Bert Powers; Typographers Union President Led Months-Long Strike

New York Post owner Dorothy Schiff, left, arbitrator and mediator Theodore Kheel and Bertram Powers shake hands after reaching an agreement.
New York Post owner Dorothy Schiff, left, arbitrator and mediator Theodore Kheel and Bertram Powers shake hands after reaching an agreement. (By Vincent Riehl -- New York Daily News)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 25, 2006

Bertram A. "Bert" Powers, 84, the president of the old typographers union in New York who led his guild through a grinding 114-day strike in 1962-63 over the transition to automated typesetting, died Dec. 23 at the Washington Home hospice. He had pneumonia.

The strike, the longest and costliest in New York history, was often credited with bringing sharp reductions in the number of daily newspapers in the U.S. media capital. As a result, it brought Mr. Powers national attention and likely marked the start of a technological revolution in a business that had not changed in years.

The bow-tie-sporting Mr. Powers, once described by a New York Times labor reporter as "honest, clean, democratic -- and impossible," was elected president of the New York Typographical Union No. 6 in 1961.

The contract for "Big Six," as the union was popularly known, expired the next year, which placed Mr. Powers in direct conflict with the New York Publishers Association, the trade group for the city's large dailies.

For the typographers, who did the hot-metal printing on linotype machines, the greatest issue was not only a raise but also long-term job security. A new process of automated typesetting, much less costly than human labor, threatened to make them obsolete.

Frustrated during negotiations, Mr. Powers called a strike in December 1962 that prompted a walkout among typographers at the New York Times, the Daily News, the Journal-American and the World-Telegram and Sun. Other unions, including mailers and photo engravers, honored the picket lines.

Newspapers sustained enormous losses in revenue and circulation during the Christmas season, and that hurt other city businesses. In financial straits, the New York Post left the publishers group to settle with the union, but the matter dragged on until early 1963.

Mr. Powers endured criticism from major business and political leaders. At one point, President John F. Kennedy opened a news conference saying the strike "passed the point of public toleration." Time magazine, in 1963, asked on its cover "Is Labor's Only Weapon a Monkey Wrench?" next to a menacing image of Mr. Powers.

The strike also was painted as a personal clash between Mr. Powers, a self-educated, fourth-generation Irish-American, and Amory Bradford, the patrician chief negotiator for the publishers.

In the end, the union received a small increase in weekly wages and the agreement that publishers would not bring major technological changes without consulting Big Six. The union emerged as a pacesetter among newspaper guilds, giving it a crucial status during later negotiations for lifetime job guarantees for typographers.

Several of the city's papers never recovered from the 1962-63 strike and folded.

Although Mr. Powers was often blamed for the papers' demise, Mitchell Stephens, a newspaper historian and author, once told Newsday: "Nobody killed the newspapers in New York, there just wasn't room for them. [Powers] was bucking three trends: automation, shrinkage of the newspaper business because of television and the decline of the American labor movement."

Bertram Anthony Powers was born March 8, 1922, in Cambridge, Mass. At 12, he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents after his mother's death. He left high school in 10th grade and regarded reading newspapers as his informal education.

After being hit by a truck in 1937, he received vocational training as a printer during his rehabilitation. He spent six years as an itinerant printer, working at papers around New England and the upper Midwest before settling in New York in 1946. There, he rose fast within the union and by 1953 was its vice president.

After the 1962-63 strike, automation remained a major issue between the union and the publishers. Mr. Powers was said to have realized that he could not hold out indefinitely against automation. Tensions reached another peak in the early 1970s, largely over the same issues of modernization and job security.

One of Mr. Powers's tactics was work slowdowns, held in the composition rooms under the guise of informational meetings about the status of negotiations with publishers. In 1973, he and other union officials were found guilty of contempt because of such "chapel," or workshop, meetings and fined $250. The next year, he and the publishers reached an automation accord allowing the use of "cold type" typography in return for lifetime job guarantees.

Attrition eventually diminished the bargaining position of Mr. Powers's union, which merged into the Communications Workers of America in 1987. Mr. Powers retired in 1990.

His wife of 43 years, Patricia Colville Powers, died in 1988. Mr. Powers moved to Washington two months ago.

Survivors include four children, Kevin Powers of Buffalo, Patricia Inciardi of Novato, Calif., Brian Powers of Washington and Moya Keating of Chatham, N.J.; three sisters; and nine grandchildren.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company