Before desktop printers took over offices everywhere, a massive typesetting industry turned magazines’, newspapers’, and publishing houses’ copy into printed matter. For most of the twentieth century, the International Typographical Union set the standards for work in the field — and the standards were high. But the union’s power was eroded by its inability to adapt to rapidly evolving technologies, which brought printing out of the type shop and onto office workers’ desks by the end of the century.
In this interview, design scholar Dakota Brown speaks to Michael Neuschatz about his time as a typesetter in the early 1970s. He served as a shop steward, union insurgent, and labor organizer while typesetting. He discusses how the power of the union underwent dramatic shifts not just because of technological changes, but because of the union’s reluctance to move as nimbly as the bosses.
How did you become a typesetter?
I got into typesetting as almost an accidental process. But through no special talent of my own, when I got plugged into this whole world, I was a witness and a participant in three large transitions.
The first was the transition from hot type, lead based type (like what was produced by a Linotype machine to cold type), which was type that was produced through a computer and then a photographic process. The second one was the alteration of the entire structure of the labor conditions with the demise of the international typographical union, which was the human side of the whole process. It was actually a very interesting contest between the workers and the bosses because at the time that I came in, the union was at its height. And it had quite a lot of leverage, so there was an ability to extract a lot of benefits and a lot of good conditions and control over the process.
And over time that was eroded, and the third big transition was the kind of decentralization of typesetting as a process in and of itself. In other words, it used to be that typesetting went on in plants that were dedicated to that process and that process only. And by the mid-nineties, a relatively short period of time from when I came in (in the early seventies) almost all typesetting happened on the desks of the people who were either writing or transcribing. And the computer basically became a typesetting machine and the laser printer, or an inkjet printer, became the actual proof-making machine that was then fed into a press.
So, rather than typesetting having to be centralized in some discrete places that could be unionized or could be controlled either by the workers or by the owners of those places, it became completely decentralized. Every desk became a little typesetting plant. And everybody who knew how to operate a computer could then become a typesetter, and a lot of the knowledge that had been previously in the hands and the minds of the people who had been typesetting was transcribed into computer software that made the job easier but at the same time much more pre-thought and standardized. In other words there was less room for the creative part of typesetting process. People simply hit a key. It created an image of a letter. The letters were arranged through software on a page, photographed, sent through a printer, and produced as a proof.
So it was really a remarkable set of transitions in a very short period of time, and what made it interesting was that the ITU that I was a member of was actually the oldest continuous union in the United States, and one of the oldest in the world, that was organized as a union rather than as a guild or something like that. And it had almost like a religious tradition of practices and relationships and ways of going about becoming a master typesetter and doing the job. And all of that went by the boards in a very short period of time.
So that’s kind of the overarching picture. My little story was basically when I was about twenty-three years old, I moved with my young family to Boston. I had just finished college, and I was working in a shipyard. And I saw an ad in the Boston Globe for a proofreader, and it said “Five years experience required.” Well, I had a B.A. in sociology and so I had some language skills and writing skills, and the pay that they were offering was double what I was making at the shipyard.
So, I called them up and I said “I used to be a typesetter in Colorado, but it’s been a while.” And they said “Well, come on down and we’ll give you a test and see if you know what you’re talking about.”
By the way, that wasn’t true, right?
No, that wasn’t true. I was just desperate to get five dollars an hour instead of two-fifty an hour. And five dollars an hour . . . this was 1971. It was a very good wage. So my former wife drove me to the plant where I was going to be interviewed, but on the way we stopped off at the library, and she parked across the street, and I ran into the library and I checked out a book on proofreading marks, and I just sat in the car and flipped through. And then she drove me to the typesetting plant, and I walked in and I apologized in advance for the fact that I’d been away from the field for a while, so I was rusty. And so they said “Okay, here’s a paragraph with lots of mistakes. Mark it up, showing all the errors.”
So they took the results and they said “Well, we can see from the results that you were a typesetter, but we agree, you’ve been away from it for a long time, and you really are kind of rusty. So we’ll give you a trial to see if you can come up to speed.” So for about a month, I just kept studying and learning as much as I could. And finally after a month, they said “Okay. You’re pretty good now. You can have the regular job.”
So what jobs did you have in that shop?
I started out as a proofreader, and I did that and I worked night shift for about a year. But it wasn’t so good because I was missing my kids. I had seen that there were what they called “markup men.” Unfortunately, the entire type shop was men, and I should add that this was a non-union type shop, which is why I could get the job on a snap because in union shops, you were supposed to go through an apprenticeship, and the apprenticeship was typically seven years. So you were trained in a seven-year process of learning every single job that was done in the type plant, so that the employer could shift you from one function to another as they needed people.
So if there was too many compositors out sick, they would move the proofreaders to be setting type by compositor. Or, if there was too few Linotype people, you’d have to sit down and work on the Linotype machine.
