The beautiful Victorian castle above Colorado Springs where blue-collar bluebloods live out their final days proves that highly skilled manual labor can produce stunning results. But as the people inside the castle can testify, even the finest craftwork doesn't last forever.
Since 1892 the Union Printers Home has been a snug harbor for infirm or retired members of the International Typographical Union, until a few years ago America's oldest surviving national trade union. Meticulously designed and built, the home's a fitting place for people who spent their working lives meticulously designing and building pages of metal type, making sure that little pieces of lead fit together well enough to withstand the immense force of printing presses.
Life no longer fits together so neatly for printers. Computers delivered a crushing blow to their trade, unions are about as popular as lizards, and the ITU, founded in the 1850s, has been swallowed up by another organization. Stories about the 500-year history of movable type are now produced without movable type.
Inside the castle, up on the fourth floor, printer Elmo U. Collins has a fine view of Pike's Peak. He usually faces the other way, however, sitting at his computer writing Aristocrats of Labor, his history of the ITU. When he finishes a chapter, all he has to do is press some buttons and his Hewlett-Packard laser printer spits out the pages. The 68-year-old Collins, who has lived in the Printers Home off and on since 1989, needs the new technology. After years of working at a trade that demanded strong, steady hands, he is increasingly afflicted with the tremors and short circuits of Parkinson's disease. He spent a career soaking up others' words. Now, with a stubbornness typical of printers, he tries to get the word out about his beloved union before he seizes up permanently.
"Why the hell should you sit up here and do nothing, watch out the window as the world goes by?" Collins says. Information doesn't do much good unless it's shared, he believes, but "if you spread knowledge over a number of people, you'll never lose it."
Back in Ohio, Collins worked for the Toledo Blade, where he became deeply involved in the ITU as chief contract negotiator with the newspaper's management and as chairman of his chapel (the ITU's term for each shop's membership). Collins's heyday corresponded with that of his beloved union, in the Fifties and Sixties. A decade later he decided to quit the Blade and run his own union shop, but outside forces started wrecking his life--and the ITU's--shortly thereafter. Collins cries as he talks about his wife's battle with Alzheimer's and cancer, and the twenty-month coma from which she never emerged. His doctor told him thirteen years ago that he'd be dead by now, but he's still trying to get some work done. "If you feel worthless, you're in trouble," says Collins, "and that's what I think the problem is today, that people don't think they have any merit or value. I feel mine's limited, but I still can contribute something."
For as long as he physically could, Collins traveled to Boulder and visited the University of Colorado archives, which contain a mountain of ITU records and memorabilia. Much of the material from America's first national trade union still sits in moving boxes in the Norlin Library basement, awaiting cataloguing. Collins wanted to be the one to sort through his union's history, but Parkinson's won't let him. So he searches for someone else or some other way to help uncover the tales of tramp printers and strike-breaking rats, of constant labor battles that eventually resulted in such breakthroughs as eight-hour workdays, and of an arrogant breed of skilled workers who've been a pain in the butt to management and other people in authority since before the country was founded.
One afternoon about eighty years ago in Neenah, Wisconsin, a girl named Lucy happened to glance through a window as she walked past the local newspaper office and fell in love with a Linotype, a spidery contraption about six feet tall.
The memory makes Lucy Zylkowski, now 86, put down her fork during dinner at the Printers Home and blush with delight: "I saw this machine, and it was so neat! That machine really fascinated me. I'd stop and look at it on my way home, and I'd always get scolded for being late."
At age seventeen, she wound up meeting a printer at the paper while ice skating, and he showed her how to set type. She married the guy, became a printer herself and eventually wound up at the Chicago Tribune, where she spent almost 25 years before retiring.
From the invention of movable type by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century until well into the nineteenth, printers had set type by hand, one letter at a time. A skilled printer could set 45 lines of a newspaper column in an hour's time. By the late 1800s, though, rapidly industrializing countries were hungry for information, and inventors raced to devise a typesetting machine. There were numerous harebrained schemes--Mark Twain lost a fortune backing one loser--until a German-born Baltimore mechanic named Ottmar Mergenthaler built the Linotype in the 1880s. Its speed--at least four to five times faster than hand composition--revolutionized the publishing business and created thousands of new jobs for printers. Many people, Zylkowski included, took grand rides aboard the loopy Linotype. "In all the days I worked," she says, "I never had a day I didn't want to go to work. You did the same type of work every day, but the news was different. I just loved it."
