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Technological changes in printing: union response in three countries.

Recent developments in union organization in the newspaper printing industry in three countries--the United States, Great Britain, and the Federal Republic of germany--demonstrate considerable variety in the degree to which workers have been able to retain control over the immediatee labor process in the face of unprecedented technological change. Much of the variability is a function of adapting older organizational styles to new circumstances. Whereas the interests of workers in the industry formerly were well-served by a "craft unionism" model, the urgency of moving toward an "industrial unionism" model is becoming apparent.

The classic craft model of industrial organization is best exemplified by the situation in the United States and Great Britain prior to the onset of the major technological changes of the past two decades. Under this model, each of the major crafts in the industry--compositors, stereotypers, platemakers, and press operators--maintains its own union organization and apprenticeship program. I will argue that there are two intermediate phases in the transition to industrial unionism: a quasi-craft model, best exemplified by the current position of U.S. printing unions, and a quasi-industrial model, which is approximated by the situation in Great Britain today. The industrial model of union organization, historically rare in printing and similar industries, is best demonstrated by the Federal Republic of Germany throughout the entire post-World War II era.

The United States

Traditionally, one could expect to encounter as many as 10 unions at a single major U.S. newspaper. While this situation still exists at a few papers, the trend has been toward either industry-level mergers of major craft unions or decertification of one or more bargaining units in a given plant. Today there are three major unions in the industry: The Newspaper Guild, composed of reporters, editors, and a few other white-collar workers; the International Typographical Union (ITU), consisting mainly of composing room and mailroom workers; and the recently created Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU), representing pressroom and ancillary workers.

A survey of the ITU's Typographic Journal over the past 10 years reveals the reasons for the spate of mergers and for the current disarray among workers in the U.S. printing trades. New technology has radically altered traditional roles among the various function of the newspaper, eroding craft jurisdiction over many jobs and creating the need for a more united front against employers. Nowhere has this been more true than among composing room workers, as technological advances threaten to eliminate all composing room functions within the next generation. ITU leaders have called for the formation of "one big union" for the industry, but old cleavages have provided difficult to overcome.

After a merger with the Mailers Union in 1979, the ITU twice was unsuccessful in completing merger negotiations with the Guild. The second failed attempt in 1983 set the tone for a turbulent year during which the national leadership of the union as well as the rank and file became deeply divided over the future course of the union. The incumbent president sought a merger with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a noncraft union that spans many industries. Other ITU members, fearing that their union's identity would be lost in the Teamsters organization, sought a merger with the only other major craft union in the industry, the newly formed GCIU. In the regular election for the ITU executive board in 1983, the incumbent president and his plan for merger with the Teamsters were voted down. But the president, seeking to close the impending deal with the Teamsters, asked the union's canvassing board to overturn the results of the election on a technicality, which it did.

The national Labor Relations Board, however, stepped in and declared that a new election would have to be held. In a separate action, six dissatisfied ITU members were granted an injunction to block the merger vote with the Teamsters pending the outcome of the new election. In the rerun of the election, held in July 1984, the anti-Teamster challenger and many of his supporters were voted into the union leadership. The new president immediately recanted all past negotiations with the Teamsters and vowed to pursue negotiations with the GCIU. Shortly thereafter, there were were claims that the Teamsters were "raiding" ITU locals. In December 1984, in a decertification election in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Teamsters gained representational rights from the ITU in the composing room and mailroom. The ITU's leadership cautioned members that this was part of a national campaign by the Teamsters to gain a toehold in the printing industry at the expense of their own organization.

Propsects for the transition to an industrial union in the U.S. newspaper industry are not good. A large segment of the labor force remains unorganized. Longstanding rivalries among composing room workers and pressroom workers do not bode well for the merger negotiations between the ITU and the GCIU. Differences among journalists and composing room workers over jurisdiction of cold-type technology remain a point of friction between the Guild and the ITU. The current configuration of union organization in this country can best be labeled a quasi-craft model: Instead of many craft unions in the industry, there are now only three, but the contentiousness inherent in the classic craft system is still evident. Each of the three unions continues to be organized along occupational lines and (in the case of the ITU and GCIU) there are continuing sources of internal friction based on earlier organizational structures (as between mailroom workers and composing room workers in the ITU).

