Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

January 5, 2001

IN THE 150TH ANNIVERSARY special edition published last month by the New York-owned Portland Oregonian newspaper there were numerous errors about events and people. Some could be chalked up to the Newhouse chain newspaper's sloppy reporting, some to faulty memories of former executives and staff members quoted as sources and some to the paper's inherent antipathy toward unions.

Linda Hansen Marlia of Portland, whose father was a locked-out union printer in the 1959-65 strike against the Oregonian and Oregon Journal, took exception to the misinformation about the strike in the paper's back-patting anniversary special. She expressed her thoughts in a rebuttal to columnist Steve Duin, who wrote the article containing most of the slanted history of the strike. Because the Newhouse paper has not printed Mrs. Marlia's rebuttal, I am turning over this column space to her excellent letter. She, by the way, is a member of Service Employees Local 49.

By Linda Hansen Marlia

Regarding your article on the Oregonian's history for the Anniversary Special issue: I have no way of knowing how accurate and fair the rest of your version of history is, but I have first-hand knowledge of the newspaper strike of 1959-1965, and your take on this event is as slanted, self-serving and ugly a piece of "journalism" as I've ever read. I realize that you are a columnist rather than a reporter and, as such, you are expected to express opinions, not just relate facts, but I still believe you are bound by decency not to distort the truth.

My father was Philip D. Hansen, a 25-year employee in the composing room of the Oregon Journal. On Nov. 10, 1959, I was a week shy of my 13th birthday and the kind of kid that paid attention to the world around me. I had a ringside seat for the events that unfolded from the strikers' side, a point of view you didn't bother to seek out.

I was vastly amused at your suggestion, via quotes from Wallace Turner, that a "golden stream" of money was being paid to the union members prior to the strike because they "had negotiated several lucrative deals." Imagine the nerve of a labor union to try to get good deals for their members - and right there in the midst of all that post-war prosperity. How dare they! Not to mention those greedy workers included many of the same guys who took voluntary pay cuts during the Depression to keep the newspapers afloat.

Sarcasm aside, I don't recall that "golden stream" lapping up at my doorstep - nor that of any of our friends from the unions. I'm not aware that any of them were living the high life in the West Hills, Dunthorpe, or Eastmoreland. However, you would have had no trouble finding some of them coaching Little League in Lents or Sellwood or running the PTA in Multnomah, Brooklyn or St. Johns. With the exception, perhaps, of a few superstar writers in the Guild, the people who became the strikers were solidly of the working class. My family of five, for example, was living in a two-bedroom rental in the Woodstock neighborhood. It was a nice area full of nice people, but hardly "golden."

Of course you trotted out the old chestnut that the strike was caused over the unions refusing to accept "the introduction of a German plate-casting machine which threatened to eliminate jobs." The stereotypers' true concern was even more basic than losing their jobs: they feared for their safety. Management was insisting that they agree in their contract to operating the machine with only two men, if and when the papers ever bought one. There was no such machine in the country at that time, and only the word of management that two people could operate it safely. Elsewhere in the same edition of the Oregonian in which your history appeared there was a description of the "hot-lead" method of printing that was used in those days. Stereotypers were the ones who handled that hot lead. Theirs was a dangerous profession and they would have been crazy to agree to restrictions on operating potentially deadly machinery sight unseen. By the way, last I heard, the Oregonian never actually bought the machine. Mr. Turner asserts that "the mechanical unions" were "anxious for a test of strength."

If so, why do you suppose the Typographical Union had been working without a contract for months, rather than face a confrontation? No, the one who was anxious was Newhouse. He was anxious to make himself richer and he didn't care who he hurt to get there. He was also anxious to buy the Oregon Journal, which was complicated by the will of the late owner, Mrs. Jackson, who gave her employees certain rights regarding any sale.

Then there is your "amusing" story of strikers' wives "picking up" strikebreakers to pump them for information. I've heard this story before, but I have no way of knowing if it's true or just some of the nasty gossip that abounded in those days to discredit the strikers. (Yes, of course, the union people gossiped about the other side, too, but I wouldn't drag out any of that garbage 40 years later.)

