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March 13, 2023, 11:20 a.m.

Punches have been thrown in the first U.S. newspaper strike in two decades

No matter who you see as at fault, it’s evidence of the bad blood keeping this labor action going for 150 days.

Everyone get your “Rashomon” metaphors ready: The newspaper strike in Pittsburgh is getting nastier.

Some employees of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have been on strike since October, seeking (among other things) their first contract since 2017 and reversal of a new health insurance plan that would roughly double some workers’ premiums. (Staffers have not had an across-the-board pay raise in more than 16 years.) Our Sarah Scire wrote a great piece from the scene that will give you all the background you need. But the strike’s importance stretches well beyond western Pennsylvania. It’s the first newspaper strike in the United States in more than 20 years, despite (or maybe due to) the incredible shrinkage of the industry over that span. And it’s happening amid an unprecedented spike in unionizing inside digital newsrooms.

On Sunday, both the Post-Gazette and the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh issued dueling press releases (see below) describing quite different versions of a fight at a newspaper production facility late Saturday night and early Sunday morning.

Here’s what we can suss out. A group of strikers was at the facility, which distributes printed papers to delivery drivers. When isn’t exactly clear; the P-G’s press release says “around 1 a.m.,” the P-G’s news story says “about 11:09 p.m.,” and the guild’s press release says only “Saturday night.” The unions’ strike paper, the Pittsburgh Union-Progress, hasn’t published a story of its own yet. (Update: This story went up early Monday afternoon.) The guild calls what they were doing “picketing”; the Post-Gazette calls it “harassing.”

Post-Gazette facilities have been a point of contention in the strike. The P-G has filed suit over what it calls “mass trespassing” by striking employees at the plant where the paper is printed (which is different from the one we’re talking about here). The P-G sought an injunction to keep strikers away, and it was initially granted. But on Friday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court lifted it until a lower court appeal is resolved.

The fight was between two striking workers and one P-G driver. (Guild: “a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scab truck driver”; P-G: “a Post-Gazette contractor who was on site to drive a truck carrying newspapers.”) Here’s how the newspaper’s version of events puts it (all emphases mine):

…the driver, who has been the target of repeated harassment by the picketers, was physically and verbally attacked at around 1 a.m. today. Defending himself, the driver pushed the assailant away and then was physically assaulted by a second person. Both the contractor and the second assailant fell underneath the truck and the driver’s clothing was ripped and personal property, including a cell phone, went missing. An ambulance was dispatched to the scene but no one was transported to the hospital.

And here’s the guild’s version:

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scab truck driver assaulted two striking workers at a South Side picket line late Saturday night. The unprovoked assault sent one striker to the hospital with a broken jaw, which required surgery…

“We’re standing in solidarity with our Teamster comrade who is in the hospital after this appalling assault by a scab worker hired by the Post-Gazette to break our strike,” said Zack Tanner, an interactive designer on strike and the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh president. “The Post-Gazette has shown at the bargaining table how little they care about us, now they’re letting it be known that they’d rather see us in the hospital than serving our community. I sincerely hope everyone working there sees themselves in the assaulted strikers, feels that the company punching them in the face crosses a line, and joins us on this side of the picket.”

(It’s not clear whether there were any members of the guild — the union that represents newsroom workers — involved, or whether it was only members of the other striking P-G unions, like the Teamsters.)

The main point of dispute here is whether the driver’s actions — whether he was “pushing” or “punching” — were taken in self-defense or were “unprovoked.” Luckily for us, we have video of the events in question, shot by “an independent security firm contracted by the Post-Gazette.” Take a look for yourself:

My take: No one comes out of this looking good. But it would be difficult for me to describe the driver’s actions here as “unprovoked.” Maybe they’re defensible, maybe they’re not — but they were clearly not unprovoked. The striking worker quickly moves from yelling insults from 10 or 15 feet away (“You suck! You’re fat!) to getting up in the driver’s face when he throws the punch.

That said, much of the jawing between the men is unintelligible (to me, at least), and it’s at least possible the striker had some other reason for moving quickly toward the driver. And because the video has been provided by one party in the dispute, we don’t know if there was something before or after what we have that would influence our perceptions.

(Update: The guild’s news site’s story on the matter says the video is misleading: “Witnesses say the PG video fails to depict the entire sequence of events. The video shows the truck driver punching a picketer who steps toward him. It doesn’t show a prior punch that ignited the altercation, they said.”)

Police were called to the scene, but seem to have made no arrests. The guild says it has instructed its attorney “to institute appropriate civil and criminal action against the assailant and the Post-Gazette.” The P-G also released a second video, shot last month, of what it describes as a similar case of harassment. You can see it here.

A major challenge for the guild is the lack of unanimity among its members. The original member vote to go on strike passed by a narrow 38–36 margin, and many newsroom employees are still working. The P-G says there are about 80 newsroom staffers still at work versus around 40 on strike. (Of those 80, it says about 20 are in management, with the other 60 in non-management jobs.) The guild puts the total number of striking workers — across all five unions, mind you, not just the newsroom — at 110.

