The Typewriter Is Not a Typesetter

The 1919 Printing Strike That Wasn’t

Glenn Fleishman

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In 1919, typesetters in New York wanted better working hours and better pay at job shops that handled much of the work for magazines. Their powerful union, the International Typographic Union (ITU), refused to authorize a general strike. Members of union locals took matters in their own hands, even though they risked the ire of publishers, being fired by employers, and getting labeled as socialists or worse.

The absurd wage and hours they wanted? Instead of $36 a week for 48 hours of work, they wanted $50 for 44 hours — about $17 an hour or $742 a week in 2019 money. “50–44” became the watchword. One typesetter would enter a shop and ask a foreman, “50–44?” The foreman would reply, inevitably, “No soap,” and typesetters would suddenly say they were going to take a vacation. While a big increase, coming on top of a $6 a week bump in 1918, the last year of World War I, it was long overdue.

This inflamed publishers and pundits, who railed against the behavior, both because it wasn’t officially union sanctioned — as much as business leaders and many periodicals’ owners hated unions — and as they had no alternatives. Hiring technically non-scab replacement typesetters wasn’t feasible, because there was so much other work at newspapers and book publishers in the city. Most typesetters were also fervent union men — few women were ever allowed to join — and even without crossing a picket, would be reluctant to get put themselves into the situation.

The whole situation can be summarized in this remarkable, anonymous quote in the Newberry, South Carolina, Herald and News on Oct. 24, 1919:

Nothing is safe with all this bolsheviki propaganda going about,” declared the business manager of a large trade magazine which will not go to press this month. “On the other hand, I suppose the working people find it hard to keep up with the high cost of living. The nerve of it, though — to disregard the orders of their own unions!

This time, however, publishers thought they could break typesetters. A technological innovation meant they could let those bloody union men rot on their “vacations.” You see, instead of typesetting, they could turn to the cheaper wages they paid women and a fancy device only…

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Glenn Fleishman

Technology journalist, editor, letterpress printer, and two-time Jeopardy! champion. I seem to know everyone #glenning