Was this true in smaller shops?
Yeah, the shop that I worked in had two shifts and maybe fifty or maybe sixty total workers. So that was a medium-sized shop. These were all, I should point out, ad shops. This wasn’t book publishing, it wasn’t newspaper. We were dealing with different ads with different setups all the time, so you had to be kind of on your toes about how to rearrange things or wrap type around pictures or have headings in an ad . . . think of the ads you see in the newspaper. If anyone reads newspapers anymore, whatever.
My shop had three different kinds of type production. There was Linotype production, there was something called monotype production, and then headlines in large type were always composited by hand. This was all lead, and this was all what they called hot type because the Linotype machine melted the lead that was then sent to the molds and so that was hot. If you got it on your hand you had a real problem.
So when did you move to New York?
That was in ‘73, so I became a markup person, and right around the time I did was when the plant I was working in decided to go to computerized. And this was the first or second plant in Boston to do that, and they invested $1.5 million in a mini-computer, which was probably one-tenth as powerful as what’s in your hand right now.
But at the time it was about the size of a refrigerator. And that was just the computer part because there was an associated photography part next to it which was run by the computer which was also refrigerator-sized. And together these cost two-thirds of the budget for an entire year of this printing plant. So they invested their money and found that in order to make a profit, they would have to run that machine twenty-four hours a day all the time. And if it ran perfectly, everything would be fine and they would make some money out of it. And they envisioned, I believe, laying off many of the typesetters.
What happened instead was that they could not make the payments on the machine. They couldn’t keep going. They didn’t have enough work and there were all kinds of start-up problems because very few people knew about computers. So they went belly up. I was one of the early programmers on that computer, so I had learned quite a bit about computerized type by studying how to make that machine work, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to continue that because of their financial problems.
So I moved to New York. I saw an ad in the New York Times for a typesetter and it said “Must have foreign language skills.” I spoke a couple of languages and knew something of a couple more. So I went down and answered the ad, and said “I’d like to be interviewed.” And the guys who interviewed me said “Well, we’re the only all-language, foreign language shop in the United States.”
This was a union shop. Normally the union shop can only hire people from the union hiring hall who’ve gone through the apprenticeship program and who were high on the seniority list. In other words there was a seniority list in the union, and you couldn’t get a job until you’re number came up, and you’d just have to wait. The only reason I got the job without having gone through an apprenticeship and without being in the union already because I knew these foreign languages, and they couldn’t find a printer who knew all the requisite languages; French, Spanish, and so on. There were three or four languages, and I knew two or three of them. So it was enough that they could get me in.
So I got hired out of seniority, but I felt like I had just died and gone to heaven because my pay doubled yet again. The union at this time, this was the largest and most powerful of the printing union locals in all of the country. We were Local 6, and our membership alone was more than 10 percent of the national membership of the union. New York was the center of publishing. The center of book publishing, and of newspaper publishing; the city had like twelve daily newspapers at the time, plus an array of smaller foreign language newspapers.
And it was the advertising center. It was a very large and very lucrative industry, so companies were willing to spend huge amounts of money to design and print up a full-page ad in the New York Times, exactly arranging the type in artistic fashion so that it would catch people’s eye.
This was in the early seventies when the United States was beginning to expand to a lot of global trade. Trade was opening up with Russia. There was an opening up with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. There was an opening up with the Middle East following the OPEC oil crisis, they had tons of money and US companies were trying to break in where British companies had been before.
I became a markup man with a specialty in foreign languages, so I got even more money than the actual scale because I had these special skills. And the union, because it was strong, was able to wrench benefits like a thirty-four-hour week. For people who worked the graveyard shift, it was a thirty-hour week. Which was unheard of in those days. It wasn’t time-and-a-half for overtime. We got a minimum of double time, and if you worked on the weekends, you got triple time. And if you worked on the weekends for more than eight hours, we got quadruple time.
We’d have crash operations where we would be working like, practically through the night. We’d come home groggy, but we’d make the equivalent of three or four weeks worth of wages for two days. And the union got all kinds of other benefits. Everybody started at four weeks of vacation every year, not counting sick days. Just vacation. We were given medical screening in the facilities that would normally screen executives from big New York companies. They had these in the fifty-fifth floor of some Manhattan office tower. There would be fifteen executives going through the screening and me and my two kids and my wife. It was amazing.
The difficulties the union ran into with mechanization and computerization run parallel to some of your own clashes with the union — could you speak to that?
Sure. This was exactly the time the union had reached its peak and controlled so much of the industry, and the hiring in the industry, that they could wrench some of these benefits that were just unheard of, and we were like the aristocracy of labor. But at the same time, companies were trying to open up nonunion cold-type shops, computerized typesetting shops, and they tried to funnel work from the expensive unionized hot-type shops to places where they could hire nonunion workers and cut their wages. So under the surface, the union was being undercut.
