The Seattle Times 1896-1996
Labor pains, gains

This story ran in The Seattle Times on May 26, 1996

By Sharon Boswell
and Lorraine McConaghy
Special to The Times

Staunch labor man Dave Beck, at right in photo, worked with the head of the International Longshoremen's Association, Joseph Ryan, to settle their crippling 1934 strike. Beck built the Teamsters into a powerful organization, and increased his own influence as well.
Photo Credit: Seattle Times.

SHORT AND STOCKY WITH A SHOCK OF FLAMING RED HAIR, a 12-year-old newspaper boy walked seven miles a day to cover his routes, starting at 5 a.m. to deliver the morning P-I, then hitting the streets again after school for his Times route. He used his $25-a-month earnings -- an impressive sum in pre-World War I Seattle -- to help his struggling family.
   The hard-working young man's name was Dave Beck, and during the 1930s he became a powerful and controversial labor leader, helping shape the future of the papers he sold as a boy.
   Seattle had a reputation as a radical labor town, a legacy of the militant unionism that shut down the city during the General Strike of 1919. But during the next decade, unions had struggled to survive. The Depression left many industrial workers jobless.
   Labor gained hope when one of President Franklin Roosevelt's earliest New Deal programs, the National Recovery Act of 1933, provided that "employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing." The measure created a commotion of organizing, strikes and internal warfare as unions battled for recognition and membership, and employers resisted them.
   Dave Beck was in the thick of it -- the ambitious newsboy had worked his way up from laundry-truck driver to Teamster organizer. Although always decrying violence, Beck had helped build the Teamsters into a strong, even ruthless organization bent on expanding along the Pacific Coast. Yet Beck had no love for radicals, becoming known as a leader of labor's more conservative wing.
   As a result, Beck was asked to represent Washington's governor in negotiations to end a strike of the International Longshoremen's Association in 1934. At first, 1,500 Seattle dock workers joined a coast-wide walkout, and soon more followed, halting shipping and prompting waterfront employers to recruit strikebreakers wherever they could find them -- even in University of Washington fraternities.
   The rank-and-file longshoremen and the union's militant West Coast leader, Harry Bridges, overwhelmingly rejected Beck's initial arbitration efforts. Yet a settlement was finally reached, and Beck emerged from the conflict with more clout than ever.
   Beck's influence was tested two years later when trouble began at The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The P-I had been owned since 1921 by William Randolph Hearst, the nation's most influential publisher. Hearst's avid anti-communism and vocal opposition to Roosevelt had made him widely hated by labor.
   In 1936, two longtime editorial employees of The P-I were fired. Management cited their inefficiency and gross insubordination, but the men claimed the action was because they had joined Seattle's newly formed chapter of the American Newspaper Guild. Though tiny, with local membership at only 35, the Guild threatened a strike unless the two men were reinstated. This gained the support of the Seattle Central Labor Council, whose most influential member was Beck.

Pickets face off against police protecting the entrance to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer during the 1936 Newspaper Guild strike. Photo Credit: Seattle Times.

   On the morning of Aug. 13, 1936, a few Guild members, sporting union armbands and "Hearst is Unfair" signs, began marching meekly in front of the P-I building. But soon the number of pickets swelled as longshoremen, timber workers and finally the Teamsters joined the lines. The P-I was forced to suspend operations; violence erupted as several nonstriking employees trying to sneak through the blockade were beaten.
   The local newspaper establishment was irate. The P-I issued a statement that "radical racketeers" were threatening the community, and Times publisher C.B. Blethen, usually the archenemy of Hearst, joined in loudly condemning the strike -- and above all, Dave Beck. "Seattle is now the plaything of a dictator," Blethen wrote indignantly in a bold front-page editorial. "The suspension of The Post-Intelligencer is more likely than not to mark the place where Seattle lies -- dead. How do you like the look of Dave Beck's gun? The shame of it!"

1936. The American Newspaper Guild initiates a strike against The P-I. Women from the Law and Order League picket against the unions. Photo Credit: Seattle Times.

   But Blethen's flaming rhetoric did little but earn him a libel suit filed by Beck. Hearst obstinately refused to settle with the union; The P-I remained closed for 3 1/2 months.
   Labor gained many unlikely supporters during the standoff -- ministers and housewives joined the picket lines to condemn Hearst's tactics. Even Seattle Mayor John Dore, who two years earlier had condemned striking longshoremen, now defended Beck and the Guild.
   Opponents included local business leaders who formed a Law and Order League, vowing to stop "labor lawlessness."
   But it was not until Roosevelt's resounding re-election in November 1936 that Hearst began to soften his position. After tense negotiations, which Beck helped broker, a tentative agreement was reached and P-I employees returned to work.
   Labor unions all over the country made gains during the New Deal era, but in Seattle Guild members were particularly jubilant, having forced the largest publishing chain in the country to recognize them.
   Hearst responded to the union triumph by hiring Franklin Roosevelt's son-in-law, John Boettiger, as publisher of The P-I.
   In the end, however, Dave Beck probably gained most. His libel suits against The Times and P-I netted more than $25,000, but more importantly, Beck solidified his personal influence. Later successes, including the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and a term as chair of the UW Board of Regents, were marred by a prison sentence for tax evasion. Yet Beck never seemed to lose his reputation as Seattle's premier labor leader.

Historians Sharon Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy teach at local universities and do research, writing and oral history.

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