Forty Years Ago This Month: The Providence Newspaper Strike

Sep 18, 2013

By most measures, a September 1973 strike by workers at the Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin was a failure. By voting to end the strike, newspaper employees agreed to accept the very contract they had rejected two weeks earlier. Some members of the Providence Newspaper Guild lost their jobs. Publication of the Journal and Bulletin continued uninterrupted through the strike. And the outcome was among the signs of a weakening labor movement, foreshadowing the Brown & Sharpe strike in 1981 among other setbacks.

Yet participants in the strike say they succeeded in achieving their real goal: preserving the Guild, thereby continuing a commitment to quality reporting and setting the stage for a string of more friendly contracts in the years to come.

"For those of us on the picket lines, it was a life-changing event, in which we put our careers at risk for what I believed were very high-purposes -- keeping the union alive against what we saw as a union destroying campaign by Journal management," Brian C. Jones, who spent 36 years as a ProJo reporter, tells me via email. "It sounds naive, but I and many others equated the union with good journalism; that a fairly paid group of workers, protected by a contract, could build professional careers, and speak out when necessary for quality journalism."

The strike began on September 13, 1973. It ended September 25, 1973.

The Guild, which is heading into new negotiations, plans to hold an ice cream social Wednesday afternoon, from 2 to 5, to mark the anniversary of the strike. (The old Evening Bulletin ceased publication in the mid-90s.)

A documentary video created for the Guild features reminiscences by Jones and others about the 1973 labor action, including reporter Greg Smith, who recalls being a young cub at the time.

One of the great stories about the strike is how Jack White, then a reporter in the ProJo's Newport bureau, walked the picket line while keeping in his back pocket a story that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize; how Richard Nixon had cheated on his income taxes. (White, who for many years was the investigative reporter at WPRI-TV, Channel 12, died in 2005; his son, Tim, now holds the same position with Channel 12.) Jones says Jack White "picketed so long and so diligently that at one point he needed crutches."

The strike "was raucous," Jones recalls, "with spirited picket lines whipped up with cheerleaders yelling into megaphones. Sit-ins were conducted to try to keep distribution trucks from leaving the building. Phony 'battles' were held in the middle of Fountain Street to 'intimidate' craft union members, whose contracts compelled them to work unless the blue-collar workers were too 'frightened' to cross the white-collar picket lines. Many Guild members were arrested -- myself included -- and thrown into the Providence police lockup over night or, in my case, for hours."

Labor peace prevailed at the ProJo for about a quarter-century after the 1973 strike. Management-Guild relations deteriorated after the Dallas-based Belo Corporation (now known as A.H. Belo) bought the newspaper in 1997, leading to fresh accusations of union-busting and a bitter contract stalemate that stretched for almost four years before ending in 2003.

The close vote for the 1973 strike took place on the 18th floor of the Providence Biltmore.

Jones remembers the strike "as an emotional, reckless step following a draining series of negotiations in which the Guild had voted to accept a distasteful company offer." A key point of contention was management's insistence that the union give up its rights to receive retroactive pay under its expiring contract.

One legacy of the strike is the annual Providence Newspaper Guild Follies -- a scathing send-up of the year in Rhode Island news, accompanied by a cholesterol-laden buffet and drinks, at the Venus de Milo in Swansea, Massachusetts. The Follies were launched in 1974 as a way to help heal rifts from the strike.

In the heyday of newspapers, strikes happened from time to time. A 1963 strike at the New York Times lasted for 114 days, and in an unusual step, then-publisher Orvil Dryfoos championed an unexpurgated examination of the episode by the paper's labor reporter, Abe Raskin.

These days, of course, newspapers and their employees are more concerned with trying to hang on in a fast-changing media landscape. Yet the memory of 1973 remains vivid for Brian Jones, who recalls living in fear of losing his job.

"Looking back, it was a proud time for me and for others in the union," he says. "We had undertaken what seemed an impossible challenge: to stand up to one of the state's most powerful institutions and to hold on for nearly two daunting weeks. The strike was done the wrong way, for the wrong reasons. But the idealism [that drove the walkout] won out in the end. The union survived, flourished and contributed to" the Journal remaining "a place where talented people could build careers and do good work."