After two years in this one shop, my employer opened up a nonunion shop, and as the markup person, I learned about it because I could see these jobs disappearing from our work. They’d come back two weeks later or three days later, and they were done, but not by us. So we started investigating.
I got elected shop steward. Our shop steward oddly enough was called “chapel chairman.” And I started investigating this nonunion shop that my boss was trying to build up on the side. Needless to say, when I became chapel chairman, the owner of my shop took away as much as he could of my special over-the-scale benefits and stuff like that because I suddenly became the antagonist. I might have done good work, but he wasn’t going to pay me any extra because we were just at loggerheads.
I brought him up on charges, because the union had a clause that said you’re not allowed to open up a nonunion shop. So we had a meeting before a very high-powered labor mediator in New York, and we won because he was trying to pretend like the shop was owned by somebody else. He said “I used to own it but then I sold it to somebody,” and one of our people said “I know who that somebody is. It’s his brother-in-law.” We were able to expose him. He never thought anyone would know that, so we won.
He then went out of business, took all of his work and funneled it to the nonunion shops. My shop, all of us, were back at a loss at the hiring hall. However, the union had, when it was at its height — and this is just about the same time as my shop went out of business — negotiated a contract that said “We’ll accept computerized typesetting in exchange for a fund that the employers put money into that would guarantee every current member a lifetime wage at union scale.” So theoretically, we were promised that no matter whether we worked or not, we would be getting a paycheck every week.
However, I and some friends of mine felt that that was really not a honest deal because of course, it would only be as good as the ability of the owners to put money into such a fund. If they started doing nonunion shops and went away from the union, they would stop making contributions, and so on paper, we would have such an agreement, a promise. But in fact, we wouldn’t. And that’s exactly what happened.
I also helped to form a caucus to try to organize in cold type shops because my union was very stuck in the old style, they basically sat on their behinds and said “We’ll be okay. We’ll come through.” They didn’t really see the threat of cold type as undermining the entire industry and the entire union.
They were complacent about organizing, and they felt that it couldn’t be done. We, old stodgy white men, were not going to be able to figure out how to organize these new shops. Well, I had some experience in cold type, in computerized type setting, so I joined a group that said “Yes, we can organize. Let’s do it. Let’s try to be a little more aggressive.” And of course, it would mean also, organizing more women and minorities into our ranks because those groups made up a far larger share of the workforce in nonunion cold type shops. It was much more diverse than our group.
So we said “Let’s find some of the people in those shops who can help us with the organizing, and we’ll also go into them and we’ll organize committees to join the union and threaten to strike.” The union had such a promising benefit to people because it could offer them basically twice the wages that they were getting at the current time, if the union could successfully organize the shop.
So my union said “No, no, no. You can’t do that” and part of the reason I think was that we were insurgents, and they knew that we were unhappy with the way they were running the union. They were probably afraid that if we organized the shop, we would organize them into our caucus, and we’d become a bigger oppositional group. So we went undercover. I started getting jobs in nonunion shops and trying to organize people. I was actually offered eight jobs out of eight applications in one day, the first day that I set out because this was the 1970s, the economy was booming, and it was not uncommon to quit a job on Friday and get another one by Monday.
There was ability to be more flippant about things. People weren’t as timid about their work. I went and did undercover organizing and the union actually sabotaged the organizing. In one case, the boss was a former union member and a friend of his called him from the union’s organizing office and said, “This guy’s actually working to organize your shop.” The boss called me in and said “My contact in the union says you’re trying to organize.” And I said “Oh, no. Just like my resume said, I’m just a guy come down from Boston.” And he said “Okay, well go to back to work.”
Two weeks later he called me in and said “Well, my friend says that your name is Michael Neuschatz and you are a union member and you are organizing. I’m sorry to lose you but we’re going to have to fire you.” That happened twice, and I saw the writing on the wall. Our caucus even tried to meet with the official union organizers who were afraid of this whole process and say “Let’s do this together” as a way to get them to stop undermining it, but ultimately they didn’t, and so I ended up leaving the trade and going to graduate school at the end of the 1970s.
I still got some benefits for a few years from this fund, and even today I’m retired, and I get a small pension from my union days. But meanwhile, the union has gone almost completely belly up. It was absorbed by the Communications Workers of America and the branch has just one-tenth of the people that it had before. There are a lot of retired people. I was actually one of the younger ones. So there’s a lot of people older than me, very, very few people in the union, and the pension fund is now almost completely bankrupt. We’ve gotten letters saying that in a few months, they’re going to go bankrupt.
In the end, all these people had a very strong union, but they got caught in this transition. And because the union wasn’t able to adapt and try to aggressively organize the new processes, it closed a chapter both in typesetting history and American labor history.