Home I Am Madison Newspaper Strike of 1977 Brought Solidarity, but Left Wounds

Newspaper Strike of 1977 Brought Solidarity, but Left Wounds

The Carroll Street HQ of Madison Newspapers, Inc. Wisconsin Historical Society photo

White collar workers striking on behalf of their blue collar colleagues isn’t something you hear about every day. In most professions that have divisions of labor, changes that are made affect the hardest working and least paid people first.

In the late 1970’s, the old world of journalism began to come face to face with technological advancements that would effectively end entire elements of the newspaper business. Eventually, online outlets would threaten the existence of print altogether.

In Madison during that era, both of the city’s daily newspapers were housed together in one downtown building on Carroll Street.  On the first floor was Madison Newspapers Inc, which handled the circulation of both of Madison’s newspapers at the time. On the second floor was the Capital Times, which was the afternoon publication, and on the third floor was the Wisconsin State Journal, which ran in mornings and on Sundays.

Back then, newspapers had reporters typing their articles in a newsroom and sending them in to a composer to become printed. But as a new wave of technology hit, reporters began using computers to type their stories and transmit them electronically. It was more efficient, but also cut out the need for the second employee to be the composer.

Across the country newspaper companies were beginning to downsize their staffs due to computer technology. This was causing tension because most papers had unionized workers, who were feeling the sting of layoffs.

At the same time, Lee Enterprises, which was based in Davenport, IA, and had a history of getting rid of organized labor in its plants, bought the Wisconsin State Journal and the Cap Times.

As Lee Enterprises eradicated the organized unions that employees had been part of for decades, the Madison plant was one of the last unionized plants in the Lee Enterprises chain.

Around 1976, Lee Enterprises became a publicly traded company and so they wanted to clear out all the unions right down to the last one in Madison.

Ron McCrea, who was working at the Cap Times in 1976, says he never saw a company act as callously with its employees.

“I worked for New York Newsday, The Washington Post, The Washington Star,” McCrea told Madison365. “All of them went through it (the layoffs), but none of them did it as brutally as the Madison Newspapers did it.”

When a new automated typing system was introduced in the newsroom in April of 1976, Madison Newspapers cut the number of printing employees by a third and cut them out of seniority.

“So, older and disabled printers were laid off first. Women were laid off first as well and everyone was shocked,” McCrea said. “The union, of course, filed suit against the company and it went to the National Labor Relations Board.”

A strike was imminent with the bloodbath of layoffs and the hard line Madison Newspapers took. But one last development would hit first, and hit hardest.

Before 1977, the physical plant (where the newspapers were produced) was in downtown Madison. For the company to get its newsprint, the paper would have to be trucked downtown by unionized truckers who belonged to the Teamsters Union. As blue collar as it gets!

But as time wore on between 1974 and 1977, Madison Newspapers moved the physical plant from downtown Madison out to Fish Hatchery Road (where the Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times are located today).

The moving of the plant to Fish Hatchery Road made organizing a picket line difficult for strikers. The optics weren’t as strong as downtown. Furthermore, the Fish Hatchery plant was located on a railway so the company didn’t have to rely on the unionized truckers anyway.

As tensions rose between the unions and Madison Newspapers, many of the journalists, like McCrea, took the side of the blue collar workers being laid off. McCrea says that he was putting his livelihood and future on the line, especially since the journalists had contracts that needed to be negotiated.

“There were five unions and three employers involved,” McCrea said. “None of us were having success in getting contracts. Usually you would have our editors sitting across from us at the bargaining table. But this time we had high priced lawyers across the table from us playing hard ball. They wanted a lot of things that had been won over the years taken out of contracts and they wanted to not give any raises. So none of us had contracts. So, on October 1, 1977, the printers union and the State Journal Union called strikes. The mailers, district managers, pressman also went out as sympathy strikers.”

The tactics of striking workers can vary, depending on how nasty the dispute is. But, according to McCrea, the journalists and workers stayed by the book.

“We were hoping to stop production and to get them back to the table and have a settlement. But that didn’t happen,” McRae said. “The management people had been trained on how to run a paper without union labor, run the presses and things like that. Lee Enterprises brought in strikebreaking press men from out of state. They were all ready to take over our jobs and put our newspaper out of business.  We didn’t occupy the building or tactics like that. And so kind of did the strike by the book and they did not miss a single edition. So then it became a matter of bringing in the community on our side to have it resolved by Thanksgiving.”

But it would not be resolved so quickly. Madison Newspapers decided that the strikebreakers would take on permanent positions. McCrea and those that went on strike would be finished.

The strikers decided to move on to their own venture called the Madison Press Connection. The idea was to get subscribers to cancel their subscriptions to papers like the Capital Times and Wisconsin State Journal, and subscribe to the Madison Press Connection instead.

Strike newspapers are nothing new and usually are short-lived. But the Madison Press Connection went on for 13 weeks reaching 67,000 people. The paper was written in one building in Monona and then printed out in Stoughton.

After a while, the writers got bold and decided to make the Press Connection a daily paper.

“In February 1978, we decided to regroup and go daily, which was audacious,” McCrea said. “Some of the strikers bought printing equipment and we put out a daily six days a week for 20 months. It cost a nickel. So we all thought ‘maybe we’ll become the next new paper’ but we didn’t really have an economic model that worked.”

The winter of 1978 was one of the worst on record in Madison. The strikers, including McCrea, were low on money and many of them were in dire financial straits.

In Spring of 1979, talk about ending the strike started. Some of the pressman went back to work. But only one job was given back to a striker at The Wisconsin State Journal and only 12 strikers returned to the Cap Times.

McCrea was not among them.

“I didn’t go back,” he told Madison365. “For me, I had not ever been thrust into a struggle that was so long. I really don’t know how I managed it financially. I think my parents helped. Our strike benefit was only like $90 per month. People found part-time jobs and helped each other out. The community helped out. It was union democracy at work that I’ll never forget. It cost us all financially and some of us found hard times getting jobs in the paper business.”

McCrea continued to work as a journalist, however. He wrote the book Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home of Love and Loss. He appeared in a number of network documentaries about Frank Lloyd Wright and was the communications director for Governor Tony Earl.

And, ironically, 18 years after the strike, McCrea was invited to return to the Cap Times. He served for a decade as the city editor, which was crazy for him to think about after all he’d been through.

But the wounds of the strike never left him.

“They could have taken advantage of the new technology without being so cruel to the workers they had,” McCrea told Madison365. “Their greed got the best of them in the end. I’ve worked other places where people felt that their labor had some value. We knew that our own fortunes were involved when we walked out in support of blue collar people. I don’t know if white collar people today would do that. They treated them so awfully. They could have made the transition without the strike and it would have been better for the community. The first winter was really brutal. It was one of the worst winters on record in Madison. We were all in it together. So some class barriers got broken down in that. But it would have been better to win.”