Tag Archives: Washington

When Abortion Was Legalized: One Woman’s DC Experience

15 Jan

by Anonymous
Originally published February, 1972 in the Montgomery Spark 

Disclaimer: This article is reprinted for its insight into subject of abortion in the District of Columbia in 1972 and should not be used for medical advice. Current practices should be consulted. The article is slightly edited from the original. Included after the article is the author’s reflections 40 years after publication.

Abortion can be a frightening word – especially when you’ve just found out it’s going to happen to you. Fear of the unknown makes you eager to find out exactly what’s going to be done to you, and how it feels, and what effects it will have.

If you have friends who have gone through it, you can go to them and find your answers – at least some reassuring fact comes from each person you ask. But in case none of your friends have had abortions or they’re afraid to admit it, or they’ve scared you with their stories, or if you’re afraid to ask anyone — maybe it will help if I tell you about my abortion.

The Decision

I had been using contraceptive foam (Delfen) because I had been led to believe it was effective – and it had been for three years. But then I missed a period.

I don’t like to admit unpleasant possibilities to myself, so I waited until a couple of days after I’d missed my second period before I went to the D.C. Free Clinic for a pregnancy test. Don’t ever wait that long if you can help it – your pregnancy could be over ten weeks along and abortions can be much more difficult (and expensive) then.

For awhile before I went to the Free Clinic, the man I live with and I had thought a lot about what we’d do if I were pregnant. What good things would happen if I went through with it and had a baby? (1) A new person would come into being and . . . and what?

The bad things were much more evident. We couldn’t afford the hospital bill, I wouldn’t be able to work for a couple of months, our lives are too unstable right now to properly help a child to grow, we might subconsciously resent the child for causing this change and stifling in our lives, and what if the two of us ever decided not to live together anymore?

So it was evident that either the baby had to be given up for adoption (I went through that once before and always regretted it), or I’d have an abortion.

So by the time I received the results of the pregnancy test (positive, huh?) I was convinced that abortion was the answer. But I was afraid. Even after a really good explanation by a very kind counselor at the Free Clinic, I was still apprehensive, to say the least.

What Next?

All I knew at this point was that I had barely escaped the ten-week deadline, there were several places I could call, in D.C. and in New York, that they were all reliable (no witch-doctors or black-sedan/shady-deal/incompetent or unskilled malpracitioner), and that I had to raise $150 in less than a week.

First DC Abortion Clinic Opens: 1971

Phone counselors at Preterm clinic shortly after it opened in March 1971. Photo: Rosemary Martufi, courtesy DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

So the next day I made an appointment at a downtown D.C. abortion clinic called Pre-Term. I was to go in the following Monday, at 7:25 a.m. They assured me I’d be out of there by 11:00, but I had my misgivings.

Getting the money was hard to do, but we found we had more friends than I thought we had. The man I live with called up his friends, and within a couple of hours they had it all together – without question of when they would get paid back. And they couldn’t really afford it – they just know what it is to be a friend.

Luckily, we didn’t have to take their money because three of my women friends each had $50 stashed away and offered it to us. (Sisterhood is powerful!)

I had told several people that I was going to have an abortion, and some of the women told me about their abortion experiences. I kept asking questions because I was really afraid, but for some reason I didn’t want them to know I felt that way. It’s not a good way to behave, but it was hard for me to entrust my feelings to anyone. I guess I was afraid I’d lose the courage to go through with it if I broke down my defenses in any way.

Most of the fear came from not knowing what was going to happen. The man I live with was the only one I could communicate even a part of this fear to, and that’s mostly because since he’s not a woman, he can only imagine what it’s like to have things like this done to your body. He could offer infinite comfort and courage – and he did. But another woman would know what I felt, and because of my defenses I could not let that happen.

So I just pretended – to myself and others – that it wasn’t going to be such a big thing.

Arriving at the Clinic

My friend Annie went with me to the clinic that Monday morning. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything before the abortion, so I was sleepy from no coffee and hungry from no breakfast. I guess my fear woke me up enough, though.

Pickets Outside Preterm Clinic: 1972

Anti-abortion pickets outside Preterm clinic March 24, 1972. Anonymous did not face pickets when she entered the clinic earlier in the year. Photo: Rosemary Martufi, courtesy DC Public Library Washington Star Collection @ Washington Post.

