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A Union War They Couldn’t Win

August 22, 2017  By Nick Howard

Canada’s newspaper war began in 1964 and lasted until 1971, when the Toronto Typographical Union was finally busted, after 139 years, by powerful media companies intent on adopting industry-changing technologies.

In the mid-1960s when I was a small boy, my father took me through the back door of 80 King Street West in Toronto. The noise was unbelievable, as were the gargantuan monsters inside. This was the Toronto Daily Star and I had witnessed the presses printing the evening edition live.

Men were everywhere, some just standing, others climbing all over the monster presses. But it was the noise that I remember most: machinery and webs of paper whirling – spinning and racing through the machine units. Finally, ending at the folder in sections only to be carried off again by claws on an endless snake-like chain.


I was captivated. This is where I fell in love with print. By 1971, the Toronto Star would purchase one of five new Hoe-Crabtree Viceroy Mark II double-width presses that could print a 144-page paper at speeds of 70,000 copies per hour.  All by letterpress and in their new home at One Yonge Street.

But what I didn’t realize or even understand, as I stood there wide-eyed, was that there was a strike raging with all three of Toronto’s dailies. Not only was the Toronto Star involved but so was The Globe & Mail and Toronto Telegram. The Telly, as it was called, was run by John Bassett. Bassett along with other Toronto media moguls also owned Baton Broadcasting.

The Toronto Typographical Union (TTU) found itself in labour negotiations with all three publishers in 1963. Known as TTU #91, the union had until that time enjoyed relative harmony with the publishers. The oldest Union in Canada, the TTU had taken a stand back in 1872 when they struck George Brown’s Globe demanding a nine-hour day. Some suggest it was this catalyst that gave us Labour Day in September.

Besides the dramatic strike of 1872, the TTU had coexisted peacefully with its employers  and, back in 1907, won the first eight-hour day when all other industries were struggling through nine- and 10-hour days. The TTU was not a unilateral organization. In 1866 they joined the American National Typographic Union – latter called the International Typographic Union or ITU. Even so, things in Canada amongst all the printing trades unions were rather bucolic.

In 1964, technology was at the root of the strike. For decades very little in the way of new processes entered printing plants. In Sally F. Zerkers splendid book, The Rise and Fall of the Toronto Typographical Union 1832-1972, she writes that in 1896 it took an average of 635 man-hours to produce 10,000 copies of a four-page newspaper section. Thanks to Mergenthaler’s Linotype and new stereotyping technologies, by 1926 the same four pages could be produced in just 17.4 man-hours. A productivity increase of 264 percent.

“I think the future of Canadian newspaper publishing is bright, provided publishers assess accurately the changed role of a newspaper and also take advantage of new automated processes,” wrote John Bassett in the Toronto Telegram, February 1969. “The main problem facing publishers is that of rising costs. The problem of rising labour costs can be met through reasonable negotiations with unions which will provide publishers the right to avail themselves of new processes while protecting the existing jobs.”

Working without a new contract, as the old one had expired at the end of 1962, the TTU set about to get another two-year agreement with various demands. A four-day week was included along with the nominal pay rises and shift premiums. But one issue was relatively new.  

That was technology and its impact on job security. In 1963 there were just over 1,000 members in the TTU. The roles had dwindled for decades prior. The other printing Unions, including Pressman’s, Stereotypers & Electrotypers, Photo-Engravers, Mailers and Bookbinders, had contracts that were not in the same cross hairs. Other than a pat on the back, none of these unions did anything to help fight for the TTU.

Various new technologies had come on the scene and almost all focused on one area:
type matter preparation. Harris Intertype and Mergenthaler Linotype along with Fairchild had developed faster tape-based machinery driven by newfangled computers. These devices could spit out miles and miles of perforated paper tape.

To make matters even more dire, the copy was already justified and the tape could be fed into new linecasting machines thereby eliminating the operator. Faster and cheaper got even better when the wire services such as Canadian Press and Reuters could supply their news stories on tape and feed directly into the new machines. Publishers loved it all and wanted more. New devices using film fonts were also entering the publishing world and nobody knew where that would lead.

The TTU was really concerned. Recent New York negotiations with its unions had produced some reasons for optimism as contracts stipulated that no man would lose his job (yes they were all men!), if and when new processes replaced old. But the publishers held the upper hand. Now perforated tape could be composed by women. They were well suited and faster typists – cheaper too.

“The effect of current trends is already manifesting itself in the form of less security for our members insofar as their future in the industry is concerned. The great technological advances indicate a definite trend to reduce staff. Indeed it is our view that the five-day week was spawned from the depths of the depression and, equally, we judge that the technological advances noted so far are only a forerunner of what is to come,” read the Toronto Newspaper Union’s negotiating report and argument for a four-day week, January 8, 1963.

The strike began on July 9, 1964, after months of haggling back and forth. True the TTU may have settled earlier but each time a draft was sent to the Colorado Springs ITU headquarters, it came back altered. This angered the publishers greatly. No manner of growls and hissing from the workforce could change the publisher’s minds as they had the upper hand and knew it. So the TTU was locked out. The publishers called it a strike while the union said it was a lock-out. Threats from both sides ensued.

The union screamed about publishers hiring scabs and union busters from the U.S. while the publishers complained of harassment and vandalism to their equipment.
The newspapers continued to get their papers out and with these new technologies even faster than before. There was an impasse and it was never settled. The TTU basically picketed year after year earning strike pay until notified by the ITU in 1971 that all benefits would cease. The TTU was broken after 139 years.

Oddly enough, the Toronto Telegram facing losses, closed its doors in 1971 and sold its mailing list to the Toronto Star. The Telly also rented out its Goss presses to the Toronto Star as the Star was in the midst of moving to One Yonge Street. John Bassett had been singled out as the main enemy by the TTU. Bassett’s loses may have had nothing to do with the strike and more to do with the competitive nature of the newspaper industry in Toronto.

The Telly vacated its building at 440 Front Street West only to see The Globe & Mail move right in with presses and hot metal typesetting in tow. The Globe also brought their ornate front entrance too.

The TTU was a fixture in Toronto media and book publishing, but looking back through history we can study just how new technologies give birth to new opportunities and profits. In 1964, there was absolutely no way a union could stop technology. Fast forward to 2017 – the story is exactly the same. Owners of print media businesses will never stand still when around the corner a technology will do away with costs. Labour is a major element to overhead. We may all decry companies such as Amazon and Walmart for driving down prices on everything from groceries to books but most of us shop there anyway.

The photocopier business used to call their equipment “green button printing”. Today’s printers are no different than Bassett and his cohorts. They will always embrace technological improvements. Blossoming digital equipment is set to explode even further and faster and we can see this with the rapid decline of offset machinery in the commercial segment.

There is but one lesson from the past: learn from it and don’t repeat it.

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