Marty Walsh settles into a metal chair inside the Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge in North Park and allows himself to savor some memories of the American newspaper business. Marty, now 62. toiled in the pressroom of the mighty Chicago Tribune, once the domain of the legendary Col. Robert McCormick, in an era Marty today finds painfully distant.
"Colonel McCormick used to come out in the pressroom and shake hands. He would tell the pressmen, if you got a problem, you come and see me. If you got a ticket from a policeman, and it wasn't a fair ticket, they would straighten it out. you know? Somebody would get on the phone and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing to our people here?’ He took care of the people. It was a family."
Marty has to shout to make himself heard above the juke box in the lodge's dingy inner sanctum. A fellow Eagle, his legs crippled, drags himself past the table with a battered aluminum walker.
Despite Marty’s big-city bravado and 45 years as a faithful member of the pressmen’s union, he doesn’t seem entirely used to his new role as president of San Diego Local 432-M of the Graphic Communications International Union, the new name for his old pressmen’s international. His upset election this January came after no one else stepped forward to take on the incumbent, and it surprised even Marty himself.
“Being an American, I don’t like to see white ballots, okay? I thought somebody had to run against somebody, so I put my name on to run. I won by two or three votes at most.” Marty shrugs and runs his hand through his shock of white hair. “I didn’t do any campaigning.” The incumbent, Marty notes, went down to defeat on a single issue. “They voted against him because of how he handled the contract.”
These days, Marty works for the San Diego Union-Tribune, which has been fighting with the labor unions that represent the bulk of its employees. Marty’s 120 or so fellow union members went without a contract for 15 months before signing a new labor agreement with the U-T last October. The mailers’ union, which represents about 100 people who stuff advertising inserts into each Union and Tribune, also concluded an agreement two months later.
The Newspaper Guild, which claims to represent most of the 1150 reporters, advertising sales people, and circulation employees at the U-T’s Mission Valley plant, has failed to obtain a contract after almost two years of bargaining. The typographers’ union, which negotiates on behalf of about 80 composing-room workers, is in the same situation.
But according to Marty, the pressmen’s new contract gave away so much that the workers would have been better off with nothing at all. The deal was so lousy, he insists, that it touched off bitter resentment among the workers and led to his election as union president. “We have a contract now, but it's not a contract. We lost our security clause” — the union shop.
The pressmen, he notes, also agreed to cross the picket lines of other labor unions at the plant should those unions ever go out on strike. “That’s another thing I think that’s in the contract, that you’re not supposed to deal or mingle with other unions; but that’s taking away from the rights of an American!” He shifts violently forward in his seat and brings both hands down hard on the table. Marty claims the representative from the union’s Washington headquarters gave his local bum advice during negotiations.
"America today to me is ‘the easy way out,’ okay? He came down here, and he has other places to go, and so he instructed them that this was the way things were goin’ throughout the United States, and they would be probably best to pursue this contract and get it wrapped up, and the body bought it."
Marty claims that notices for a meeting one night last autumn with the union representative didn't mention that the contract would be up for a vote at the same time, and so he skipped the event. ‘‘Now, if they’d had other people at that meeting, there would have been a lot of challenges made, okay?” He says he wishes he’d been there to confront the representative from the international. “He must have overseed ’em and pumped ’em up to get this contract ratified. The only reason I feel I got into office is that there was a lot of people that were dissatisfied with it, and like I said, they didn’t vote for me, they just voted against [the contract]."
An early '50s pop song begins to blare from the juke box, and some of the lodge members start to shout and pound the bar, forcing Marty to raise his voice again. “I don’t think there was anybody who liked the contract. The only thing that they liked was that they know they got a job for three more years, and they can make their payments and survive for three more years.” But now, Marty says, “A lot of their attitude is, what’s going to happen in three years?"
The question lingers in his tired eyes before giving way to fleeting thoughts of a kinder past. “My father was a pressman, my two brother-in-laws were pressmen. I come from a family of being in the pressroom. I’ve seen a tremendous change. First of all, newspapers went from family-owned to business, okay? Newspapers today are no longer like a family. They’re just like anywhere else. You’re just a number to them, an android, okay?”
The din at the bar grows louder, but Marty ignores it. He lifts his arms above his head in an awkward gesture of frustration. Twenty years ago, he says, a pressman could travel anywhere in America and find a well-paying job at a big daily newspaper, but things are different now. Newspapers are closing and consolidating, there is fierce competition for the remaining work, and the old combative spirit is gone from organized labor.