I was surprised to see about ten other women in the waiting room when I got there. Some were with their mothers, who looked calm and accepting, although I’m sure some mothers wouldn’t be, and some fathers would pretend like the situation didn’t even exist.

Some women were with their husbands, who looked sort of concerned but mostly as if they didn’t understand that abortion is not an easy thing for a woman to go through. And some women were alone – one of whom, I found out later, was a college student from the Deep South, had secretly flown to D.C. the night before, and planned to be back in school the next day. They don’t allow abortions in most places.

After about a 20-minut wait, the receptionist accepted my payment and asked for my medical history and a few other details.

Pelvic Exam

Then I was given a preliminary pelvic exam. In case you’ve never had a pelvic examination, here’s what they do. You lie on a table with your feet in some things that look like stirrups, and you spread your knees apart. You feel sort of vulnerable in this position. (You are, but nobody’s going to hurt you.) The thing is to relax. The more tense you are, the more uncomfortable it will be.

I keep telling myself this, but I always get tense at the beginning. Then the doctor takes a metal instrument called a speculum and gently puts it inside your vagina. It feels weird, but it doesn’t hurt. When the doctor presses on the handles of the speculum, the part that’s inside you spreads open the walls of the vagina so the doctor can look inside. It never takes much more than a minute – usually not that long.

It sounds horrible, but it’s not. Women in the D.C. area are learning to do their own pelvics so they can learn more about themselves.

Counseling & Birth Control

After I had the pelvic exam, they sent Annie to the friends’ waiting room, where, she said later, a lot of the people got into good discussions about abortions and women’s rights in general.

Meanwhile, a clinic counselor named Judy took me to an office down the hall. She was so friendly and reassuring that I began to relax a little about what was going to happen.

We talked about birth control, both of us laughing a little about my ignorance in thinking that foam alone could keep me from getting pregnant. It’s really not funny, though, when you think of the millions of women who know precious little about birth control, and therefore can’t control what happens to their bodies.

Lippes Loop

The Lippes Loop IUD that was recommended for Anonymous.

We discussed what kind of birth control I would use after the abortion. I didn’t want a diaphragm because it’s a hassle. Pills scare me because they can have bad side effects. She told me that I could have an intrauterine device (IUD) put in right after the abortion, while I was still on the table. If you’ve had a baby before, it’s relatively easy to adjust to, so we agreed on an IUD called a “Lippes Loop”.

If you’ve never had a baby before, or if you’re susceptible to infections, don’t let them talk you into an IUD immediately after an abortion. Six weeks is a safe time after an abortion to get an IUD . . . meanwhile you must let your body rest and recover from this physical trauma, not even having sex during that time. If you have had a baby, it’s still a good idea not to get an IUD for a while. In women who have not had babies, IUDs cause very severe cramping and bleeding, and lots of times your body rejects it and it comes back out.

After the birth control rap, Judy described for me, using an anatomical diagram, exactly what would happen during the abortion. This helped to ease my mind, but the misgivings were still there. They needn’t have been, though, because everything happened just as she said it would.

Into the Room

By now it was about 10:00, time for it to actually happen. The counselor brought me into a room that looked like any doctor’s examination room.

I was ready, the doctor came in. He was the first man I had seen there – most of the staff were women. He told me his name (Alexander, I think), and we spoke lightly for a few minutes.

The first thing he did was to put the speculum inside my vagina, only this speculum was the kind that stays open so he can have his hands free to work.

The next thing that happened was one of the things I had been most apprehensive about: three anesthetic shots in my cervix. When Judy had told me about this, I had freaked because it sounded so awful. As it turned out, I was just lying there on the table, with the speculum inside me, wondering what was going to happen next, when Judy said, “You’ve had your anesthetic – did you feel it?”

I was amazed that anything had happened, because I hadn’t felt it. The reason is – there are hardly any nerves in your cervix, so it can’t feel things like that.

The next part of it hurt a little, like minor menstrual cramps. The doctor placed a series of instruments, graduating from pencil size to finger size, inside me to dilate the opening to my uterus so that he could do the abortion. It hurt, but not very much. I’ve had worse pain with menstrual cramps. All this time, Judy was telling me what was going on, and the three of us were talking about other things not even related to what was happening. This helped me to relax and take my mind off the abortion.

The Procedure

Now we were finally ready to do it. They use a machine with a long tube attached to it. The doctor placed the end of the tube inside my uterus and, in less than a minute, I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Drawing of “Vacuum Aspiration” Procedure: 1972

Drawing of vacuum aspiration procedure by Anonymous for Montgomery Spark, 1972. Reprinted with permission.

