December 7, 2012
Fifty years ago, a strike that changed New York publishing
by Kelly Burdick
Fifty years ago this month Local No. 6 of the International Typographical Union (I.T.U.), a union confederation known by the nickname the “Big Six,” went to war with New York’s newspaper guild. As recounted in a delightful conjuring of the union’s famed strike in Vanity Fair, Scott Sherman writes that:
The showdown of 1962–63 pitted around 17,000 newspaper employees—pressmen, photoengravers, paper handlers, reporters, elevator operators, office boys—against the owners and publishers of seven New York City newspapers, who were determined to curtail the influence of Big Six and nine other clamorous unions. Over the next 114 days, 600 million newspapers would go unprinted; newspaper-obsessed New Yorkers would be forced to navigate their metropolis without them. … The strike would put a decisive end to New York as a boisterous newspaper town, one that in the 1920s had possessed 19 dailies.
The results of the strike ran the gamut, with:
Three hundred and fifty blind, crippled, and elderly newsdealers were forced out of business; 5,000 hotel and restaurant workers were discharged; welfare agencies reported that, without the ads they placed in newspapers, offers to take in orphaned and needy children dropped from roughly 100 per month to zero; charity balls were canceled. Without printed obituaries, attendance at wakes and funerals declined, and flower shops suffered.
But there were positive consequences too. A group of editors thought it a good time to launch a serious magazine about books and founded the New York Review of Books. Now-famous writers like Nora Ephron, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese took advantage of their time off to start writing magazine pieces. As Tom Wolfe tells Sherman,
The strike had good unintended consequences, which is to say I was forced to start freelancing. I had never written a magazine article in my life, except for little trivial things in Sunday supplements. You had a choice of walking on a picket line carrying a sign and getting strike pay from the union, which was pretty meager, or just taking your chances.
Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.