Notes from the Scrap Heap: A Lifetime in the Typographical Trade, Part 2

For the first twenty-one years of my working life I could rely on my fast and accurate fingers to keep me employed. Furthermore, many people at that time were required in the printing process, far more than now. It’s funny, but in the 1960s we thought of automation as some kind of Rossum’s Universal Robot (even shaped like a person) who would replace a person on the assembly line. We had no idea that it would turn out to be software that enabled a relatively inexpensive computing device to replace about thirty people with one person.

I survived thirty-nine years in the typographical trade, longer than just about anyone in the “cold type” era. It was the one thing I could do better than just about anyone else.

Late in 1976 I first began using an editing terminal with a cathode-ray monitor. In 1977 I was introduced to the floppy disk and to the woman whom I would marry two years later, both of whom worked in the composing room that I was supervising.

I walked away from my youth in 1978. I bought my house in Sparta, got married, started a family, and—relevant to the memoir that I’m sharing with you now—I “got my card.” This expression may seem quaint to many readers, or, more likely, it may have no meaning at all, and that’s an unfortunate thing. The card in question is a journeyman’s working card in the Newark Typographical Union, Local 103 of the International Typographical Union (ITU). Neither the ITU nor Local 103 exist today, and that is also an unfortunate thing. At the time I was sworn in, the ITU was the oldest continually existing trade union in the United States, with roots that went back before the Civil War. It had a proud history: it was one of the first trade unions to admit women members; at the turn of the 20th century, its contracts specified a 48-hour work week, which was reduced to 40 hours during the Great Depression as a way of sharing the work among all members. Its decision making structure was one of the most democratic in the entire labor movement.

My working card was not something I carried in my wallet. It was deposited with the chapel chairman each year; in fact, I never saw it until it had expired. The local would send my card to the chairman, who would record my dues payments on it each month. At the end of the year, he (or sometimes she) would give me the completed card so that I could use my dues as a deduction on my income tax.

Chapel chairman? Yes, that is an unusual term. I have no idea where the tradition came from—probably from the old English guilds—but our shop units were called “chapels.” The chairman of the chapel was the “go-to-guy” or “go-to-gal” for any problems that might arise between a member and the management. In most unions, the term for this office is “shop steward” or “job steward.”

In the old days, the chairman was responsible for collecting dues, but that responsibility had long since fallen by the wayside in favor of “dues checkoff,” whereby a member’s dues were deducted from his or her paycheck and sent directly to the union. Our dues were a percentage of what we earned: if our scale committee negotiated a particularly good contract, we would give back by paying more dollars to the union. In my first years, overtime pay was also subject to percentage dues. We had one worker—he worked on the mark-up desk on the night shift—who pulled so much overtime that when he deducted all those dues on his taxes, it triggered an IRS audit!

The chairman was also supposed to be responsible for allocating overtime work, too, but that rule was also for the most part ignored. However, in the Typographical Union the shift foremen had to be union members, so in theory the union still had control of sharing the overtime. When a chapel member worked overtime, he or she was responsible for posting it on a bulletin board for all to see. If any member of the local was out of work, he or she could come into the shop as a substitute and claim the shift of anyone who had posted overtime. This system worked in the days of hot-metal line casting, when any journeyman could work on any equipment in any composing room. By the 1980s the world had changed: every shop had different equipment and different work procedures. The days when “subs” would be waiting outside the composing room to be hired for a shift were long gone.

When I started working in a union shop from day one I had four weeks’ vacation. I had a health plan that covered my entire family, and it covered everything. I had a pension plan—a real pension, not a 401(k) plan that was dependent on the vicissitudes of Wall Street and the boss’s business fortunes. The pay was good. How the world has changed since those years! But don’t let anyone tell you that union workers don’t work hard. They do, and I did.

I was put on the night shift: 6:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. But that was only straight time. If I was asked to work overtime—and in my first years that averaged twice a week—I would work until 5:30 a.m. and get four hours at time-and-a-half for it. Any night—or morning, I should say—going past 5:30 would be paid at double-time. If I were asked to work on a Saturday or holiday I would be paid time-and-a-half for the first four hours I worked and double-time for the next three-and-a-half hours.

Anything that came in on a given day was due out by the morning. No exceptions. If it couldn’t be done on straight time, overtime was authorized. And the workers wanted it, to be sure. Nearly all of my co-workers had several children, a hefty mortgage, car payments, and all the other expenses that working families face. That overtime money was far more important than weekends or holidays—or sleep for that matter.