The machine sits on the floor, making a low, humming noise, generating suction while the doctor guides the end of the tube inside and around the wall of the uterus, making sure to get all of the embryonic material out. (Many women have been fucked over by quack doctors who leave some of this material behind, causing severe infection and often death!)

After it was over, the pain diminished immediately to regular cramps. The doctor put the IUD in (I didn’t feel it at all) and then left for his next patient. I felt dizzy when I got up from the table, so I sat on a chair for a minute.

Judy took me down the hall and we said goodbye in the recovery room where I was supposed to remain for a half hour.

I lay down on a couch, still feeling kind of dizzy. The other women who had come in when I had at 7:30 were there, and we all felt very close in sisterhood because of what we had all just gone through. And all of us felt relieved that it was over. After a few minutes the dizziness went away, and after ten minutes the cramps were gone.

At Home

When I was ready to leave, one of the clinic women took my temperature to make sure I had no fever (a sign of infection). She also told me to come back in a week for a checkup to see if everything was all right.

Then I went and found Annie and we went home. We’d been there for only three and a half hours, but in that time the clinic had given me two new kinds of freedom. I was no longer pregnant, and I was protected (by the IUD) from getting pregnant again.

When we got home, I ate a light snack and slept for a few hours. After that I felt really good. The only evidence of something different was the bleeding. The bleeding was constant, but always very light, for about two weeks, and then it came and went for two more weeks.

I guess I was lucky not to get an infection or have bad cramps or bleeding. A lot of women have these problems after abortions, but they’re easily curable if a doctor is consulted right away.

Abortion Obstacles

Abortions are definitely needed if women are ever to gain control over their own bodies. But there are three big problems in our way:

  1. They cost money. What happens to women who aren’t lucky enough to be able to get $150 -– or more – together? The government condemns them for having so many children, but forbids them abortion and birth control . . . or else sterilizes them.
  2. Abortion is illegal in most places. D. C. and New York are the only places on the East Coast, or even near it, where abortions are legal. This forces many women to have dangerous illegal abortions or, even worse, try to do their own abortions.
  3. Too many women don’t know enough about abortion facilities, counseling services and clinics, and too many women don’t know anything about birth control. How can we control our bodies and our lives if we don’t even know these basic things?

We have to get ourselves together and learn all we can about our bodies and what we must do to take care of them. We have to protect ourselves from this system that forces us, by keeping us ignorant and helpless, to remain in submission to whatever disaster that may befall us.

If you think you may need an abortion, go to a counseling center as soon as you can to get a pregnancy test and find out what to do next. The D.C. Free Clinic has a good pregnancy counseling service.

Obviously a lot of women need abortions. The clinic I went to does 50 every day. A lot more women need birth control counseling so that someday abortions won’t be necessary.

Meanwhile, if you are going to have an abortion, I hope this article has helped to ease your mind. You are not alone – your sisters are with you at counseling centers and clinics and everywhere around you. Sisterhood is powerful!


Reflections After 40 Years

by Anonymous

Court Voids DC Abortion Law: 1969

The DC law limiting abortion was struck down in 1969 by a District Court, but it wasn’t until 1971 that a US Supreme Court ruling essentially legalized abortion in Washington DC.

The abortion experience account I wrote in the February, 1972 issue of the Montgomery Spark provides a pretty good picture of the mentality and conditions of the times. Some things are different now, and some haven’t changed. In case you weren’t around in the early 70s, or even if you were, here’s a bit of perspective.

Washington, D.C. was one of the few cities in the U.S. where abortion was legal in 1972. It wasn’t until January 22, 1973 that the Supreme Court in the Roe v. Wade decision affirmed the constitutional right to privacy and a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

Back Alley Abortions

Much more prevalent than legal abortions were the brutal, toxic, often lethal procedures performed by unethical or untrained people on women who – for whatever reason – felt they must end their pregnancies.

Back then, much more so than now, unwed motherhood was a huge crisis in a woman’s life. Parents disowned their daughters, schools expelled pregnant girls, and society in general viewed them as stupid trash, unworthy of acceptance in their social world.

In the early 70s the women’s liberation movement had just begun to have an impact on the general perception of women’s rights and equality. People were beginning to realize that sex was happening a lot more than anyone had been admitting, and that something really needed to be done about birth control. Sadly, birth control education was far from reaching the saturation point needed for it to effectively prevent unwanted pregnancy.

