Part II: Other Stories to Tell
3. Why and How a Newspaper Union Got Started – At the Cleveland Press
The American Newspaper Guild, the union for newspaper reporters and editors, had its beginnings in the editorial office of The Cleveland Press in the 1930s.
Publishers and newspaper owners only had themselves to blame. Pay for news people was pathetic. For example, copy boys — the traditional entry position for aspiring reporters – were paid $15 for a 40-hour week. That’s a starvation wage of 37 1/2 cents an hour.
Two women telephone operators who staffed the switchboard in the city room were off duty from 5 p.m. Saturday until 5 p.m. Sunday, but calls had to be handled in the city room on a 24-hour basis. The solution was to break up the 24-hour period into three eight-hour shifts to be handled by copy boys. For these so-called “dog watch” shifts, the copy boys were paid an additional $2. That’s 25 cents an hour. And that was overtime work. The copy boys had already worked their 40 hours for the week. There was a sufficient number of copy boys that most would get a “dog watch” shift only once a month.
One copy boy, however — married at age 20 and only earning $17.50 a week — was so desperate to earn extra money that he volunteered to work the 5 p.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday shift every week.
He worked a regular eight-hour shift on Saturday and then remained for an additional eight hours, receiving 25 cents an hour for his extra time. Reporters with three or more years of experience — so-called journeymen — often were paid $20 to $25 a week in the early 1930s. It is no wonder, then, that there was a massive turnout in 1933 when veteran writers Robert Bordner and Garland Ashcraft called a meeting in The Press city room to discuss forming a union.
Even though many of the writers were receiving a lesser wage than the City of Cleveland was paying its garbage collectors and street sweepers, there was a reluctance on the part of many in attendance to join, or form, anything called a union. After much debate, it was decided to call any newly formed organization the Cleveland Editorial Employees Association.
Within months it became known as the Cleveland Newspaper Guild and by the end of the year it was recognized as Local No. 1 of the American Newspaper Guild. In Cleveland the first Newspaper Guild contract was signed with the Cleveland News, the afternoon competition of The Press, in 1934. It provided for a $45 weekly minimum for journeymen reporters with at least three years’ experience.
Many Cleveland News reporters saw their wages doubled over night. John Rees, a veteran police reporter for the News, celebrated when his income skyrocketed from $20 to $45 a week.
Meanwhile, at The Press, Editor Seltzer was still keeping a tight lid on the payroll. His standard merit increase was $2.50 and that only came after what seemed like months of negotiation.
Reporters seeking a raise in pay first had to call on Seltzer’s secretary, Ralph Shurtleff, and request permission to see the editor. Hearing the reason for the visit, Shurtleff would tell the staff member to wait on the bench in the hall, outside the editor’s office, until called. There, every passing reporter on his way to the elevator to leave the building would see the staff member on the bench and would be certain what he was waiting to discuss.
Once called into the inner sanctum, the reporter would make his memorized speech for more money only to hear Seltzer say he needed more time to study the situation, ending the session with the comment, “See me next Tuesday.” Unfailingly, the reporter would be back in the editor’s office the next Tuesday, only once more to have the session ended with the refrain, “See me next Tuesday.”
This would seem to go on for months before the $2.50 would finally be granted, by which time the reporter felt he would soon have to start negotiating all over again.
The “Tuesday” refrain became so familiar around the office that when skits were put on by staff members at holiday parties, without fail some “actor” would mouth a “See me Tuesday” comment to the accompaniment of loud guffaws from the audience.
In 1936, two years after the News contract, a contract was signed between The Press and the Newspaper Guild. The same $45 weekly minimum was established. One journeyman reporter then making $25 a week was dismissed. Management felt he was not worth an extra $20 a week. Among other provisions, the contract called for an eight-hour day, 40-hour week.
The time came (I’m not certain of the year) when U.S. Labor Department agents came to The Press and privately interviewed staff members on a no-name basis to see if The Press was violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay time and a half wages for overtime worked. Fearful of jeopardizing their jobs, many staffers denied that was the common practice. Nevertheless, shortly after, The Press started to pay 1 1/2 times for overtime and in later contracts with the Guild an extra 10 percent was guaranteed for night shifts and for holiday work.
Editor Seltzer often times declared to staff members that if he were a working newspaperman himself, he would be a member of the Guild. Because future contracts with the Newspaper Guild provided for salary increases or increasingly higher minimum salaries for certain jobs, merit increases became a rarity on the paper. Perhaps Seltzer’s tight-fisted approach on salaries was a reflection of tight budgetary restrictions imposed on him by Scripps-Howard.
During World War II, I was named Labor Editor of the paper. Part of my assignment was to cover the weekly meetings of the AFL and CIO central bodies and then to return to the office and write my story on the meeting and leave it in the city editor’s mail box for publication in the next day’s paper.
Those were overtime hours which were reimbursed at the time and a half rate. One of the labor groups met on the first and third Wednesday of the month, the other on the second and fourth Wednesday. I hated those four months when there were five Wednesdays. No labor meeting that night meant I earned less money that week.
One day after the war, Norman Shaw, associate editor, called me over to the desk of Harding Christ, managing editor, to tell me that I was being promoted to assistant city editor. I was to get a $3 weekly increase, he told me. “What about the overtime pay I will be losing?” I asked. “Overtime belongs with the job, not the individual,” he told me.
“When I go home I’m going to have a hard time convincing my wife that I got a promotion when I tell her I will be making less money,” I said. The raise was increased to $5 a week. But the promotion still cost me money. My successor as Labor Editor was Tom Boardman, who later succeeded Louis Seltzer as editor of The Press.