactive to that point, rose up in protest. The paper’s switchboard was deluged with subscription cancellations; bundles of newspapers, dropped off as usual by delivery trucks, were thrown down storm drains. At 501 N. Calvert St., the company decided to settle.

This was accomplished by both sides agreeing the main issues (wages and union security) would be arbitrated by a three-man panel: Dr. Otto Kraushaar, president of Goucher College (representing the governor); attorney Raymond Cluster (representing the mayor); and Francis X. Gallagher, diocesan counsel (representing Cardinal Lawrence Shehan).

The strike ended June 4. Salaries were increased, a dues checkoff policy was begun, and seven out of 10 new employees were required to join the Guild. (The arbitrators put the seven of 10 new-joins figure at the same percentage as the pre-strike employee vote supporting the Guild. In later bargaining, this became eight out of 10.)

Fringe benefits were increased and pensions were standardized, replacing the old system, in which they were doled out to favorite employees at the whim of the company’s board of directors. The company began paying for medical insurance.

In 1970, the Guild observed Web Pressmen’s Union Local 31 strike, which closed the Sunpapers for 74 days. A threeday strike in June 1978 following the expiration of the Guild contract did not disrupt publication.

The unit’s most recent strike against the Sunpapers occurred in June 1987, a month after the newspaper celebrated its 150th anniversary. A main issue was whether Guild-covered employees would have to pay increasing health insurance premiums while The Sun’s contribution level remained frozen. At the end of the six-day strike, the Guild agreed to share the cost, at a percentage level of 11.5. That figure held until 1997.

In May 1989, when a new vendor took over the cafeteria with plans to fire the seven employees in the Canteen Unit of Local 35, the Guild led a companywide boycott (even managers and supervisors stayed away) of the cafeteria until all the workers were satisfactoiily placed. During the boycott, the fired workers gave out sodas under the viaduct, and came to the cafeteria for brown-bag lunches.

In 1990, The Sun opened its printing facility at Sun Park. Guild employees in the building department – electricians, building mechanics, machinists, janitors, maintenance assistants – went to work there. Part of the contract gives these employees the right to choose the shift and site they want to work in.

At the end of 1991, 7he Sun offered a buyout to anyone in Guild jurisdiction and all its managers with six months’ seniority. More than 300 employees left The Sun through February 1992 – 250 of them from Guild-covered jobs.

In mid-1992, in keeping with the agreement called Sunburst, suburban-edition employees, previously on a two-tier wage system, gained downtown wage scales and benefits, giving many of them substantial raises.

On September 15, 1995, The Evening Sun closed. Its newsroom employees were transferred to the morning paper. Seniority language protecting their jobs had been in the contract since 1990. In December 1997, in accordance with a ruling by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, the Promotions and Events and Sunspot (online) departments were added to the Guild unit.