Reflections on 1972

When I wrote the Spark article I was active in the women’s liberation movement and didn’t have concerns about what the world would think about my pregnancy. My reason for seeking an abortion was more centered on my ability to care for a child and provide for his or her upbringing.

My boyfriend and I loved each other very much, but we were not ready to commit to each other for the rest of our lives and neither of us had any reliable financial resources.

DC Demonstration for Women’s Rights: 1970

1970 march for rights in Washington, DC on  50th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Photo: Paul Schmick, courtesy of DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

My choice would have been for me to continue with the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption. I had already done that, though, four years before, and I didn’t ever want to go through that emotional pain again.

In retrospect, I’m sure we would have found a way to raise that child if we had decided against the abortion or adoption. I became pregnant the first time because I was completely ignorant about birth control. No clue. This time I was only slightly more knowledgeable, believing that contraceptive foam would prevent pregnancy.

At the time I didn’t see anything morally wrong in ending my pregnancy, as long as it was well within the first trimester. Neither my boyfriend nor I believed we were taking the life of a human being.

Present Views on Abortion

This, of course, is where the current controversy becomes heated. When does a fetus become a human being? What do we mean by “right to life”? What about the mother’s life? What if the child was conceived during rape?

The best exploration of the whole question is in an article by Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan, “The Question of Abortion: The Search for Answers.”

Sagan and Druyan explore the meanings of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” and delve into the science, morality and legality of all the shades of meaning that are involved. In their introduction they present the dilemma:

In the simplest characterization, a pro-choicer would hold that the decision to abort a pregnancy is to be made only by the woman; the state has no right to interfere. And a pro-lifer would hold that, from the moment of conception, the embryo or fetus is alive; that this life imposes on us a moral obligation to preserve it; and that abortion is tantamount to murder. Both names–pro-choice and pro-life–were picked with an eye toward influencing those whose minds are not yet made up: Few people wish to be counted either as being against freedom of choice or as opposed to life. Indeed, freedom and life are two of our most cherished values, and here they seem to be in fundamental conflict.

They lead into their detailed exploration with these questions:

If we do not oppose abortion at some stage of pregnancy, is there not a danger of dismissing an entire category of human beings as unworthy of our protection and respect? And isn’t that dismissal the hallmark of sexism, racism, nationalism, and religious fanaticism? Shouldn’t those dedicated to fighting such injustices be scrupulously careful not to embrace another?

Reading this article helped me to refine my own position on the question of abortion. Before I read it I had some gut-level feelings but hadn’t reasoned it out logically and without bias. The result is that I believe a woman has the right to choose to end her pregnancy in the first trimester and after that there are shades of morality involved. I believe every case should be considered individually. I believe every woman has the right to control what happens to her own body.

Back in Time?

Now I’ve lived forty more years since I wrote the Spark article, and I sometimes think about what I would do if I could go back in time knowing what I know now.

I wouldn’t give my first child up for adoption because now I know that I could’ve found a way to take care of him. It’s okay, though, because I later found his adoptive parents and learned what joy he brought into their lives. He is happy and has four beautiful children of his own.

I probably wouldn’t have an abortion now (if it were physically possible for me to even get pregnant), and I think my boyfriend and I could have managed to raise a child if I hadn’t had that abortion in 1972. Maybe we took the situation too lightly, but it seemed to be the right decision at the time.

The debate continues, and there will continue to be many perspectives on the question. We all agree that abortion is not a very good method of birth control. It would be a better world if we could reduce the number of abortions, just as it would be better if we could reduce the need for heart transplants and chemotherapy. A lot depends on education and the availability of birth control.  Sagan and Druyan again:

“Our Bodies Our Selves”: 1971

1971 cover of Our Bodies Our Selves that sold 250,000 copies largely by word of mouth.

By far the most common reason for abortion worldwide is birth control. So shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions. Instead, the United States is far behind other nations in the development of safe and effective methods of birth control–and, in many cases, opposition to such research (and to sex education) has come from the same people who oppose abortions.

If you have an opinion about abortion or if you’re still struggling with it, I recommend that you read the Sagan and Druyan piece.  For in-depth information about women’s bodies, reproduction, birth control, women’s physical and mental health and much more, I recommend Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book first compiled and published by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in the spring of 1973 and updated periodically up to 2011. It’s available at Amazon.com. You can also visit Our Bodies Ourselves, a huge and valuable global resource for women’s health issues.

