Strikes have become legends here. Memories are long and, except for the 1972 flood that devastated the city, no memories come as easily to mind as those of the Molly Maguires, the founding of the United Mine Workers, and the miners' 1802 strike that resulted in violence between company guards and strikers.
Wilkes Barre's legends and memories have been burnished anew by a bitter labor dispute not in coal fields, but at a newspaper.
The strike, which caused Mayor Walter W. Lisman to declare a four-day state of emergency last month, pits an out-of-town owner with a reputation for union busting against newspaper unions that refuse to yeild a word or a comma from the contracts that have now expired.
Since it began Oct. 6, the strike has run an ugly course marked by beatings, window smashings, spraying with fire extinguishers, threats against merchants and newsboys and racial taunts. No one expects an early end, and federal mediators have not scheduled any meetings between the two sides because they see no prospect now for progress in negotiations.
Capital Cities Communications Inc., a New York-based corporation that owns six television stations, seven radio stations, five daily newspapers, one weekly and 23 trade publications, bought the multinamed Wilkes Barre Times Leader, Evening News Record last May 17.
The firm paid $10.5 million for a monopoly paper that businessmen here and in New York estimated should have brought at least double that price except for its union contracts and the strong union traditions of Wilkes Barre.
The 205 strikers from four unions - the Newspaper Guild, Pressmen Typographers and Stereotypers - are counting on those traditions to support them through a long strike. They have started their own newspapers, the Citizen's Voice, and pin their hopes for success to their ability to keep subscribers and advertisers loyal to their paper rather than to the Times Leader, which is printing with nonunion labor.
(Ironically, The Citizen's Voice is renting presses from a nonunion weekly paper, but Manning them with union pressmen).
The Citizen's Voice has been quite successful so far.
Politicians like Mayor Lisman and state Rep. Bernard O'Brien found it advisable to cancel their Times Leader subscriptions. "Nobody buys them," O'Brien said.
Not many newsstands carry the Times Leader anymore. One that does, a general store run by Gerald Serafini, has paid a price by having its large front windows smashed twice. Serafini also received an anonymous letter threatening "punishment" for anyone who supports the Times Leader.
"This is America," Serafini said when asked why he carried both papers, "you can't tell people what they have to read." He said he sells about 130 copies of The Citizen's Voice and 100 copies of the Times Leader daily.
Newspaper delivery boys were told by their striking supervisors that they should carry only The Citizen's Voice, according to residents in several parts of Wilkes Barre. Subscribers to the Times Leader found The Citizen's Voice on their doorstep instead.
Some protested, but others were delighted. Bundles of Times Leaders sat on street corners undelivered and sometimes the bundles were cut loose for the wind to scatter over the streets. Other bundles were carried back to the Times Leader building and thrown over its fence.
Richard Connor, the operating officer for the Times Leader, concedes that his paper has delivery problems, but says new delivery supervisors have been hired to replace those on strike and a search is on for paper carriers.
The Times Leader doesn't know what its circulation is now but believes it's well over half the prestrike 70,000 copies, Connor said The Citizen's Voice claims a circulation of 51,000.
Each side disputes the other's figures. Strikes tell of people being given free copies of the Times Leader in a desperate effort to boost circulation, while Connor scoffs at The Citizen's Voice's effort to reinforce its claims by getting an accountant to verify its circulation.
While the strikers conventrate on trying to improve the The Citizen's Voice to win its competition with the Times Leader (currently one man at The Citizen's Voice listens to a radio to gather national news), the strikers' Times Leader jobs are being filled.
At first, Capital Cities flew in executives like Connors editor of the company's Pontlac, Mich., paper where the Newspaper Guild and pressmen have been on strike for over a year and the guild jobs have all been filed) and workers from other Capital Cities newspapers.
Now, however, a sizable number of local people have taken permanent jobs in Wilkes Barre, the $10,000-to-$19,000 salaries the paper offers are attractive and not everyone, here is sticking to the union.
The "four blocks of anthracite" as the striking unions call themselves, and Capital Cities agree on one thing - money is not the issue in the strike.
The unions have said they would accept a 7 percent wage increase and all the language of their contracts that expired Sept. 30. Connors said the company has no probem with giving 7 percent raises.
"The issue," said one well-informed source, is "who will run the paper - management or the union."
"The previous owners gave the plant away to the unions. Hell, they had to sell because they couldn't make any money with those contracts," a businessman said. "Why did they sign them? What can you answer? That someone was a fool?"
Union spokesman Paul Golias rejects the suggestion that the guild or any other union has gained contractual rights to authority that should belong to management. The issue, the unions say, is that "Capital Cities" idea of employe relationships is one based on total control over employes in the workplace."
The company wants greater freedom to hire, fire and promote.
The expired Guild contract contained clauses that do not exist at the majority of newspapers, restricting the paper's freedom in hiring and promoting employes.
For example, management is required to give guild employes preferential consideration for all vacancies. Some people began their careers at the Times Leader in guild-covered secretarial or maintenance jobs and became reporters and editors. Management also is restricted in the number of experienced people it can hire from outside the paper.
Capital Cities also wants the right to publish fewer editions. Under the expired Guild contract, the paper has to publish - as it has in the past four morning and four afternoon editions.
Overtime, sick leave and other fringe benefits would also be less generous if Capital Cities has its way.
Because of the ongoing strike against Capital Cities' Pontiac paper, Golias said workers were apprehensive, as soon as they heard Capital Cities had bought the Times Leader, that there would be a confrontation.
"Capital Cities is out to destroy the union," Golias said.
Capital Cities also expected a strike, and it made a few mistakes that cost it whatever chance the new management had to minimize rather than inflame union feelings in this city.
First, the paper began building a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire last summer. The fence, which marks the paper's property lines, enraged Times Leader employes and many others who saw it as a reminder of the tactics of coal bosses years ago.
In case the reminder hadn't reached everyone, the paper then brought in armed guards who began patrolling inside and outside the building before any strike had been called.
Moreover, as Mayor Lisman and several businessmen said, the Wackenhut Corp. guards who were brought in were almost all black in a town that had less than percent minority population and no apparent desire for more.
The town rallied to the newspaper workers' cause, and when the strike began members of other unions crowded into Main Street to show their support. There were a series of confrontation that led the mayor to clear the streets by declaring a state of emergency.
The Wackenhuts have been withdrawn and replaced by a local security firm with mostly white employes. "We thought maybe we made a mistake," Connors said, "when the police told us, 'Get your niggers out of town.'" court order limiting pickets to eight on each side of the building at any time, there has been no recent violence on Main Street, where the Times Leader and The Citizen's Voice headquarters are less than 100 yards apart.
Both sides are settling in for a long haul. Capital Cities is counting on its money and its ability to make the Times Leader a better paper to overcome its initial unpopularity here.
The unions are counting on the legend of the coal fields to keep people on their side, like the many families who are now telling funeral homes when a relative dies: "Don't put a death notice in the Times Leader. They don't want to die in nonunion hands."