You couldn't just walk in off the street and operate a Linotype--mastering the machine took training. Using a keyboard that in no way resembled a typewriter's, you pressed a key and a brass matrix (a mold of that letter or other characters) slid down one of many channels inside a bulky, heavy but removable metal container called a magazine and came to rest in a liner. By combining metal pieces of varying thickness with the matrices, an operator composed a line and then coaxed the machine to squirt molten lead into the mold. The result was a slug--a line of type. Other printers would take these slugs and construct pages or business cards or fliers.
Linotypes were wonderfully kinetic, with a million levers, nuts, bolts and screws. They clattered and squeaked and sometimes spit hot lead at the people who ran them. The work was physically demanding, especially for the lino operators who lugged around the heavy metal magazines and hung pigs (bars of recycled lead) in their machines' melting pots. If you were a printer's devil, you might wind up wheeling a "hellbox" of used type into the furnace room and turning the metal into new pigs.
Zylkowski's left arm testifies to her trade. A brutal squirt of hot lead left a lengthy white scar on her wrist, and as the years have passed, she notes in wonderment, this badge of honor has gradually moved up her arm. Fellow retired printer Nick Papson, who has been listening to her rhapsody, ambles over to the diminutive Zylkowski and exclaims, "This little lady here! Lifting that magazine up! My knees would have buckled." He rubs her head and shakes her hand warmly.
Zylkowski beams and says, "Aren't printers a great bunch?"
In fact, printers were among the most gregarious of workers. Those who worked on newspapers engaged in feverish bursts of labor as each edition's deadline approached, but also enjoyed frequent spells of downtime during which to gab.
Other printers labored in book-publishing plants, ad shops or "job shops," composing cards, fliers--anything printed. Papson, 85, spent fifty years in Big Six, as New York City's ITU local--by far the largest in the country--was known, working in ad shops. For decades the printing industry was second in size only to the garment industry in New York, and labor disputes between Big Six and newspaper owners sometimes resulted in presidential intervention.
Social scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, whose dad was a Big Six member, once devoted a book to the raucous democracy--unique among trade unions--practiced by the ITU in its internal politics. He saw printers as the intellectuals of the working class, noting that "the dull smoldering hatred for the machine, plant or shop which is characteristic of many wage workers in industrial society [was] simply not present among printers in any noticeable degree." "A printer had to be knowledgeable in a number of things," Collins says. "He had to be up to date. It was the kind of work you were doing. And you learned by osmosis, if nothing else. How many people read the paper? Printers had to read. Printers were the guys who were caught in the middle between the people with ideas and the people they dispersed the information to."
But printers seldom felt trapped, says Collins. With a "traveling card," they could get work at any union shop, either as a substitute or as a permanent replacement. If they loved to travel, they could become "tramp printers," picking up work whenever and wherever they wanted.
And there was work almost everywhere. Whenever a town sprang up in colonial America, so did a print shop. Printers organized into local unions as early as the late eighteenth century. Being familiar with documents, they knew how to draw up their grievances. And they had reason to grieve: The carbon-based ink in their blood caused serious problems; tuberculosis and "black lung" were common ailments. By the mid-nineteenth century it became clear to these independent unions that a national organization was necessary to combat the bad working conditions, which included eleven-hour workdays and seven-day work weeks.
A national union would also serve as a clearinghouse for information about "rats," those traveling printers who were willing to work for less than union scale or as replacements during strikes. The local unions would have little bargaining power if their members could easily be replaced.
Almost immediately after printers founded in 1852 what would later be known as the ITU, they talked about building a national asylum for sick and infirm members. But nothing happened until George W. Childs, owner and publisher of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and his friend Anthony W. Drexel donated $5,000 each to the union. The ITU used that seed money, plus an assessment on its members, to build the Union Printers Home in Colorado Springs. A crowd of 5,000 attended the dedication on May 12, 1892.