The Washington Post Strike at the Crossroads, December 1975

12 Dec

by Craig Simpson

Post Pressmen & Supporters Picket George’s Store

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 3

A mass picket line by striking pressmen and supporters in front of a George’s appliance store in Greenbelt, Maryland in December 1975. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

The International Printing and Graphic Communications Union Local 6, the pressmen’s union, was engaged in a bitterly fought strike at the Washington Post that reached a turning point in December 1975.

When the strike first began on October 1, a number of advertisers switched to the rival Washington Star as the Post struggled to publish a credible newspaper. It appeared for a time that the Star might supplant the Post, unless the strike was settled.

But the management gradually produced more and more pages per day without union workers, and advertisers began switching back to the Post. Picket lines were set up at stores around the metropolitan Washington area at George’s, a local discount appliance store, and K-Mart in December 1975, but failed to dissuade the advertisers from returning to the Post.

Origins of the Strike: The 1973 Printers’ Dispute

Post Printers Lockout

Printers’ union members picket the Post in November 1973 after union member Michael Padilla was fired for engaging in a slowdown at the paper. When printers stopped work, the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals. Photo by Michael Dresser, some rights reserved.

The tipping point in labor relations at the Post came during a November 1973 dispute with International Typographical Union Local 101, the printers’ union.

The Post was a profitable newspaper, but its margins were slipping compared to its other holdings. New management at the paper made the determination that profits could be increased by squeezing more out of fewer workers.

The Post prepared for a confrontation with its unions and trained non-union personnel at an anti-union facility in Oklahoma to produce the newspaper in the event of a strike by one or more of its unions. It also opened its own training facility in Northern Virginia where non-union staff were trained on the relatively new “cold” type press production that needed fewer workers.

The printers were the largest union at the Post and prepared the molten lead “hot” type for printing. They stood in the way of the Post’s drive to cut costs and increase profits.

The printers began engaging in a work slowdown to pressure management to back off its aggressive bargaining posture as they approached the expiration of their labor contract. The management retaliated by firing one printer, Michael Padilla, for engaging in the slowdown. The union responded with a sit-down strike and the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals.

The Post management then prepared an edition of the paper with non-union staff and prepared to run the presses themselves.  Members of the pressmen’s union were made aware of the Post’s plans by other union members in the building and entered the Post’s facilities saying that they were the only ones entitled to run the presses and they intended to do so.

However, they quickly staged their own sit-down strike and some minor damage was done to a few presses. They halted the paper from publishing and took the position they would not work until all other unions returned.  The Post negotiated a quick settlement with the printers and reinstated Padilla.  All the unions returned to work with nothing said about the minor damage. The pressmen were heroes to other craft union members.

But to the Post management, including publisher Katherine Graham, they had a bulls-eye painted on them and over the next two years a number of smaller skirmishes were fought leading up to the expiration of the pressmen’s labor contract.

Pressmen’s Strike Begins October 1, 1975

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 1

Pressmen outside the Washington Post building in the early morning hours of October 1, 1975. Photo: Pete Schmick, Courtesy DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post, All Rights Reserved.

The regular pressmen numbered about 200, of whom only about 100 were long term employees. Most of the others migrated to Washington from out-of-town papers for higher wages or because their local unions had been broken during strikes at other newspapers.

The pressmen were viewed as the strongest union at the Post and set the pace for the other nine unions.  Their contract was due to expire September 30, 1975, but the pressmen didn’t plan to strike.  Instead they planned to continue to negotiate while honoring the picket lines of the smaller machinist union at the newspaper whose contract expired at the same time.

However, the machinists were forced to back off of a strike at the last-minute when the Post invoked a binding arbitration clause in the machinists’ contract.

The pressmen’s union leadership decided not to call a strike right away, but a relatively small, organized group of pressmen began disabling the presses at about 4 am and detained and injured a manager. A small fire was set in the printing press room. The strike was on when workers left the building and set up a picket line.  The union leadership then passed out strike signs that had been previously printed in the event of a work stoppage.

The Post was unable to publish for a day, but cobbled together non-union offset print shops around the region to print a reduced version of the paper on the second day and began returning their own presses to running order. They flew the paper produced at the Post by helicopter to printing facilities located within 200 miles of Washington. Later they printed the Sunday and other supplement material as far away as Miami and had it trucked to Washington, DC.

