"They Have Largely Destroyed The Pride Of Craft:" Helen Zalph Describes Automation in the Printing Industry
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“They Have Largely Destroyed The Pride Of Craft:” Helen Zalph Describes Automation in the Printing Industry

The introduction of new technologies has always altered the relationship between managers and workers, often by eliminating the need for skilled laborers. Helen Zalph and her colleagues in the printing division of the New York Daily News discovered this fact for themselves when computers revolutionized the way they put together the paper during the 1970s. What management gained in efficiency, workers lost in terms of their control over the production process, a sense of community and teamwork, and the sense of pride that comes with skilled craft work. They also lost many of their co-workers, who were no longer needed, and the power of their union. Now working largely in isolated cubby-offices, Zalph and many of her colleagues miss the older methods.

Listen to Audio:

ZALPH: The old time print shop was vastly different from what you see here now. It was one huge room and you could stand at one end and see everyone working, which is very nice in terms of having a sense of unity and knowing you is doing what and what’s going on and who’s where. That’s all gone now and we have these little cubby holes and pathways to here and pathways to there. We’re very separated from each other now and you don’t have the same sense of being one union and one group of people. It’s the people in the laser room, and the people in the computer room, and the VDT operators and everybody separate from everybody else. I think that that’s kind of sad, I liked the old print shop much better. And certainly in terms of the work, printers were really craftspeople. They really had to know what they were doing to get a professional looking printing job done. They have largely destroyed the pride of craft, and the need for that kind of expertise with the elimination of many of the requirements that come with the new procedure. You let the computer do it all. You don’t have to know typeface, you don’t have to know a type size, the computer knows it.

Our union held back as long as we could, but we finally did agree to a contract which permitted unlimited use of computer technology. And it’s been growing ever since then. I guess it was 1972 that we had the strike that allowed the 11-year contract. At that point they did have some machinery in but it was limited and what they could do with it was limited. This was a strike just of the Daily News and it was a troublesome strike because the Daily News was managing to get the paper out. The other unions were crossing our lines and some of them were doing our work. It was a very difficult time and it looked very dangerous whether we would get back at all. So when Bert Powers did get this 11-year contract, it was just kind of a miracle. It pulled it out of the blue. It has given us a measure of security plus a lifetime guarantee that as long as we want to work here we’ll be able to continue working. That guarantee goes beyond the life of the 11 year contract. And in return the management can do what ever they please in terms of introducing automation although we still have some controls over what we maintain as our work and what is the jurisdiction of different unions. But that is very difficult now to police or to maintain in any way because the guild, reporters and other people who work in the guild area, have their own visual display terminals. And they’re hooked into the computer, and there is really no way of knowing when they send a story, that’s legitimate, that they can do, but they’re not suppose to proofread it and correct it, but how are we to stop them? If they just call a story up and make a correction we aren’t even able to see that. In the past if somebody who was not a printer so much as touched a piece of hot metal, just touched it he was chased right off the floor. We had very strict jurisdiction and were very able to police it.

BERNHARDT: What has the introduction of computers meant in terms of how many printers are needed to put out the paper?

ZALPH: The number has dropped vastly. In this composing room the machinery isn’t even working properly, it’s really not as efficient as it should be, and yet we’re down to half the printers we had when we started this new system. We’ve been able to do almost double the work or more and could probably do much more than that if there were call for it. In terms of printers we recognize that there really is not a need for the numbers.

Source: Interviewed by Debra Bernhardt 9/6/81
Courtesy Wagner Labor Archives/Tamiment Library