The stately Printers Home, with its red sandstone and lava exterior and elegant marble and wood inside, bears no resemblance to the gritty, noisy plants and shops at which printers actually work. When the home opened, the average life expectancy of printers was 41, according to the ITU's own figures. Union members came to Colorado Springs not only to retire but also to recuperate from medical or financial reversals, and what they found at America's first union home was Valhalla. The arched entrance to the huge estate on Union Avenue carried the slogan "Its bounty unpurchasable"--in other words, put your wallets away, everything is on us--and that largess stretched to cover medical care in the property's hospital and sanatorium. For much of its hundred years, the estate featured its own farm, its own barber. And the printers themselves had paid for all this with monthly dues that for years were only 50 cents per person; no government funds--not even Social Security--were used to prop up the home. Printers relaxed on huge sun porches, strolled along tree-shaded walkways and gazed upon a garden designed by the guy who landscaped the Taj Mahal. Inside the castle were a 10,000-volume library, a sunny reading room, a 300-seat auditorium and a pool hall. "Printers called this `The Mountain,'" says Harry Sommerfield of Detroit, the home's longest-tenured resident. "They'd come here and they'd go back to work happy." Sommerfield, now 82, came in 1968 after suffering a head injury on the job in Detroit. He expected to stay a few months, but as it turned out, he's never left.
The home has served as more than a refuge. For decades it was a point of pride among printers, tangible proof of their power to control their own destiny.
Printers "were six jumps ahead of the rest of the people," Collins says. And often they acted like it.
"There is an arrogance," he adds. "They did feel they were the aristocrats of labor. The mindset was that you had a trade, so you felt egotistical and better than other people. We were trained and we knew what we were supposed to do."
This attitude carried over to their relationships with management. Labor historians note that no other union in the country had such control over its workplace, and some of that control still survives today on big-city newspapers and at other plants. In union shops, no one but an ITU member could even touch the type on the composing-room floor. In the ITU scheme of things, foremen were automatically members of the union and thus under union jurisdiction. Even so, often the foremen were less powerful on the job than the chapel chairmen. And when job vacancies arose, the company didn't search for printers--the ITU itself did.
The ITU differed from other unions in another respect: It had a thriving and contentious two-party political system (Collins was a Prog--short for Progressive). These working-class aristocrats who embraced middle-class values and often voted Republican were also rough-and-tumble democrats. Internally, just about every policy and every office were contested. Collins recalls taking his lumps during meetings from quarrelsome members as well versed in parliamentary procedure as he was. It prepared him well, he says, for battles with management.
The big clock in the tower atop the home was permanently stopped at eight o'clock shortly after the turn of the century to commemorate one of the ITU's biggest battles: its successful quest for an eight-hour workday. It seems only right that the clock still hasn't moved. Today the castle looks like a Fifth Avenue mansion decked out for a party--but somebody forgot to send the invitations. A Steinway grand in the still-beautiful dining room sits forlornly unplayed, and the spacious auditorium is empty most of the time. The library is primarily Harry Sommerfield's personal domain, because many of the 115 or so residents of the home are too enfeebled to use it.
The room is filled with perfectly preserved glass-stack bookcases--hundreds of them--containing books often a half-century old. The place once was more up to date. The home used to subscribe to more than a score of newspapers, Sommerfield says, and the beautiful, sunny room just off the library was packed with printers cussing and discussing the news. Not anymore.
The library walls help tell why. Near the circulation cage, where Sommerfield putters when he isn't delivering mail to his fellow residents, are the framed final issues of the Washington Star (died 1981) and Colorado Springs Sun (died 1986). Hundreds of newspapers have folded in the past thirty years, thousands of the jobs on surviving newspapers no longer exist, and many of the countless little shops that once dotted inner cities have succumbed to automation or urban renewal.
There's other hard evidence of change. Now the fifty or so printers in residence at the castle on Union Boulevard--down from more than 400 at the home's peak in the Sixties--are outnumbered in their long-exclusive domain. They, like all the other residents, must pay their own way. Today the home receives no union subsidies at all and offers no cut rates for ITU members.
By the late Seventies, when the ITU was rapidly losing members, there was talk of closing the home altogether. It had always operated in the red, anyway, and the number of residents had dwindled from 234 in 1975 to 155 in 1979. Instead, the home's trustees instituted a monthly charge from union members. They also sold off 175 acres of land, keeping the 40 acres on which the home sits and 35 adjacent acres occupied by what was then ITU headquarters and a technology training center. (Now the estate has been reduced to 27 acres total.)
Printers didn't buckle easily, winning buyouts and promises of retraining as computers flattened their trade. But there just weren't many new spots available.
