Stories reveal the impact of the changing nature of the workplace. From at least the 1920s Deaf people had worked as printers at The Washington Post. Across this period, social, technological, and economic shifts dramatically changed the nature of this work.
The familiar tools of the trade evolved. Technology transitioned quickly, from hot metal to cold type, and finally, to digital composition. The transformational changes from these mechanical typesetting processes to computers eventually led to the reduced need for printers. Although unions such as the International Typographic Union (ITU) protected them, work opportunities disappeared just as the linotype machines and paste-up tables became obsolete. After several generations by the beginning of the twenty-first century, Deaf printers had largely disappeared at The Washington Post.
The Buy Outs
During a round of contract negotiations between paper executives and Union leaders in 1974, printers at The Washington Post successfully bargained for job protections which guaranteed them work even as the paper introduced computerized photocomposition technologies. This protection, referred to as a lifetime job guarantee, reflected the collective power of printers at the Post at this time. Regular printers maintained job security even as the tools and techniques of their trade rapidly vanished from the composing room.
Other changes were quickly implemented. The longstanding use of a substitute list, a priority list of temporary or irregular union printers, formally ended at the Post. The use of subs, a practice which had originated in the nineteenth century, was a feature of the newspaper industry which demanded a large number of skilled workers to produce daily papers. Shifting technology reduced the demand for workers, and those printers who exercised flexibility in working at newspapers, either accepted permanent positions or left the Post. Similarly, the Post implemented a hiring freeze which prohibited the appointment of new employees to the composing room.
Beginning in the 1980s and continuing through the turn of the century, the Post sought to reduce the number of printers in their employ, offering lucrative financial incentives to retire from work. In waves printers departed from the Post, many Deaf printers among them.
By 2001 the last group of Deaf printers left The Washington Post. What had, for most of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, been a stable and lucrative career for Deaf people, disappeared within the span of a few decades.
Contributing to the Workforce:
Retired Deaf printers recall with pride the contributions they made to The Washington Post. Deaf people worked in the mailroom, composing room, and in the press room. Faced with tight deadlines and breaking news, they had to work accurately and quickly, receiving drafts from reporters, laying type, correcting page proofs, and sending plates to be printed and papers to be bundled. Each day, in the early morning hours, stacks of newspapers were loaded on trucks for distribution across the Washington, DC metro area. As readers across the country and around the world read breaking news from the pages of The Washington Post, Deaf printers were one piece of the workforce that distributed that information for public consumption.
Printers estimate that in the 1970s Deaf workers at the Post, including subs and regular employees, constituted nearly one-fourth of the labor pool. As a sizable portion of the workforce, they reshaped the contours of the workplace. The nature of communication and socialization in the building was influenced by Deaf printers. Workers, Deaf and hearing, grew familiar with visual communication strategies in work spaces and break rooms. Some learned signs, used gestures, communicated via writing notes back and forth, and others used speech and lipreading. ASL interpreters appeared with greater frequency at the end of the twentieth century realigning the nature of communication for administrators and supervisors with other employees. As Deaf printers obtained management positions, working as foreman and supervisor, they reordered workplace dynamics. From these positions of authority they were able to assert the importance of interpreters and advocate for more equal treatment of Deaf workers. For hearing and Deaf printers, this was likely their first experience working under the supervision of a Deaf person. Other Deaf printers reflected on the ease with which they could approach Deaf supervisors. Although some Deaf administrators expressed regret at the lack of preparation for managerial tasks like disciplinary meetings, their work likely influenced attitudes about the capacities of Deaf people. While imperfect and, at times inadequate, this created a workplace experience quite unlike any other.
