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Good old days weren't necessarily so

Jun 1, 2010 12:00 AM

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In 1983, I graduated from high school. I bought a Smith-Corona electric typewriter with built-in correction capabilities. That Christmas, my father gave me a Sony Walkman knockoff.

While I was sipping eggnog and marveling at these pinnacles of technology, the holiday wasn't a happy one at Japs-Olson. The Minneapolis printer was mired in an ugly labor dispute. As Jean Williamson explains in “100 Years of Lasting Impressions: Japs-Olson 1907-2007,” small, nonunionized print shops were drastically undercutting union plants — in some cases their employee costs were 30% lower.

Japs-Olson sought union permission to run a press with two rather than the mandated three operators. The union rep agreed in principal with Japs-Olson's Bob Murphy but refused to allow the request, citing concerns about a precedent that could result in the loss of hundreds of jobs nationwide.

Tough labor negotiations

In April 1983, Japs-Olson joined seven other local printers to negotiate a new contract with the leaders of the Graphic and Communications International Union Local 229 and Graphic Arts Local 1B. Martin Garden and Steve Miller, the employers' attorneys, spoke bluntly. Garden told the union reps that the decisions concerning staffing and training should be left to management. He noted that labor costs (including cost-of-living adjustments and certain health benefits) made it impossible for union shops to compete with their nonunion counterparts. The union negotiators begged to differ.

“I was frustrated,” recalls Murphy. “It wasn't [so much] the money issues … it was the work rules. The union wanted to set the rules for how many people were needed to operate a press. We were overstaffed through ‘featherbedding’ by the union. We were losing business — we plain couldn't compete and we wouldn't survive.”

Both sides refused to budge. Japs-Olson and the other seven printing companies decided to risk a strike. If they could make it through a year, it opened the door for replacement workers to reject the union. Murphy didn't think the strike would happen. But on June 22, 1983, workers at the seven shops went out on strike.

Murphy didn't notice that the departing second shift operators left the sheetfed perfectors in mid-position. “Any jogging of the press would do horrendous damage to the perfecting units,” Murphy explains. “Repairing them would easily exceed $100,000. The Heidelberg presses were less than six months old and had cost $3.5 million. We spent most of the night frantically securing things. Years later I asked one of the strikers how they could have sabotaged their own company like that. He said, ‘We considered them to be our presses.’”

Murphy spent the first day of the strike contacting vendors, bankers and clients, training new workers and coping with dissenters as disparate as the soda deliveryman, who announced he wouldn't cross the picket line. Japs-Olson had launched an ambitious direct mail operation — these divisions weren't under union jurisdiction.

But as Williamson, author of the Japs-Olson corporate history observes, many of these employees were the fathers, wives, sons and daughters of the striking press operators: “When one family member was picketing, others would have to cross the line … Most Japs-Olson strikers had no quarrel with company management, but for union members, the strike was mandatory.”

It was a difficult time. Workers crossing the picket line were verbally harassed and strikers slashed the tires and smashed windows on some delivery trucks. Strikers threw bent nails off a bridge into the company parking lot. “They painted them white so you couldn't see them in the snow,” recalls employee Mike Colestock. He had six flat tires during the strike.

The strike dragged on during the winter of 1983-1984. Strikers picketed around the clock, seven days a week. Finally, in June 1984, Japs-Olson employees held decertification elections. “I was told only one person voted in favor of the union,” Murphy said. The story was the same at the other seven area printers.

Innovation follows upheaval

Despite the chaotic external environment, Japs-Olson had a decent year in 1984. Mid-Continent, a direct mail client remained in the fold. With the encouragement of 3M, Japs-Olson developed Fragrance Burst utilizing 3M's Scratch ‘n Sniff Technology. Japs-Olson went on to print the first four-color Post-its for 3M.

In 1985, on the anniversary of the decertification vote, Bob Murphy personally thanked more than 100 employees who had worked through the strike. Each received an envelope containing $1,000 in cash.

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