While there are perhaps many reasons for the failure of U.S. printing unions to retain their traditional control over the allocation of work, an important factor has been the belated and defensive nature of the merger pattern. The printing unions, particularly the ITU, were slow to react to the changes wrought by the new technology and, as a result, turned to mergers out of desperation after questions of jurisdiction over the new technology had already been decided by publishers on a plant-by-plant basis. Lacking a coordinated bargaining strategy at either the national or local level, the unions thus were vulnerable to the actions of the publishers, who demonstrated much more solidarity.

Great Britain

On the surface, the structure of union organization in Britain appears very similar to that of the United States. Whereas there were 12 major unions in the newspaper industry in 1948, there are currently three. The union accounting for most of the skilled craft occupations is the National Graphical Association (NGA). Most of the 10 major unions that ultimately affiliated with the NGA had done so by 1967, prior to large-scale implementation of the new technology in British newspapers. The single union to hold out past 1969, the Society of Litho Artists, Designers, Engravers, and Process Workers (SLADE), ultimately affiliated with the NGA in 1982.

The second major union, the Society for Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), resulted from the merger, dissolution, and remerger of two major unions. If one traces back far enough, one can see that SOGAT is the culmination of 35 earlier mergers including workers from all parts of the industry--distributors, warehouse workers, maintenance workers, and so forth. SOGAT is more industrial in orientation than the craft-oriented NGA, but is currently the largest printing union in any European country. The third union in the British newspaper industry, the National union of Journalists (NUJ), organizes reporters and editors. But more than its U.S. counterpart, the Guild, the NUJ seeks a broad-based membership of all white-collar workers in the industry.

In contrast to the situation in the United States, the British trade unions have exhibited considerably more unity in their stance on new technology. The NGA and NUJ have established joint committees dealing with technology issues. In general, the journalists have supported the NGA's contention that composing room workers should maintain jurisdiction over direct input of newspaper material into video display terminals (VDT's). This is an important departure from situations in the United States where this issue has remained a divisive factor between the two worker groups.

A critical feature of the British experience has been the ability to maintain a de facto industrywide solidarity at critical times, in contrast to the relative disorganization of employers. This was was clearly evident in the case of an 11-month strike at the London Times in 1979, during which workers joined ranks to support the NGA's contention that its members should control direct inputting. During the strike, while was formed within the Trade Union Congress (TUC--the British equivalent of the AFL-CIO) to coordinate labor strategy among the different unions and in other parts of the country. The victory that was ultimately achieved by the unions as the Times solidified ties between the NGA and NUJ, and set the pattern for the resolution of other conflicts in Britain. Essentially, composing room workers have retained the right to control the leverage they have with publishers.

The industrywide solidarity demonstrated in the British case suggests that the union configuration in that country is a quasi-industrial one. While the resemblance to a quasi-craft structure is apparent, British unions are much closer to the ultimate goal of achieving an industrial union structure. In 1977, the NGA and SOGAT agreed to a pact concerning jurisdictional rights that has permitted them to coordinate their efforts to organize the nonunion portion of the industry. The NUJ and the NGA have been holding merger negotiations since 1981. All three unions endorse the notion of eventually achieving one union for the industry. Going even further, the NGA has advocated the creation of one union for all print and nonprint media. Pursuant to this goal, it has begun cultivating linkages with the Association of Cinematograph, Television, and Allied Technicians (ACTT). In contrast to their U.S. counterparts, the British trade unions have displayed considerable farsightedness in anticipating the impact of technological changes in their industry and responding accordingly.