Further still, the large Deaf workforce permitted greater opportunities for daily socialization with Deaf peers. During breaks, at lunch, and outside of work many printers recalled the close bonds that formed between Deaf printers. Retired printers recall receiving advice from one another on subjects related to all aspects of life, from strategies for home and car repair, to financial tips, and rooting on their favorite sport teams. They used these connections to organize activities that had a broader influence in the DC area. When the plans for the 1976 American Athletic Association of the Deaf National Basketball Tournament fell through, Deaf printers at The Washington Post took over the event. They used breaks at work to organize and fundraise for the tournament. When the Smithsonian Folklife Festival was organized in 1981, Deaf printers were among the presenters of the Deaf in the Hearing World workshop, performing for four days in tents at the National Mall. As the Deaf President Now protests captivated the attention of the country in March 1988, Deaf printers joined in public demonstrations in the city, sharing information with one another at work.
For Post Deaf printers, the disappearance of jobs meant the loss of a valuable connection to other Deaf people and access to the information networks developed in the cafeteria and composing room, social events after work. The unique language environment fostered at the Post dissolved as Deaf printers left the building and the leadership positions once occupied by both Deaf and hearing supervisors vanished.
As computing technologies replaced older printing processes, the demand for a group of highly trained printers dwindled. By the end of the twentieth century, the oldest union in the United States, the International Typographical Union, declined in membership and disbanded. In the mid-1980s the remaining members of the ITU merged with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The ITU was one of many organized labor unions which saw a decline in the final decades of the twentieth century, a result of social, legal, and technological shifts.
The ITU had acknowledged the forthcoming effects of automation, and sought to defend the position of printers by resisting the push by newspapers to adopt cold type and computing. In the 1970s, they bargained at The Washington Post to secure a “lifetime guarantee” for union members, guarding their positions in the composing room during the transition to computers as printing equipment was phased out of use. Despite this protection, the work of printers changed dramatically and the need for trained printers shrank. By the late 1990s, the Post began to offer generous severance packages to union printers. The printers left in waves. The last printers left the Post in 2001.
The ITU had been at the forefront of safeguarding jobs for Deaf printers, guaranteeing above living wages, supplying regular employment opportunities around the country, and providing a pension at retirement from work. In mid-20th century America, there were a range of blue collar jobs available to white Deaf Americans. Those included working in aviation, building airplanes, shipyards, automobile plants, and printing. The nature of work has transformed in many of these sectors and the relative strength of unions has lessened.
The disappearance of unions has widened gaps between Deaf and hearing workers. A college education, not a prerequisite for many of these trades, has become a necessity, creating barriers for Deaf people to enter the workforce. The workplace protections of union membership often ensured equitable treatment for Deaf employees in hiring and job performance. The absence of these protections increases the difficulty of obtaining and maintaining employment.
End of the Line:
At the Post, Deaf workers came from different places across the country. They arrived with different educational and social backgrounds. Though trained as printers, they demonstrated different trade skills. Some were employed for decades, others worked at the Post for days before moving on. Despite these differences, Deaf printers often characterize their time at the Post as being part of a “large family with many brothers and sisters.” In the rooms of the paper, they formed friendships and families. Some even met their spouses at the Post. The lives they led outside of work were structured and sustained by the schedule of the paper. With these peers they celebrated milestones in times of joy and offered support in times of sorrow.
These spaces provided intangible benefits as well. Advice was dispensed, camaraderie flourished, and lifelong friendships were formed from the workplace. For those who worked at The Washington Post it was the final print shop that they would work in using the technology that they had trained and used for over three decades. It also represented the last of Deaf printers for those from multigenerational families of Deaf printers. As Dick Moore, an employee of The Washington Post for over thirty years, lamented, “My father was an International Typographical Union (ITU) printer. My grandfather was too. I am a third generation Deaf printer. There is no fourth generation. The family tradition is gone.”
After retirement the Deaf printers of The Washington Post have maintained their friendships. Reunions and other gatherings have been documented, both at the Post and at other local and national Deaf events. At these meetings retired Deaf printers recall stories and share information about one another. Each event represents a gathering of the last of a generation of printers. Those printers trained at Deaf schools. Those printers who worked on mechanical presses before the transition to computers. Those printers who used specific signs to describe the work they did.
While there are no longer Deaf printers at The Washington Post, the stories and signs are preserved on these pages for posterity and to learn more about the times in which white Deaf people had lived during the mid to late twentieth century.
For a list of sources used, see Works Consulted.