PITTSBURGH — THE 10-week-old Pittsburgh newspaper strike is entering a critical phase this week. The city's two newspapers have vowed to start publishing again soon, possibly as early as today. The move sets the stage for a confrontation with organized labor that will be closely watched across the nation - for its labor implications and, possibly, for its political repercussions as well.
After a decade of defeats, the American labor movement is trying to engineer a turnaround. It has met with mixed success so far this year. In Ravenswood, W.Va., feisty members of the United Steelworkers of America won back their jobs last month from replacement workers after a 19-month strike. But in Illinois, the threat of replacement workers at Caterpillar brought a United Auto Workers' strike to a quick end. A national railroad strike now lies in the hands of an arbitrator.
The confrontation could also put Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton in a quandary. A visit here could shore up his shaky standing among industrial unions, a traditional source of Democratic votes. But it could also antagonize middle-of-the-road voters who have few ties with labor unions.
At a rally here on Saturday, union officials said they would "stop the Press" and, if necessary, the entire city and county to fight the papers' reappearance. The Pittsburgh Press Company is the publisher of the city's largest newspaper and runs the service that delivers both city newspapers. It is the Press's dispute with its delivery truckers that has sparked the confrontation.
Flanked by unions in and around Pittsburgh, the president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO called for "a mass effort to shut down this entire city and county." Union leaders also said they plan boycotts of businesses that sell the paper or advertise in it, and they will mount union patrols to keep copies of the papers off the street.
"Pittsburgh is under the microscope here," says Randall Notter, a spokesman for the Press Company. The dispute has escalated into a cause cbre for the national labor movement, he argues. "We can only get a sense that their plans are to shut this paper down and make their big stand in Pittsburgh."
Union officials counter that the company is trying to weaken the drivers' union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Indeed, the Press wants to restructure its newspaper delivery system. Its original plan would have cut up to 450 of the 600 union drivers and dispatchers represented by the Teamsters. Contract negotiations were stalled for months over the job cuts. When the Press moved to implement the plan on May 17, the drivers struck.
Mr. Notter claims the company has offered to cut fewer jobs; the union says it's willing to work under the terms of the expired contract. Both sides have left the door open for new negotiations. But they will have to step carefully. The business that supports both of them - the newspapers - will likely be weakened by continuing squabbling.
A random sampling of Pittsburghers suggests that subscribers have not been greatly inconvenienced by the disappearance of the two major dailies. Suburban papers and local television stations have stepped in to plug some of the gap; national media have done the rest. "As far as I'm concerned they can stay on strike," says Al Saul, a suburban Pittsburgher. "I suppose we'll get a paper back, but I don't know if I'll keep it."
While auto dealers and some other advertisers fret that their message isn't getting out to customers, some creative organizations have turned the strike into an opportunity.
"The bottom line is that there is life during the strike," says Saul Markowitz, public-relations director for Carnegie Mellon University's College of Fine Arts. Mr. Markowitz promoted the college's summer theater series by contacting outlying publications and running special promotions. He also hired actors dressed as old-time newsboys to shout attention-grabbing headlines about the series in downtown Pittsburgh. The effort paid off. The series is doing as well or better than last year.