Truck bombs doomed the cause of newspapers’ striking unions
But the strike enabled Oregon Journal's trustees to sell the paper, in defiance of its former owner's direct bequest, to the owners of the Oregonian; the result was an outsider-owned daily-newspaper monopoly that continues to this day.
By Finn J.D. John — July 31, 2016
In a retrospective article many years later, Oregonian columnist Steve Duin wrote that the shotgun ambush of newspaper manager Donald Newhouse by some unknown lurker outside his basement window was the moral turning point in the newspaper’s struggle with its unions.
That’s not entirely true. There was another turning point — a much more important one. It had happened just two months after the union members went out on strike.
At that time, the newspaper management was hurting badly. Most Portlanders were pro-union. Union members were going door to door asking everyone to cancel their subscriptions, and tens of thousands of them were doing it. The only bright spot for The Oregonian’s absentee owner, New Yorker Sam Newhouse, was that he’d gotten the competing newspaper, the Oregon Journal, to join the Oregonian in all labor negotiations, meaning the Journal had been sucked into the fight by treaty obligations. Had that not been the case, hundreds of thousands of Portlanders would almost certainly have simply switched papers, and the strike would have been over.
As it was, the unions realized that asking residents to give up their daily newspaper was asking rather a lot of them, so they pooled their resources and expertise and launched a third newspaper in Portland — at first a weekly, and then, as it became clear that this would not suffice, a daily. It was called The Portland Reporter; it was excellent, if a bit thin; and, until its closure for financial reasons in 1964, it helped a great deal.
Would that have been enough? We’ll never know. Because one of the stereotypers — the obsolete workers whose walkout over equipment upgrades had started the whole thing — got impatient.
Which is apparently why, at midnight on Jan. 31, 1960, a series of ten colossal dynamite blasts shook sleepers awake in Oregon City. Stereotyper Levi McDonald had hired some young fellows, given them dynamite and fuses, and sent them out into the night to apply a little direct pressure to some of the trucking companies that had had the temerity to continue doing business with the Oregonian. Ten trucks had been blown up; luckily, no one had been hurt.
Now, it’s important to understand that in 1960, the vast majority of people in Portland had lived through or participated in the Second World War. The way to win the hearts and minds of people who have experienced total war is not to show oneself as the side most willing to resort to such extreme measures as truck bombs. Furthermore, the recklessness of the action was appalling: What if someone had been in one of those trucks, or working nearby? Unlikely, yes, but unlikely things do happen sometimes.
The next day, the sun came up on a completely new world. Now, when union reps knocked on a Portlander’s door and asked him or her to cancel his or her subscription, the Portlander’s perception of the whole affair would be different. It wasn’t “local guys getting stiffed by a New York mogul”; it was “bomb-throwing union thugs fighting with a New York mogul.”
It’s not hard to understand what that change did to the union canvassers’ success rate.
It is entirely possible that McDonald was discreetly ratted out by fellow union members who, realizing that he’d probably just lost them the war, figured their only hope was to show the world that the bombings had been a rogue member’s freelance action, not an official union operation. It’s also possible, if rather unlikely, that — as union members immediately afterward claimed — that the whole thing was a false-flag operation, and that McDonald had been put up to it by the Oregonian.
The unions decried the bombings immediately, and even contributed $1,000 to the reward offered for the perpetrator’s capture. But it wasn’t enough. Essentially, the bombings turned a strike that had been on a relatively fast track toward a successful (for the union) resolution, into a losing stalemate that would drag on for five years.
For Sam Newhouse, a five-year fight was tolerable. He owned a big string of other newspapers, and revenue from them could prop up the temporarily-money-losing Oregonian nicely. Plus, he had, with remarkable prescience, bought a very expensive strike-insurance policy before the whole mess broke out.
But for the Oregon Journal, times were tough indeed. Remember, this was just a few years after the last member of the founding Jackson family, Maria, had died. Maria had tried to pass her stock in the newspaper on to the employees, but the three trustees in charge of her estate challenged the bequest in court and won, thereby essentially robbing the employees of their inheritance — and, more importantly, leaving the trustees in control of the newspaper. It was the trustees who had made the deal to jointly negotiate labor contracts with the Oregonian. And it was soon very clear that the trustees — who were charged with caring for the entire Jackson estate, not just the newspaper — were far more likely than the employees would have been to regard the newspaper as a financial asset rather than a public trust.
Now, having made and stuck with a labor-negotiating deal that had brought the Journal to the brink of insolvency, the trustees moved to subvert the other major bequest in Maria’s will: the part that specifically prohibited them from selling it to Newhouse.
With the Journal facing bankruptcy and a union strike that they could blame for the situation, the trustees could now plausibly claim that they were faced with a choice of either honoring Maria’s wishes and allowing the paper to fold, or selling to Newhouse. Surely no reasonable person would fault them for saving Maria’s paper, even though it were necessary to flout her express wishes to do so … right?
And so, in 1961, the trustees accepted an $8 million offer from Newhouse … and Portland became, effectively, a one-newspaper town.
As for the strike, it petered out over the following several years. In 1963 the National Labor Relations Board ruled it illegal. Finally, in the spring of 1965, the pickets called it quits, and both papers became open shops.
(Sources: Diehl, Caleb. “The Newspaper Wars…,” Portland Monthly, Dec. 2015; Klare, Gene. “Let Me Say This about That,” nwlaborpress.org, 1/01/2002; Diehl, Caleb. “The Portland Reporter,” oregonencyclopedia.org)