The other unions at the Post either went on strike or respected the picket lines of the pressmen. The exception was the Newspaper Guild, which twice held fierce debates over supporting the strike. Reacting to reports of physical abuse of some members who crossed the picket lines and the damaged presses, they overrode their leadership and voted to continue working on two different occasions, although a minority of Guild members did honor picket lines.

The striking unions called for a boycott of the Post that was supported by local organized labor, but its effects were limited. The Post’s newspaper sales dropped by about 35,000 and advertising fell from about 70% of the newspaper market to about 65%–significant, but not crippling. Some major advertisers switched to the Star and others advertised more heavily in the rival paper.

The Post’s public relations successfully exploited a highly exaggerated version of the pressroom damage (The Post filed suit for $25 million, but the actual damage figure did not exceed $270,000) as an attack on the “free press.” Later the Post demonstrated its power when a grand jury was convened to investigate strike activities, further demonizing the workers.

As advertisers began to return and revenue began to rebound by late November, the Post made a final offer to the pressmen’s union, a formality before hiring permanent replacements.  The offer would have essentially torn up the expired pressmen’s contract, while providing for some nominal pay raises.  The offer was rejected by a vote of the union members and the Post began advertising for permanent replacements for the pressmen in December.

The Post also isolated the pressmen’s union from much of the rest of the city by repeatedly pointing out the lack of any significant number of African American or women press operators in a city that was nicknamed “Chocolate City” and had more women than men.

They moved to further divide the unions from the city’s working people by exploiting long-standing charges of discrimination against the craft unions and reached an agreement with the Washington Printing Specialties & Paper Products Union, whose members moved the heavy rolls of paper around the shop and performed other manual labor.

The 100 member union was predominantly African American and had been battling the mainly white craft unions over discrimination against its members before the strike and had filed suit against several–although not against the pressmen’s union. They  returned to work and joined many of the Newspaper Guild’s members  crossing the picket lines. While not essential to publishing the paper, the agreement with the paper handlers union legitimized the Post’s position and further discredited the strikers in the eyes of many African Americans.

The momentum in the battle had clearly swung toward the management.

1,000 March & Burn Katherine Graham in Effigy

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 28

Over 1,000 striking pressmen and supporters staged a march and rally on the one year anniversary of the strike on October 2, 1976 that culminated with burning Katherine Graham in effigy in front of the Post headquarters. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

As the strike moved into 1976, the Post was effectively producing the newspaper at its own printing plant with the permanent replacements of the pressmen and non-union pressmen imported from other areas of the country. The permanent replacements were mainly African Americans along with a few women. The diversity of the replacements was showcased by the Post.

The Post unions had a support committee that worked hard to convince the broader public to back the strike. At one point a petition was circulated among prominent local residents asking that the dispute be submitted to binding arbitration.  The Post refused arbitration. AFL-CIO president George Meany held a meeting with publisher Katherine Graham, but accounts of the meeting indicate that Meany didn’t push hard and Graham was firm that the pressmen had been permanently replaced.

With defeat staring at them, the other Post unions undertook serious negotiations with management over resolving their own issues. Individual members of the various craft unions began drifting back to work.

On February 17, 1976 the mailers’ union, who sorted and bundled the newspapers, reached an agreement with the Post. They returned to work along with the printers’ union—representing about half of the 1,400 craft union workers. The other unions and their members followed shortly thereafter.

The strike was lost at this point and the pressmen’s union was broken. They were now out on their own–along with a few members of other unions who refused to go back and a committed group of supporters.

The U.S. Attorney obtained indictments against 15 pressmen while none of those who crossed picket lines and assaulted strikers were charged.

On the first anniversary of the strike– October 2, 1976–over 1,000 pressmen and their supporters rallied at McPherson Square and marched to the Post building where they burned Katherine Graham in effigy. The march was defiant, but for the pressmen it was more like a funeral.

The pressmen continued to picket the Post through the judicial proceedings. On May 20, 1977, after plea agreements were concluded in court, fourteen pressmen were given sentences that ranged from fines for most individuals to a year in jail for one pressman. The light sentences for most pressmen vindicated their account that the initial disabling of the presses was relatively minor, but it was a hollow victory.

Local 6 was decimated by the strike and ceased to exist after the Washington Star newspaper folded in 1981. The strike was one of the biggest defeats ever suffered by organized labor in the District of Columbia.

