“We managed to get a pension…. What’s the pension situation like at newspapers now?”
Carla Beck, a former president of the Montana Newspaper Guild and a reporter at the Great Falls Tribune in the 1960s and 70s, posed the question to me about halfway through our telephone conversation, and it put the divide between past expectations and modern reality into sharp relief.
I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing!
“What? No daily reporters in Montana have pensions! Lee Enterprises doesn’t even contribute matching dollars to 401Ks!” I said, adding, “I don’t know about Gannett.”
Gannett owns the Great Falls Tribune, where employees had been members of the Local 81 of the National Newspaper Guild from the mid-1930s to 1993. Lee Enterprises owns all but one of Montana’s daily newspapers—the Billings Gazette, the Montana Standard in Butte, the Helena Independent Record, the Missoulian and the Ravalli Republic south of Missoula. I worked at both the Gazette and the Missoulian over the years as a reporter. I also delivered the Gazette as a teenager, and I helped my mom deliver the Missoulian sometimes back when I was in grade school.
Here’s something you have to understand: Lee Enterprises, based in Iowa, is an anti-union media company, by which I mean that the company’s policies include instructing managers to break the law by intimidating or firing any employees who try to form a union. Maybe that’s not surprising, but it should be.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I called Beck after I got a letter from Ralph Pomnichowski (another past president of Local 81) with her phone number. He had read this blog about union talk among some Montana journalists and thought I should talk to her. (It turns out that she doesn’t live far from me in Maryland. It’s a small world….)
I wanted to talk to her about the unsuccessful 1974 strike at the Great Falls Tribune.
By way of background, you should know that the Great Falls Tribune, like most newspapers, produced (and continues to produce) tremendous profits. It was the largest newspaper in Montana and was available everywhere in the state. The employees wanted fair compensation for the people who made the company so profitably, especially the workers in the classified advertising department.
“Those little ads made, oh my… you wouldn’t believe how profitable those ads were,” Beck said. “We wanted more for those people who pulled in so much money for the newspaper.”
At that time, Local 81 felt strong, partly because it represented workers throughout the newspaper, except the typesetters and the press workers. Plus, the teachers’ union in Great Falls had recently won a tough strike, and the solidarity within the Great Falls labor movement was complete. People would flock to picket lines in support of other unions. So when the Guild went to the table to bargain a contract with the Tribune’s owners, and the owners refused to even talk about decent raises, the members voted to strike.
“Here’s what I’ve thought about a lot since that strike. All of us should have been a little scared,” Beck said. “We didn’t know what all that would be required. We should have known, because we were all basically researchers. I’m not apologizing, but when you go into a strike situation you need to educate your members so that they know what it’s really about.”
Beck explained that the workers at the paper figured that a short-term loss of a paycheck would be made up by good increases, and that the newspaper company would be anxious to keep making money.
You see, when Local 81 went on strike, the Great Falls Tribune couldn’t put out a paper. Instead, the employees wrote, laid out and printed a weekly strike paper called the Great Falls Pennant from the strike headquarters, which were on the second floor of a bar across the street from the Tribune’s offices.
But the company that owned the Tribune, which also owned the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, replaced the old hot-lead typesetting machinery in the printing plant with new technology that needed a fraction of the workers. Plus, the company had plenty of cash from its other holdings, but the employees—especially the lower-paid workers in the classified department—felt tremendous pressure from the lack of that paycheck.
The enthusiasm that marked the early weeks of the strike began to wane. After a few months, some members began to cross the picket line and return to work.
“Management knew what they wanted to accomplish, and they had the money to do it,” she said. “They wanted to break the Guild.”
It’s easy to understand why the corporate owners of Montana’s newspapers wanted to undermine the workers. Union workers in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s had negotiated good benefits and pay, and non-union companies like Lee had been obliged to offer comparably decent packages to forestall organizing drives.
In retrospect, the 1974 strike was the beginning of the end of the Montana Newspaper Guild, Beck told me, and that was especially true after Gannett bought the paper, “because they’re a union-buster all around,” she said.
The Guild continued to represent employees at the paper until 1993, when workers voted to disband as a union. Yet the Guild continued to have a strong positive effect on wages and benefits of journalists in Montana until 1993, and even for a few years afterwards.
By then, Carla Beck had long since moved on. She came to the DC area to work for Montana Sen. John Melcher in the 1980s, and now she’s retired in Maryland, living with her husband, who worked for decades as an Episcopal minister.
“Unions are a lot like churches. A lot of the work is done by volunteers, who all have jobs and busy lives with all sorts of time constraints. Just think of what the world is operating under today! Good Lord!” she said.
I asked her if she had any advice for people who were interested in organizing media workers in Montana these days.
“I’d stress the care and feeding of members,” she said. “You can’t have a successful union without a strong community of members. We shut down that paper for weeks, for a couple months, and yet we still lost. The members lost heart. The other unions lost heart.”
Still, the Guild managed to establish a pension and upped the health care coverage.
“That was a real winner,” Beck said. That’s when she asked about journalists’ pensions today. It was a subject on which we lingered for a moment, because neither of us have a doubt that Montana’s newspapers still produce incredible profits and could easily afford defined benefit pensions for retired employees.
Finally, Beck, who was a general assignment reporter, told me about some of her most memorable stories, one of which was a series in 1968 about how Alabama Gov. George Wallace had campaigned across Montana extensively as part of his presidential campaign.
“Oh, I tell you, he was up around the northeastern and north central part of the state. I interviewed all these people who told me the darnedest things, like what he can do and what he has done so well in Alabama, and, yes, quite frankly the racism would come out. The racism was there,” she said.
Then we talked about how Montana seems to have so many interesting political extremes, from socialist counties to right-wing separatists.
“That’s what makes the state such a wonderful place,” she said. “But maybe Montana’s not so different from anywhere else. I suspect that’s true all across the country.”