The industrial relations system in the Federal Republic of Germany is unique in several respects. First, the entire West German economy is organized on the "one industry-one union" principle. The largest labor organization--the German Trade Union Federation (DGB)--consists of 17 industry-based trade unions, one of them being the Printing and Paper Workers Union (IGDP). This union bargains collectively for all workers in the printing industry except journalists, encompassing composing room workers, pressroom workers, clerical workers, and even security and maintenance personnel. Journalists are represented by a second union, the DJV, but they work in close association with the IGDP because their interests are melded together at the plant level by codetermination. Second, individual workers are not required to join the unions (there is no "closed shop"), but all workers abide by the collective bargaining agreement made on their behalf. Third, through the German model of codetermination, workers and employers are represented on the boards of all sizable firms. Workers are also represented at the plant level by "works councils," which are worker advocate units elected by workers. All workers (including those not belonging to the union) have a vote in electing worker representatives to the board and to the works council. Most plant-level decisions are processed through the codetermination model, which ensures a broad degree of worker participation at all levels of decisionmaking. Fourth, employers are generally represented in collective bargaining by one or more employers' associations, which are also industry-specific. Employers' associations frequently operate at both the state and national levels. Fifth, total breakdown of collective bargaining is rare because of complex mediation processes. A byproduct of this institutional arrangement is that strike activity is comparatively rare, and the workers' right to strike is countervailed by the employers' right to lockout.

Effectively, then, the German newspaper industry is represented by two unions--the IGDP and the DJV. But because of the coordination they exhibit--in collective bargaining and other matters--the German trade union movement approximates the industrial model. The two unions must bargain in tandem in an effort to balance the interests of the various occupational groups under their jurisdiction, a task that sometimes proves unwidely in an industry in which craft lines are still visible. However, as technological advances began to erode traditional craft distinctions during the 1970's, the industrial model proved a fortuitous instrument for maintaining workers solidarity and preventing the lost of union control over the allocation of work.

In 1975, when the threat of optical character recognition (OCR) and VDT equipment became apparent to the IGDP, the union requested negotiations with the employer association in the printing industry (BD). The BD and the state-level associations stalled for nearly a year, but eventually talks began. Nearly a year after the IGDP's original request, the BD entered negotiations over the implementation of new technology. At this point, the IGPD and the DJV made a joint proposal for rules governing utliziation of the new equipment, basically centering on the restriction of the number of hours journalists could work on VDT's and upon the maintenance of wage scales for composing room workers who moved to VDT's.

After several months of unfruitful negotiations and employer counteroffers, the union requested mediation of the dispute. In November 1977, the IGDP rejected the proposals of the mediators. After a brief renewal of the negotiations, talks were broken off by the BD. Having exhausted every alternative, the IGDP voted overwhelmingly to conduct a selective strike against five of the largest newspapers on February 28, 1978. In Retaliation, the BD ordered 25 of its remaining plants to begin a lockout, hoping to divide the workers who were striking from those who were locked out. But because of the disunity among employers, only 7 of the 25 firms followed the lockout order. On March 2, the IGDP and the BD simultaneously remained in force for most of the month. Finally, on March 28, 1978, the employers capitulated and signed a 5-year contract implementing most of the union demands. Among the key features of the agreement were job security measure, health/safety measures for working with VDT's, and a "social plan" for retaining and reassigning displaced workers to jobs agreeable to those workers. Composing room workers were "upgraded" to salaried status with no loss of income.

The industrial model ultimately worked to the advantage of the German newspaper workers because it created the basis for achieving a uniform nationwide agreement on printing technology. In contrast to the U.S. and British situations, craft demarcations did not inhibit the process of adjustment as technology was introduced. Also, contrary to the U.S. situation but somewhat akin to the British, publishers displayed confusion and disunity that ultimately led to an agreement favorable to the workers. Because of the industrial level of the negotiations, the German agreement was more comprehensive and holds better prospects for a permanent solution than either the U.S. or British examples. For all these reasons, the industrial model seems a more desirable approach for unions which must adapt to rapid technological changes in the newspaper industry.
COPYRIGHT 1985 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:adapted from paper presented at Thirty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the Industrial Relations Research Association, Dallas, Texas, December 1984
Author:Wallace, Michael
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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