Teamster campaign stops the presses

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Union activists have claimed an important victory in the latest round of an increasingly bitter labour dispute in Pittsburgh that has stopped the presses at the city's two local newspapers for more than two months, writes David Usborne.

The Teamsters union, representing delivery drivers for the newspapers, defeated an attempt by the owners of the Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette to resume publication and distribution by using replacement drivers and printing at a secret location in Canada.

The challenge to the strikers, attempted on Monday and Tuesday, led to violent demonstrations outside the city-centre headquarters of the Pittsburgh Press Company, where print facilities are shared by both the newspapers, even though they have different owners.

On Monday, in scenes reminiscent of the Wapping disturbances in London in 1986, when Rupert Murdoch relocated and de- unionised the Times, the drivers and sympathisers of other unions virtually laid siege to the building and also dispersed across the city to prevent delivery of the 'scab' papers. In clashes with police, two people were hurt and 46 arrested.

By Tuesday night, the Pittsburgh Press accepted defeat and closed the presses indefinitely, pending a negotiated settlement. Warning that the protests could lead to deaths, Jimmy Manis, the company's general manager, said: 'The bottom line is we don't want to further endanger the public. There was violence in the streets. There was violence all over western Pennsylvania.'

At its height, the demonstration drew 4,000 protesters to the press building. Meanwhile, replacement drivers, who had been accommodated at an airport motel, were being intercepted all around the city and forced out of their cabs.

Bundles of the 'scab' papers were burned in the streets and hurled at management offices. Many readers also burned copies of the papers printed in Canada and cancelled their subscriptions.

The dispute, which first closed both papers on 17 May, centres on plans to lay off 405 of the 605 drivers represented by the local Teamsters union and to end door-to- door distribution by school-age children. A re-organisation of circulation would have generally weakened union rights.

With unionism severely affected over the past decade across the country, the Pittsburgh dispute has become symbolic of an attempt by unions to reassert their powers. It is all the more emotive because Pittsburgh is a city with perhaps the fiercest union tradition in the United States.

'This is a union town - always has been, always will be,' commented Joseph Pass, the lawyer for the Teamsters in the dispute. 'Obviously the people's refusal to accept a scab paper forced them to cease publication.'

The city authorities greeted the decision to abandon publication again with relief. 'I'm encouraged,' Mayor Sophie Masloff said. 'We are all hoping that this means the resumption of face-to- face, good-faith bargaining.'

The use of replacement workers by managements in the event of unsolved disputes is a provocative political issue nationwide that is certain to impinge on the presidential debate. Governor Bill Clinton, the Democratic candidate, has only drawn patchy union endorsement, partly because he has tolerated replacement workforces in his state.