Here are the dueling press releases. First, from the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh:

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette assaults striking workers on picket line, sending one to the hospital

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scab truck driver assaulted two striking workers at a South Side picket line late Saturday night.

The unprovoked assault sent one striker to the hospital with a broken jaw, which required surgery. Both workers were stripped of their health insurance by actions of the PG.

Commencing on October 6, 2022, over 110 workers are taking part in an unfair labor practice strike after the Post-Gazette refused to pay a contractually obligated $19 per week per employee increase in the costs of healthcare, leaving production, distribution and advertising workers with no health insurance.

Saturday night’s attack is the latest anti-worker act from representatives of the Post-Gazette, as unfair labor practice strikes against the company are now in their sixth month.

Previously, the Post-Gazette filed a complaint against the striking unions seeking a permanent injunction against picketing at the South Side distribution center where Saturday night’s assault on striking workers occurred. The PG previously obtained an injunction from a Butler County court from peacefully picketing the Butler Eagle, which has been working in concert with the PG to print the struck paper, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an order stopping the enforcement of that injunction last week.

The Post-Gazette has also filed a lawsuit against multiple city of Pittsburgh officials, including mayor Ed Gainey, claiming that the city and the police haven’t been working to curb actions by picketers. In light of the PA Supreme Court’s most recent ruling, it is doubtful that the case against the city is going anywhere. It is yet another example of PG ownership wasting money on violence and frivolous litigation, when it could be paying for the contractually obligated healthcare of its dedicated workers.

“We’re standing in solidarity with our Teamster comrade who is in the hospital after this appalling assault by a scab worker hired by the Post-Gazette to break our strike,” said Zack Tanner, an interactive designer on strike and the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh president. “The Post-Gazette has shown at the bargaining table how little they care about us, now they’re letting it be known that they’d rather see us in the hospital than serving our community. I sincerely hope everyone working there sees themselves in the assaulted strikers, feels that the company punching them in the face crosses a line, and joins us on this side of the picket.”

Striking workers continue to demand that the company reinstate the terms of the Newspaper Guild’s expired 2014-17 collective bargaining agreement, end the illegally declared impasse to negotiations with the Guild, return to the bargaining table in good faith, and return to the collectively bargained health insurance plans for all workers.

Even after an administrative law judge ruled in January that the Post-Gazette violated multiple laws under the National Labor Relations Act while bargaining with the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents newsroom workers, the company continues to refuse to abide by that decision. Additional legal action is pending.

Information on how the public can support these two assaulted workers will be distributed on PGHGuild.com when it is available.

The union’s legal counsel Joseph J. Pass has been directed to institute appropriate civil and criminal action against the assailant and the Post-Gazette.

And from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

VIOLENCE ESCALATES AT NEWSPAPER DISTRIBUTION CENTER

Post-Gazette independent contractor assaulted

Pittsburgh, PA — Early this morning, police were called to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s newspaper depot at Gateway View Plaza on West Carson Street after a group of approximately 10-15 union picketers surrounded, and two attacked, a Post-Gazette contractor who was on site to drive a truck carrying newspapers.

According to an incident report, the driver, who has been the target of repeated harassment by the picketers, was physically and verbally attacked at around 1 a.m. today. Defending himself, the driver pushed the assailant away and then was physically assaulted by a second person. Both the contractor and the second assailant fell underneath the truck and the driver’s clothing was ripped and personal property, including a cell phone, went missing. An ambulance was dispatched to the scene but no one was transported to the hospital. The incident between the contractor and the second assailant was recorded on video, which is being distributed with this release. After the police arrived, the striking workers retreated to the public sidewalk.

The Post-Gazette is also releasing a video showing a group of picketers, including Newspaper Guild President Zachary Tanner, threatening and engaging in violence against a 75-year-old contractor, which is unfortunately representative of the actions that have regularly occurred throughout the Gateway View Plaza and elsewhere throughout the strike.

Repeated threats of violence, harassment and trespassing at the Gateway View Plaza newspaper distribution center have been the subject of recent legal action by the Post-Gazette, including the filing of a Writ of Mandamus on February 15. That complaint against Mayor Gainey and the City’s Police department was made in an effort to compel officials to enforce the law regarding trespassing. According to police officers who have been called to the scene of Gateway View Plaza, the officers have received mixed messages from superiors, specifically a lack of clarity about whether picketers are allowed on private property.

Since last October when several unions at the Post-Gazette went on strike, union employees and their supporters have been approaching those working for the Post-Gazette and verbally assaulting, threatening violence, shining spotlights to impair vision and damaging property, all while trespassing, in an attempt to prevent the Post-Gazette from continuing to distribute the newspaper.

Tomorrow the Post-Gazette will appear before the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas-Civil Division for an initial conference regarding the Writ of Mandamus complaint.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has served the Pittsburgh community, its readers and advertisers as the region’s indispensable source of news, advertising and information for more than two centuries.

Image via the Post-Gazette-provided video of the event.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     March 13, 2023, 11:20 a.m.
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