A year ago, Richard Sisk was covering the fall of the Berlin Wall for the New York Daily News. Yesterday, he was marching with a picket sign in front of the Daily News bureau on L Street NW, a lonely figure in the early-morning chill.
"My father was a mailer for 30 years in New York," said Sisk, 46. "I've done everything from load the trucks to run the freight elevator to write front-page stories. I just felt I had to do something."
The 16-day-old strike that is threatening to kill the nation's third-largest metropolitan newspaper also has split the Washington bureau, where five of the seven reporters who belong to the Newspaper Guild are working and two are on strike.
The second-floor bureau, with its glass-enclosed offices and framed headlines such as "WE BAG THE BUMS" and "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD," is eerily quiet these days, but the silence does not mask the sadness.
"It's just grief," said Bureau Chief Lars-Erik Nelson, 49, a member of management. "A bureau like this is kind of a family. Some of us were together when the paper was put up for sale in '82."
Nelson has maintained a normal routine -- writing his column, assigning his White House and State Department reporters, eating lunch yesterday with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp -- but rarely sees his own stories, since the News no longer sends a national edition to Washington.
There is some question about how many New Yorkers are reading the stories. Most city newsstands have stopped carrying the tabloid because of sporadic violence and threats against dealers, and the News has started recruiting homeless men to hawk the paper on the streets.
Many staffers doubt the paper will survive past Christmas. "I don't think they had any inkling that the drivers would be able to intimidate the newsstand dealers so successfully," one said.
Economics reporter Jerome Cahill, who kept working because he is worried about his pension, said the strike "was like being kicked in the stomach."
"I wrestled with myself," said Cahill, 62, who lives in Reston. "I have family responsibilities. I have a wife who's been out of the job market for 35 years, thanks to me. . . . I feel I had little choice in the matter."
Susan Milligan, 28, a Capitol Hill reporter on strike, said from her Northwest Washington home that she is worried about a replacement reporter hired by the bureau.
"When I heard they brought in a replacement -- the new '90s word for 'scab' -- it just blew me away," she said. "I kind of wavered. I thought, I'd better go back, or I won't have a job. Then I thought, do I want to be bullied by these people?
"I grew up in Buffalo, a city of steelworkers," Milligan said. "If I crossed the picket line, I couldn't live with myself. It's a great job, but it's only a job."
The Chicago-based Tribune Co., which owns the paper, said 150 of the Guild's 350 newsroom staff have returned to work, a figure disputed by the union. Although reporters here do not have to walk through a long picket line like their Manhattan counterparts, Sisk occasionally is joined by sympathizers from other unions.
Few reporters dispute allegations of featherbedding among the paper's pressmen and drivers, but some disagree about whether the Guild should have joined the battle that began over a disagreement between a manager and a member of the drivers' union. Nelson blamed the Guild for spreading "false information" that its members would be replaced permanently, while Sisk accused management of "Gestapo" tactics.
Most find fault with both sides. "It's not about the right to overstaff the presses or have a sweet deal in the drivers' union," Milligan said. "The issue here is the right for all of us to be in a union." But Milligan also is "angry" about craft-union members who "make a lot more money than I do" and "bleed the paper."
One reporter who asked not to be identified went on strike for the first few days, then returned to work, determined to draw a paycheck while seeking a job.
"Both sides clearly stink," this reporter said. "I can't stand the way management did things like replacing people. That is just incredible.
"But even for people who used to believe organized labor is important to America, how do you identify with people who are not just firebombing trucks, but worse, terrorizing immigrants who are selling the newspaper? That's just unconscionable."