Columnists joined Teamsters on the picket line Wednesday as employees at San Francisco's two daily newspapers went on strike for the first time since 1968, leaving an information-hungry city without its daily newsprint fix at the height of the political season.
Union leaders representing 2,600 employees of the morning Chronicle and afternoon Examiner ordered reporters, copy editors, librarians, drivers and vendors to walk off the job at 10 p.m. Tuesday after four days of round-the-clock negotiations failed to break an impasse with management over salary and job security.
Pickets went up outside the newspapers' offices and at printing plants in San Francisco and the East Bay. Police reported scattered episodes of damage to delivery trucks and violence as pickets clashed with non-union drivers and security guards. Three people were hospitalized with injuries, including a replacement driver who suffered a cracked skull when he was hit by a lead pipe. A few arrests were made, but most individuals were released.
"This has a union-busting smell to it," said Herb Caen, 78, the legendary Chronicle columnist known as "Mr. San Francisco," who walked the picket line with his younger colleagues under a clear blue sky at the newspapers' offices south of downtown. "I hope I'm wrong, but this seems like heavy stuff."
Accustomed more to covering such events than being newsmakers themselves, pickets expressed concern Wednesday that a protracted strike could spell doom for one or the other of the storied newspapers, which along with many other major metropolitan dailies have recently suffered steep circulation declines.
"The economic impact of the strike could be devastating to one or both of the newspapers," said Steven Chin, 35, an Examiner reporter who has been negotiating on behalf of the unions.
For the six months that ended Sept. 30, the Chronicle reported weekday circulation of 509,548, a decline of 6.38% from the comparable period in 1993. The Examiner's circulation was 112,051, down 10.32%. The newspapers' combined Sunday edition had circulation of 679,988, off 3.14%.
Since 1965, the two newspapers have published under a joint operating agreement, sharing production expenses and revenues but maintaining separate news and editorial staffs. Contract negotiations have been under way since July, 1993, and contracts expired last November.
Both sides expressed chagrin that they had been unable to come to terms after reporting progress over the weekend and on Monday. The Conference of Newspaper Unions, made up of representatives of eight unions negotiating jointly, had postponed a strike deadline of midnight Monday.
Management representatives said they were mystified that the unions had gone on strike and were disturbed by violence against replacement drivers and sabotage of newspaper equipment.
One printing press was disabled, 20 cars were destroyed and five trucks were disabled, James Hale, chief executive of the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, said at an afternoon news conference.
"I was surprised that the negotiations came to an abrupt end," he said. "The second thing that surprised me was the intensity of the anger."
The two sides differed sharply in their interpretations of who was to blame for the deadlock.
According to Chin, the key issue prompting the walkout was job security for the drivers who deliver the newspapers to homes and street racks. The company contends that 600 drivers are too many given declines in circulation and wants to cut that number by 150 to 200 through attrition. The drivers maintain that their workloads have been doubled.
"It's a health and safety issue," said Francis Mendonca, an Examiner driver who was walking the picket line at a printing plant south of downtown San Francisco. "I'm already doing the job of 2 1/2 people, and I hardly have time for lunch."
Also at issue is salary. The union was seeking a pay raise of $12 a week, or 3.4%. The company had offered a 2.4% increase.
One of the last big-city newspapers to be privately held by a family dynasty, the Chronicle is owned by the descendants of Michael H. de Young, who founded the paper in 1865. The Examiner, by far the weaker of the two papers, is owned by Hearst Corp., the company started by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.
When the two papers, bloodied by their fierce rivalry, merged business operations in 1965, they were about even in circulation. Since then, the Examiner has watched circulation sink. Even so, the papers continue to share costs and split revenues evenly, a lopsided arrangement that has caused much bad blood on the part of the Chronicle owners.
In an effort to boost the paper's flagging fortunes, Chronicle Publishing Co. last year hired as chief executive John B. Sias, the retired executive vice president of Capital Cities/ABC. At that company, Sias made a name for himself with practical jokes and cost cutting. His efforts to slash costs at the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, the joint operating agreement company, and at the Chronicle raised concerns among union members that a strike would ensue.
Although a strike had been brewing for weeks, the absence of their daily newspapers nonetheless left residents feeling glum.
"While I'm very disappointed by the quality of the Chronicle, I have to rely on it for local news," said Leslie Posnock, a Marin County resident who works in San Francisco. "Particularly in the political season, it's a void."
Other regional news operations were taking up the slack in small ways. The Oakland Tribune and the San Jose Mercury-News, which is also in the throes of contract negotiations, said they had no plans to increase their runs. But the Marin Independent Journal printed some extra copies, and several local television and radio stations extended their news programs or added news blurbs.
The newspapers picked a busy news day to launch their strike. San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan was in Chicago landing the rights to hold the 1999 Super Bowl at Candlestick Park, and the Golden Gate Bridge was closed for several hours because of a three-vehicle crash.
Although 350,000 copies of Wednesday's Chronicle were printed, Hale said he did not know how many were distributed. No copies were distributed in San Francisco, he said. Similarly, 100,000 copies of the Examiner were printed Wednesday, but it was unclear how many were delivered.
Nevertheless, management negotiator Richard Jordan attempted to put the best face on the situation. "We did get both newspapers out," he said, "and our ability will increase day by day."
They said the papers were hiring temporary employees from throughout the country and will soon begin seeking employees in the Bay Area. But they have made no move to fire any striking workers or prevent them from coming back to work.
On suggestions that San Francisco could emerge from the strike with just one daily, Jordan said: "We're going to do everything we can to prevent that."
Times researcher Norma Kaufman in San Francisco contributed to this story.