Those hours took their toll on all of us, even if we weren’t conscious of it. After my first year, the night supervisor in the composing room had his second heart attack and on doctor’s orders he quit and took a less stressful job: word was he got a job filling cigarette vending machines—remember those? A year later, we heard that he had his third heart attack. This one was fatal. He was 38 years old.

A lot of the workers never made it to retirement. To be sure, it wasn’t entirely the long hours. Most of them drank too much, ate too much, and smoked too much (and in my opinion one cigarette is too much). Regular exercise wasn’t something one could do when working from 6:30 in the evening until 5:30 in the morning.

The lobster shift (12:00 midnight to 7:00 a.m.) foreman got liver cancer and passed away at age 46. The general foreman made it to the age of 64. The fellow that worked two machines down from me had a stroke in his middle 50s that left him unable to speak and partially paralyzed. However, this was the world that most of my co-workers had always inhabited. I found it telling how few of them had fathers who were still living, even though most of them were not much older than I.

As it turned out, both the company and the union were victims of their own successes. It’s a natural thing: when you find a way that works, whether it’s in business or anything, you stick with it, and you’re reluctant to change. The union did very well in the hot-metal composing rooms in the daily newspapers and job shops. When offset printing and phototypesetting came along, the union was reluctant to organize in the new shops using that process, thinking foolishly that union power could defeat an emerging technology. The majority of the graphic arts industry became non-union and was able to undersell the union shops—and this was before the advent of desktop publishing.

The company as well had a winning formula, with a clientèle made up of the top agencies on Madison Avenue and Fortune 500 companies. The assumption was that if we had proofs ready for them first thing in the morning that they would pay any amount of money. I was disabused of that notion when I had a discussion with a project manager at an ad agency. He told me that he was getting killed with type shop pricing. He showed me the figures, and said, “we just can’t go on this way.”

I shared what I had heard with co-workers, but no one was much interested in more efficient ways of working that might cut costs. The guys wanted their overtime, and who could blame them? We didn’t know it, but the greatest technological revolution probably in human history was beginning right under our noses.

In the early 1980s engineers at Adobe Systems developed a language enabling not only typesetting but page layout to be done on the new invention, the personal computer. Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1984, and within a year it was driving a printer which could generate letters and images by means of a laser beams, which would create a charge on paper causing copier toner to adhere to it. Aldus introduced PageMaker, and at the Palo Alto Research Center, Xerox developed an ingenious program called Ventura Publisher. Some years earlier Xerox had actually created the first Graphic User Interface, for the first time enabling the user actually to see what he or she was creating—type to size, images in place, the whole nine yards. Xerox had no idea what a gold mine lay under its feet, but Steve Jobs (co-founder of Apple Computer) did—but that’s another story, the subject of an entertaining TV movie called “The Pirates of Silicon Valley.” See it!

In 1987 a little Colorado company, best known for a cute word processing program for the Apple II called “Word Juggler” combined the best features of PageMaker and Ventura. The company’s name was Quark, and their program was called QuarkXPress. Within two years of its introduction, it had become the industry standard.

To be sure, our company management saw what was going on and did its best to get in on it, even if the union was afraid of it. I even sat down with the company president and members of the sales staff and made a suggestion that we look at IBM-PC based desktop publishing as well as that based on the Macintosh. They actually took me seriously!

Unfortunately, the company was not independent: it was a subsidiary of a conglomerate corporation, whose management decided that with all the changes going on in the graphic arts that it would no longer be profitable for our company to continue to exist. The problem was not so much that we weren’t keeping up with the technology: it was much more insidious than that. The problem was that people working in the new technology were being paid a fraction of what we were being paid, and there was no way we could compete in the open market. The union’s failure to organize those working in new technologies proved to be our death, and that trend continues to this day.

The company closed its doors in the fall of 1992. Most of us found new jobs quickly; I never even had a chance to file for unemployment benefits. But this was 1992—and almost none of us had heard of something called “The Internet.”

The Internet changed everything. For one thing, even those lower pay scales that caused our management to close us down could not stand up against the foreign competition opened up by the Internet. Our work can now be outsourced to countries where people are paid about ten percent of even prevailing non-union pay in the United States.

But we’ll talk about that in the next post.

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