The last time Pittsburgh had a newspaper strike, many people didn’t know who died or where to send flowers, even though TV stations broadcast a nightly obituary program with the names, ages and hometowns of the deceased scrolling along with reverent piano music.
The Pirates sold fewer walk-up tickets because fans couldn’t read about the team — although they could call a phone number to get updates: “Thank you for calling the Pirates hotline. The defending National League East champs [seriously] open a three-game … ”
Downtown offices received news briefs from the Post-Gazette by fax machine and distributed copies to employees, with a different second page each day of the week for sports, theater, business, etc.
Even Mayor Sophie Masloff, then 74 years old, missed the City Hall reporters: “Even if they’re saying bad things about me, I want them back on the street,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “I believe in free speech.”
As Pittsburgh sits on the cusp of another newspaper strike, nearly 30 years since the previous one in 1992, the way people find out information obviously has changed dramatically. Readers have multiple methods for finding obituaries, baseball box scores and other news. It seems many people wouldn’t even miss the newspaper now — especially the printed one that comes out only three days a week.
But a newspaper strike today could still send seismic ripples across the local news media landscape, dramatically changing the ways Pittsburghers find out about what goes on.
Five of the Post-Gazette’s unions are working without contracts and deciding now whether to go out on strike. The members of two unions, Pittsburgh Typographical Union #7 and Mailers Local M-22, have unanimously voted in favor of a strike, while the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh is conducting a vote by mail. All three would need approval from their parent union, the Communications Workers of America, before going off the job. It’s not clear how long that could take.
The other two unions are the Teamsters and the pressmen (who are also Teamsters).
Even if members vote in favor of a strike and the parent union authorizes one, workers might not immediately walk out, Newspaper Guild President Mike Fuoco told me. The unions are still hoping to avoid a strike by negotiating with the Post-Gazette on new contracts.
“If we do authorize a strike, that doesn’t mean one is imminent,” Fuoco said. “We have always wanted to negotiate a fair settlement. We feel that a strike is a last option. We feel we can reach a negotiated settlement if the company would negotiate. We’re nowhere near an impasse.”
Actually going on strike could cause unpredictable consequences. During the last newspaper strike, the city’s dominant newspaper, The Pittsburgh Press, owned by Scripps-Howard, never reemerged. The Teamsters’ 600 employees walked off the job in May of 1992 because the company wanted to change circulation practices to eliminate 450 jobs and get rid of all 4,300 boys and girls who delivered the newspaper. (Remember when kids used to deliver the newspaper?)
The Teamsters’ strike also put a temporary halt to the Post-Gazette, the smaller morning newspaper, which participated in a joint operating agreement with the Press, sharing the same building and facilities. Ten unions at the newspapers had been operating without a contract since the end of the previous year.
The impact on Pittsburghers was big since it was pre-Internet days. TV stations ran horoscopes in addition to the obituaries, and resident Joe Mixter complained that he couldn’t advertise his 1980 Impala for sale in the classifieds. When the Penguins won their second back-to-back Stanley Cup that summer, the Post-Gazette ended up selling glossy posters of how its cover might have looked if it had been able to put out a newspaper.
By October, Scripps-Howard had decided it could not come to terms with the Teamsters. It put the Press up for sale, and the Block family, which owns the Post-Gazette, bought the larger rival newspaper to put it out of business. By the time it reached a deal with the unions and started printing again in January 1993, new competition had sprung up.
Two suburban newspapers — the North Hills News Record to the north and the Tribune-Review in Greensburg — had used the lull during the strike to step up their publications. The two newspapers eventually merged, and the combined Trib continued printing in Pittsburgh for more than two decades, until 2016 when it went digital in the city.