What I do know is what the vast majority of the strikers' wives did with their time. My mother was a prime example. She worked tirelessly to feed, clothe, and shelter her family on a horrendously reduced budget. She mixed powdered milk (she knew to the penny how much cheaper it was than regular milk, but my brothers and I only knew we hated it). She gleaned everything she could from friends' gardens and orchards and stood over hot canning kettles day after day to preserve it (and then gave a lot of it away to union families who had more kids to feed than she did). She took apart her own clothes to use the material to make shirts and pajamas for my growing little brothers. Her hardest job, by far, was trying to keep her husband sane.

Like most of his generation, he defined himself by his job, his craft. He had no idea who he was anymore when his employer made it clear his years of service meant nothing. While there is no doubt that his union would have honored the picket line, that first morning before everyone had been informed that a strike had begun, my father and several other employees went to work and were met at the door by armed guards who told them, "Get out of here. You don't work here anymore."

A simple kick in the butt might have been kinder.

Without question the most unforgivable, scurrilous part of your article is the assertion that the wounding of Donald Newhouse "knocked the strikers off their moral high ground." Most readers who don't know the history would naturally have concluded from that statement that a striker or strikers had been proven responsible for the attack. In fact, NOBODY was convicted of that crime. Nobody was indicted for it. Nobody was even set forth as a suspect. The assailant could have been from any area of the victim's life, including a disgruntled strikebreaker that he supervised, or even just some thrill-seeking fool with a gun who fired through his window for the hell of it. You don't know who did it and neither do I. What I do know is what the unions told their membership from Day One about violence: No matter what, never let it happen. As it became obvious that management would never negotiate in good faith, naturally tempers flared. Fear and pain do that to a person.

All of the families I knew were dedicated to helping the men cope with it without letting go. If some poor soul cracked and fired those shots, he did it without the knowledge or the slightest bit of support of the unions or their families. My own father was so concerned about being connected with even the suggestion of violence that rather than wear his work clothes of black jeans and black T-shirts, he wore crisp white dress shirts and ties when he walked the picket line so that passersby would know at a glance the strikers were craftsmen, not thugs. You end your discussion of this period by saying the unions never returned. Did it ever occur to you to question just where they went? I'm talking about the people who made up those unions, for that's what they were: Not some faceless organization that stood between S. I. Newhouse and another million dollars. They were human beings.

I can tell you what happened to some of them. A few found jobs in the union print shops around town. A very few. Some, mostly the young ones, pulled up stakes and left town, leaving behind whatever they had built up during their years of service. Many tried to make a living in distant cities and maintain their families here, because the ties of family bound people more tightly to home in those days than they seem to today. Many of those marriages broke under the burden. Some of the marriages of those who stayed to try to run the strikers' newspaper, The Portland Reporter, didn't hold up under the strain either.

An appalling number of them just died. They died, decades before their time, of every stress-related insult to the human body known to man. We heard about somebody "buying it" so often you'd have bought there was a war on. (In fact, these were the same guys who won World War II. The ones we now call The Greatest Generation. They would have gladly given their lives for this nation, but so Mrs. Newhouse could secure her place on the Best Dressed list? What a tragic waste.) We sent so many sympathy cards we started buying them by the box.

On Sept. 2, 1962, it was our turn. My fit, athletic father, whose own father had just died in his eighties, died of a massive heart attack. He was 58 years old. He left his widow (age 38, a full-time housewife since the day she married, like most of her generation), three kids to support (ages 5, 7, and 3) and no life insurance. He couldn't afford the premiums after the strike started.

I searched this section of your article for something I could agree with and the only thing I came up with is when you referred to those times as "dismal." You were right on about that. I have tried to stick to the facts as I know them, while not hiding the emotion behind them, but I would like to add this bit of sheer opinion: The next time you feel it necessary to climb on something to kiss your employer's backside, you might look down and make sure you aren't trampling on the corpses of some of the most decent human beings who ever lived.


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