In the hot-type days, it would take as many as thirty printers and twenty proofreaders to set the daily stock-market pages on big-city newspapers. These days, the computerized market tables travel practically untouched by even one human hand from New York to your local paper. And if you have your own computer, you don't even need a paper.
As printers retired or died, ITU membership dwindled. The union considered merging with the Newspaper Guild or Teamsters before finally agreeing, in 1986, to become a "sector" inside the mammoth Communications Workers of America. The ITU membership's monthly assessment for the Printers Home was discontinued, and increasing costs led to the closure of the home's hospital unit in 1989. That same year, the castle started admitting spouses of ITU members--and CWA members and their spouses as well.
Today the home is open to the general public and charges competitive prices. It will even operate in the black this year, say administrator Connie Miller and trustee Billy Joe Austin. But some things at the castle remain the same. The one-room museum on the home's first floor still is devoted to a time when printing--unlike today's desktop publishing--was a skilled craft open only to those who endured long apprenticeships. For years young printers-in-training were taught to be proud of their noble trade. On the walls of the museum is one such teaching aid, a poem entitled "Old-Timer" that describes the role of the printer: "His not to curb or question/The darts by others hurled/His but to form a link between/The thinker and the world."
Even though printers were primarily a conduit, more than ink rubbed off on them. The members of the ITU could--and did--proudly trace their lineage back to rabble-rousing revolutionaries like printer Benjamin Franklin. In colonial America, Franklin's older brother James, who wrote and printed the Courant in Boston, caught heat for blasting "religious knaves," writing that "villainies acted under the cloak of religion are the most execrable." True to form, Elmo Collins sits at his computer and spits out letters to the editor of the local paper, defending the right of ailing people to choose death and lobbing his own grenades at Colorado Springs's self-righteous born-agains.
But most of his flagging energy is reserved for his book. He longs to return to the CU library to expand his knowledge of the ITU's history, but he's not up to it. Others will have to chase rats for him.
The "rat files" are easy to spot. They're in a four-drawer file cabinet that looks as though it has exploded from the force of the stench inside. Filled with confidential files on professional strikebreakers, the cabinet stands in the middle of a trash heap of ITU history.
The university's archives already had a rich collection of the union's material, all neatly catalogued, when the archives' new curator, Bruce Montgomery, was hired a couple of years ago. Montgomery, who had been doing a project for the Communications Workers of America, the union that swallowed up the ITU, brought with him about fifty more cartons of ITU material. He plans to apply for a grant to sort through the debris.
It'll be a rich vein for some graduate student, just as it was for Elmo Collins when he was able to get around. In one nondescript box, for example, is a little bound ledger belonging to Denver Typogra-
phical Union No. 49 innocuously entitled "Circulars and Letters 1864-67." Its real purpose is made clear inside, where "Rat Record" is written in pencil. What follows are page after page of circulars from ITU locals around the country, listing their members in good standing and their rats. Denver union printers used the ledger over a century ago to determine whether the tramp printers applying for jobs in the new town were rogues who'd worked as replacements during strikes elsewhere or had agreed to work on unionized newspapers for below-union scale. And if they were such rats, the union didn't want them on the job.
A hundred years later, in the 1960s, the ITU still was concerned about rats. The thickest file from that era concerns a printer named Ernie L., who spent more than a decade replacing striking ITU members on newspapers coast to coast. At least, that's what Ernie L. did until the fall of 1964, when he became a double agent for the ITU. Although he had more than two strikes against him, Ernie appealed for clemency to the ITU headquarters in Colorado Springs. (The records indicate he wasn't the only ex-rat to do so.) Saying he wanted to go legit and obtain a union card, Ernie snitched on as many of the other professional strikebreakers as he could.
The records of a subsequent two-day voluntary deposition of Ernie by union lawyers carry more than a whiff of tragedy, but are unintentionally funny as well. It seems that Ernie's prized possession was a car he sometimes referred to as "Mr. Red Edsel." During his intensive interrogation, the union lawyers tried to determine whether Mr. Edsel was another rat. They never did seem to catch on that he was only a Ford.
Ernie did manage to get his union card, and he remained a member until 1976--when he was bounced for not paying his dues. It's not known what happened to him, but he didn't wind up at the Union Printers Home.