Could the Pressmen Have Prevailed?

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 30

Helicopter at Post building one year after strike began. Management used helicopters in the early stages of the strike to ferry ready-to-print versions of the paper to offset print shops within 200 miles of Washington. Photo: Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

Most accounts written after the strike point to the initial disabling of the presses on October 1, 1975 as sealing the pressmen’s fate, but that is an oversimplification.  Even with the Post’s account of “violence” monopolizing the media, the outcome was not certain two and half months into the strike.

Certainly the property damage was a factor in the Guild’s decision not to honor picket lines and gave the Post ammunition to use against the strike. But a significant number of Guild members would have crossed the picket lines in any event and the Post intended to publish utilizing non-union labor even if no damage had occurred.

Simply pointing to the “violence” in which one person was hurt and some relatively minor damage done to property does not take into consideration that the Post settled the 1973 dispute after similar, although not as widespread, disabling of the presses.

The larger error that the pressmen made was viewing the impending confrontation as a traditional battle fought by a group of skilled craftsmen who were necessary for production against a management that was making unprecedented demands but could be forced to back down as they had in the past. The pressmen applied the lessons they had learned from previous battles, like the printers’ dispute, and believed they could prevail by withholding their labor. The rump group that disabled the presses followed this thinking to its logical–but ultimately wrong–conclusion.

Instead, the pressmen faced a powerful enemy who had negated the crafts’ advantage in earlier labor confrontations. The pressmen failed to grasp the impact that technological improvements like cold type would have on the ability to produce the paper in the workers’ absence. They further underestimated the ability of replacements and management to print a paper, despite the printing craft unions’ experience in other cities. They believed that the “liberal” Washington Post would not openly “bust” a union. Perhaps most critically, they didn’t have a winning strategy to sway the broader public to their cause.

In such circumstances, the pressmen were unprepared to cast their battle as part of a larger struggle of working people that were then vigorously resisting similar demands. Employers during the 1970s sought to reverse hard-won work rules and increase productivity while holding down wages due to increased international competition and flattening profits. Workers in the Washington area and around the country were waging strikes, both legal and illegal, over the employers’ demands for more work with less pay in order to maintain their profit margins.

The craft unions at the Post did ultimately realize their need to wage a broader struggle after the strike began. They banded together and formed a “Post Unions United” group and organized a strike support committee–gathering support from other unions and activist groups throughout the city. They launched a campaign to boycott the Post, trying to identify their struggle with broader struggles with a “No Grapes, No Lettuce, No Post” slogan. They hit back at the Post for “union-busting.”

However, these slogans did not resonate. Some accounts after the strike simply noted that Washington was not an industrial city with strong unions.  This is not entirely accurate either.  The city is not industrial in nature, but the upswing in public employee unions in the late 1960s and early 1970s actively engaged tens of thousands of workers in and around the city. Strong established unions already existed in the hotels, grocery,  communications, transit, trucking & warehouses and in construction as well as other sectors.  And, workers were in a fighting mood, like those across the country.

The problem with the campaign message is that it did not capture the reason why the workers were striking and translate it into a just cause that other working people could embrace. The message used would not override the Post’s campaign against “violence” and defense of a “free press.”

Further, the pressmen left themselves vulnerable to be divided from a large, natural ally in the metropolitan area–African Americans who supported unions in much higher percentages than other population groups.

Of the craft unions, the pressmen weren’t the worst when it came to discrimination. They were not one of the unions sued by the paper handlers at the Post. They had taken on some African American apprentices and junior apprentices and had a few black journeymen. However, that didn’t alter the fact that they were overwhelmingly white in a city that was overwhelmingly black, and the larger public didn’t make fine distinctions among the various craft unions.

Unlike the city’s transit union leadership which helped force a desegregation of operator ranks within the union in 1955 prior to a long strike with the Capital Transit Company in order to diffuse the issue, the pressmen’s union did not fully recognize the damage that would be done to their position. And that’s without considering the good will that would have been generated by strides toward full desegregation of their ranks.

It’s easy now to look back and debate what should have been done 40 years ago to prepare for this confrontation and it should be remembered that the pressmen and the other craft unions, despite whatever weaknesses they had, waged a toe-to-toe battle against a determined foe for nearly three months before the tide turned against them.

