The e-mail lit up in-boxes across the newsroom. Workers at The Vindicator, a Youngstown newspaper, had gone on strike, and Peter Bhatia, editor of The Oregonian in Portland, wanted to help a brother out.
"Our parent company is helping the management in Youngstown continue to publish by supplying workers . . .," he told his staff in a November 26 e-mail. "We have been asked to see if there might be volunteers from here, willing to go to Youngstown and work."
He tempted them with two salaries -- their regular checks and additional Youngstown pay -- plus per diem, transportation, and housing expenses. He did not, however, offer flak jackets to protect their chests and, as some unionists figure, their souls.
And so it's safe to assume one thing: Peter Bhatia has never been to Youngstown.
If he had, he would have known that in Youngstown, strikes, much like funerals and Steelers games, are part of life. This explains why the 179 members of Newspaper Guild Local 11 walked out November 16. After all, the folks at the RMI titanium plant were about to end a 13-month lockout. Somebody had to man the picket lines.
"And as soon as they're done, it'll be somebody else," says RMI employee Ray Raschilla. "I guarantee it."
Vindicator workers hadn't struck in 40 years, but reporters, delivery drivers, circulation managers, and others haven't seen a pay raise in four years. Management offered a 1 percent bump. Striking, employees believed, was their only option.
Yet 1 percent from a company that's lost money for seven years is "a generous offer," General Manager Mark Brown counters. The paper's broke and is willing to open its books to prove it.
With the two sides worlds apart and trading jabs in print -- the union quickly started its own weekly -- Brown knew he'd need replacements. So the family-owned newspaper contacted bigger chains -- such as Advance Publications, parent to The Plain Dealer, The Oregonian, and others -- to plead for scabs. Advance didn't bother asking reporters at The Plain Dealer, a strong union shop, where most would give up journalism -- even booze -- before they scabbed. There were enough nonunion shops in the Advance chain anyway.
Between 6 and 10 staffers from around the country arrived. The union says workers have come from New Orleans, Massachusetts, Alabama, and Michigan; they don't think any have come from Portland. But they can't be sure. The scabs are shuttled in dark-windowed vans past the front gates, which are manned by BALCO-big guards dressed in ninja black.
"They're cowards," says Anthony Markota, a circulation manager and union president. "They're afraid to have their faces shown."
And who can blame them? Youngstown is among America's most hardcore labor towns. The top attraction -- how's this for a Saturday afternoon with the kids? -- is a museum dedicated to working. Scabbing in Youngstown is like pedaling a pink scooter down the streets of Parma. It just isn't good for your health.
That's a lesson Patricia Meade may have learned. The only staffer to cross the picket line, she covers the police, who don't take kindly to strikebreakers and have delivered doughnuts to the picketers. Word is, she now does her job with a private security guard by her side, though this couldn't be confirmed.
When Meade tried to distribute business cards at the Warren Police Department, officers collected the cards and gave them to Peggy Sinkovich, the striking reporter who usually covers that beat. She promptly mailed them back to The Vindicator.
Among the paper's biggest stories has been the end to the RMI lockout, where more than 300 steelworkers were off the job for 13 months. Union President Todd Weddell says he gave The Vindicator reporter his best Heisman. "I was just waiting for them to contact us," Weddell says. "That takes a lot of nerve."
Even Vindicator editors are getting the scab treatment. One tried to cover the Mahoning County Prosecutor's Office, but got the hint. "He used to come in," says employee Mone Jackson. "But now he just calls."
There are cities where a newspaper could tell its union to unite this and simply hire desperate young journalists to cover city hall, high school tennis, and the rest.
But not in Youngstown. Not in a place where a quarter of the workers are unionized and the rest tend to be ardent sympathizers. A place where churches and charities -- known for taking, not making donations -- haul turkey dinners and breakfasts to the union hall.
Though the paper says the strike hasn't hurt it financially, subscribers are already canceling. Advertisers have pulled out, too. If The Vindicator tries to break the union altogether, it may very likely end up breaking its own legs instead.
And so the union strikes on, with both sides waiting for the other to get lonely or go broke. Sometimes they cross paths. A scab from New Orleans tried to chat up striking reporter Joe Scalzo at a high school football game, assuring the young reporter that he was only trying to save his job. The awkward exchange played out in the press box and on the sidelines. "He kept talking, so I just walked away," Scalzo says. "I'm certainly not going to talk to some scab!"
But for the most part, they keep their distance, separated by gates and guards. On street corners of this gray and battered downtown, picketers huddle near fires built in hulking barrels, rusted old things with the words "ON STRIKE" carved out of them, so that they light up like a sneering jack-o'-lantern. But their real message is written on their faces:
Welcome to Youngstown, scab. Good luck. You're gonna need it.
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