In the archive files, Ernie and other ex-rats describe a nationwide network of rats, orchestrated in large part by an elderly Indiana lawyer named Bloor Schleppey, well known to union printers as the "king of the rat herders." He was a management consultant who was hired to find replacement workers for newspapers either on strike or about to have a lockout or a strike. Schleppey, who once merited a writeup in Time for his activities, really did schlep rats around with him--among other places, he popped up at the Grand Junction Sentinel during a 1950s labor dispute. During the years described in the "rat files" cabinet--the late Fifties and early Sixties--the ITU was at the height of its strength, despite the ongoing assault on union shop rules spurred by the antilabor Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. "We had all the work we could get, all the overtime we wanted and no problem," Collins recalls. Except, of course, for the usual battles with management. In October 1966 Collins took his crew of more than 400 out on strike. A settlement wasn't reached until March 1967, and the Toledo Blade printers got much of what they wanted. But Collins had some disturbing news to report to his members: He had seen the future, and they weren't part of it.
He had visited a plant in Indiana where ordinary typists produced punched tape that was then fed into typesetting equipment. "That opened my eyes to what the hell was going on," he recalls. "They had people setting twice as much type as we were, setting it cleaner, with less trouble--so I knew what was coming."
Collins, like many other union leaders, knew there was no way the ITU could keep management from installing radically better technology--although the union did succeed in forestalling it in some places for quite a while. So he wanted the union members trained to handle it. During the last big threat to the ITU, when Linotypes came in, the union had made sure its members learned how to operate the new monsters. But this time it wasn't going to be as easy to control the technological changes, and many in the rank and file would wind up sneering about "cutting paper dolls" as they contemplated the idea of forsaking hot type for photocomposition.
"I caught a lot of hell from some of the members," Collins says. "I said, `We are going to be trained, and we are going to take it whenever it comes so that nobody else can say we can't handle it.' They thought I was capitulating. I said, `Listen, we've gotta control it.'
"They couldn't accept the idea. In other words, they were saying, `We've got it made.' But I preached this all along: You've got to go with the flow of things. The economics are going to catch you if you don't."
And the printers got caught.
As Elmo Collins propels his wheelchair onto the home's porch, he points across the lawn to the distant arch at the estate's entrance and announces that it's 650 feet away. No printer can stop a lifetime of measuring. Collins announces that he's made another crucial calculation: Time is about to run out on his attempt to complete his history of the ITU. "It's a lifetime project," he says. "I started too late." The last time he was back in Toledo, Collins had lunch with Louis Abney, the now-retired business manager of the Blade. The two were longtime adversaries across the bargaining table, and they don't exactly feel comfortable throwing bouquets at each other in public. But they have mutual respect.
"He was an honest guy," says Collins of Abney, "and you don't dismiss honest guys."
"I don't like to talk about an adversary," says Abney by phone from Toledo, "but it does indicate something that we could get together and have lunch." Abney calls Collins "a dedicated advocate who's had a rough go" and says of their bitter battles, "I don't think it was personal. I'm sure he was as annoyed with me as I was with him. He was a pusher."
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But on one thing, Abney and Collins agree: Newspapers may be the next dinosaur. "Printers became irrelevant," says Abney. "Now newspapers are in danger of it."
And printers--as if they haven't taken enough blows to their pride--are still being punched around. Even the Democrats, for decades the allies of organized labor, aren't particularly friendly: Vice President Al Gore has proposed dismantling the still-sizable Government Printing Office. In the hot-metal days, the huge GPO was a showcase of the trade and employed thousands of union printers, either directly or through contracts with private firms. In one of the battered cartons at Norlin Library, a commencement program from the GPO's 1940 apprentice class features a drawing of an old printer holding a piece of type and saying, "The clicking of these little lead nuggets in thousands of printshops through the years has been the rhythm to which the world has moved. They can sing out the truth with clarion clearness, and, oh, they can lie so beautifully...When I set these little fellows up in lines--and every line the same length--and I make them up in a page that is square and true, and pull a proof on a sheet that is clean and white, another perfect pattern will go into that tapestry in my mind, the tapestry that represents my career as a printer."
Elmo Collins, sitting at his computer, won't hear that clicking sound anymore, but he says he's not bitter about what's happened to his trade.
"Technology is a wonderful thing," he says. "You've got to know what the hell's going on and move with it.