We’ll never know if a clear message linking the Post unions’ struggles with those being waged by other working people, along with a reputation as a progressive union, would have made a difference in the outcome. But we can know that doing so would have made for a more effective boycott, reducing subscribers and thereby keeping more advertising dollars away from the Post. This in turn would have strengthened the rival Washington Star, putting increased pressure on the Post to reach an agreement.

Author’s Notes:

As a young union activist, I brought the Post craft unions’ boycott materials to my transit union meeting. Some of the officers of the union removed the material from the sign-in table and castigated me for supporting a strike of unions that had discriminated against African Americans. We argued for a while and a lot of the rank and file at the meeting listened in interest, but the damage that was done to the strike’s cause by unions that had failed to take meaningful steps to integrate their ranks cannot be overstated.

Most of the material for this article came from the Washington Star, New York Times, Washington Post, Washington City Paper and flyers produced by strike supporters.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


For more photos of the strike

For more photos of the one year strike anniversary march and rally

MD Marriage Equality: Over 50 Years in the Making

14 Nov

Fifty years ago sodomy laws made lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships illegal—defined by authorities at that time as sexual perversion.  LGBT individuals were routinely arrested, fired from employment from both the federal government and private employers and condemned as mentally ill by psychiatrists.

A few images from the early battles in the Washington, DC area…

White House Picket for Gay Rights: 1965

White House Picket for Gay Rights: 1965

The Mattachine Society, the first homosexual rights group in the modern era in the Washington, DC area, was formed by Franklin Kameny and Jack Nichols in August 1961. On April 17, 1965, the Mattachine Society held the first organized public demonstration for gay and lesbian rights in at the White House.

Pictured above is Ernestine Eckstein at the third White House picket sponsored by the Mattachine Society, October 23, 1965.

For some other great images of the early Mattachine Society picket lines at the US Civil Service Commission, the White House and the Pentagon and other actions, please see the Barbara Gittings & Kay Tobin Lahusen gay history papers and photographs on the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Image from Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen gay history papers and photographs.  Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen.  Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collection. Permanent link at NYPL: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1605764

DC Gay Liberation Front 1970

Washington, DC Gay Liberation Front: 1970

This photo is undated and at an unidentified location. It is probably at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Washington DC in December 1970 or January 1971, judging by the clothing worn and the slogan “set the date” which was not in widespread use until late 1970.

The image was used to illustrate a Washington Star in-depth story entitled, “The New Radicals,” published January 24, 1971 about the DC Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

The article summarized the Nov. 28, 1970 demonstration at the Zephyr Bar on upper Wisconsin Avenue after four GLF members were refused service.  Several dozen GLF members and supporters came to the restaurant and staged an impromptu demonstration chanting slogans inside the restaurant.  Some minor property damage occurred and twelve GLF demonstrators were arrested, although charges were later dropped.

The Star feature story also outlined the early Nov. 1970 GLF disruption of a conference on the “psychiatric treatment of homosexuals” at Catholic University and the role GLF played in the Black Panther’s Party sponsored Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention also in Nov. 1970.

See the history of the DC GLF and GLF photos on the Rainbow History site.

Explore the many faceted history, documents and photographs of the LBGT movement in Washington at Rainbow History.

Photo by Joseph Silverman published January 24, 1971. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

Gay Alliance Protests US Park Police: 1972

Gay Alliance Protests US Park Police: 1972

On January 5, 1972, members of the Gay Activist Alliance staged a demonstration against US Park Police near the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington Virginia.

Police had arrested over 60 people in a wooded area of the park in the preceding five months for “obscene and indecent” acts.  The Washington Blade reported many of those detained complained they had been entrapped by the eight undercover officers assigned to conduct arrests.

A group of about 20 activists rallied at North Meade St. in Arlington, VA and marched to the memorial chanting and alluding to the entrapment by carrying signs like, “Don’t Expose Yourself, You May be Impersonating an Officer.”

Park police arrested six protesters for “demonstrating without a license.”

In that time period sodomy laws were used to jail anyone deemed guilty of “sexual perversion.” Sexual perversion was defined by police and courts to include anyone gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

This demonstration marked one the earliest open revolts against the use of police to break up activities of consensual adults in the DC area.

See the Gay Activist Alliance press release on entrapment at Iwo Jima. Explore the many faceted history, documents and photographs of the LBGT movement in Washington at the Rainbow History site here.

Photo by John Bowden. Courtesy of the DC Public Library, Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

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