Union membership was a requirement for employment at The Washington Post and at most newspapers around the United States in the twentieth century. While many Deaf people acquired training in residential Deaf schools and trade school programs for work as a printer, entering the workforce necessitated union membership.
Deaf Community and the Printing Trades:
Employment in the field of printing was highly regarded within the Deaf community into the twentieth century. At Deaf schools printing was associated with strong academic skills and the prominence of the Little Paper Family within the Deaf community conferred respect to those employed as printers. Across a period when social attitudes toward citizenship were strongly tied to one’s ability to labor, Deaf leaders frequently highlighted the capacities of Deaf people as workers. As a skilled trade, printing was well-paid and regular with opportunities in major cities around the country. Further, the achievements of the International Typographical Union in bargaining for workplace protections for its members promised a greater chance of fair treatment for Deaf printers.
Union membership was encouraged amongst Deaf printers. Members of the ITU bypassed processes that other job applicants would typically face. Skilled printers need not be concerned with applications or interviews with prospective employers, where language or communication problems could manifest themselves. Instead Deaf printers could stand on the quality of their skills. Once members of the ITU, they were welcome in unionized print shops across the country.
International Typographical Union (ITU):
The International Typographical Union is considered the oldest national union in the United States. It was formed from a confederation of small local printers unions in the mid-nineteenth century and through the end of the twentieth century it advocated for working conditions, protections, and pay for its members through collective bargaining. Members were promised equal wages for their work. While women were granted membership to the union at the end of the nineteenth century, Union leaders left the question of the admission of black applicants to local chapters. Once black printers received their membership card, however, the national union prohibited local shops from denying them employment.
At The Washington Post the ITU maintained a contract for printers which put the union in control of the aspects of their employment, from hiring to dismissal. The ITU was powerful because papers like the Post required a regular cadre of printers to meet deadlines and demands. Over time the ITU had bargained for expansive protections and benefits for its workers. Even in the later decades of the twentieth century, as technology and social developments changed the nature of newspaper printing, the protections of the ITU ensured continued employment of printers at the Post.
Joining the ITU:
For most aspiring printers entry to the ITU would begin with an apprenticeship of several years, during which they would acquire the necessary skills for work as a printer. Due to the emphasis on industrial training in most Deaf schools, many white Deaf men need not work as an apprentice. Instead, they could make an application at a union shop directly.
Print shops varied in their requirements for applicants. Guided by ITU policies and standards, as well as local demands for qualified printers, shops often required prospective members to demonstrate their skill and efficiency for a predetermined time period, ranging from months to years. Once the candidate was thought to be qualified, they were asked to complete a “dupe'', or an assessment of their skill in linotype operation or paste-up. Those that were unsuccessful were barred from employment in that shop for a period of six months, during which they could improve their performance working in other shops and make reapplication after the period had lapsed. Upon successful completion of the dupe, the applicant was issued a membership card and permitted to work as a printer in any ITU shop.
Deaf community members often shared advice on obtaining ITU membership. They exchanged information on nearby shops that were known to have accepted Deaf applicants, those which had other Deaf printers who could help inexperienced printers obtain the necessary skills, and those which were more likely to issue a card quickly. Ultimately the reliance on a skill-based assessment permitted Deaf people to demonstrate competence in the skills critical to the job and prevented employers from rejecting Deaf applicants for reasons of hearing status or language access. For Deaf people, it removed a barrier as they did not have to rely on interpreters or written communication while attempting to secure employment at a print shop. Family and Deaf community members encouraged one another to obtain an ITU card as the ticket to economic security in mid-twentieth century America.
While union cards were issued by the local chapter, membership in the ITU conferred opportunities for employment to cardholders across the country. Given the variable demands of the printing industry, journeymen printers often moved between print shops, working temporarily as subs to provide coverage without additional assessment and training. They could travel across the country, working at different locations to earn wages that would support themselves and their families as they traveled.
The Travel Card permitted Deaf printers to engage in greater geographic mobility while maintaining job security. Printers recall, for example, the ability to beg off and leave their newspaper job for several months. That unique benefit made it possible for Deaf people to participate in local, regional, or national conferences, gatherings, school reunions, or other sporting events. Printers could leave their job, travel from town to town working temporarily to secure wages, and still return to their primary printshop 8 or 10 weeks later without penalty.
The Promise and Power of Labor Unions:
The work of labor unions in various industries has produced safer work environments, placed limitations on employers, and increased wages and benefits for workers. Incremental success in the expansion of workplace protections spurred legislative action which has codified many of these changes for union and non-union workers alike. In particular, employees from marginalized groups, those who were particularly vulnerable to workplace abuse, have benefitted from practices which have increasingly prohibited exclusion or penalty based on race, gender, and physical abilities.
The Deaf community has historically been underemployed and underpaid. Stories abound in the publications of the Little Paper Family about Deaf people relocating to other parts of the country in search of better wages. Deaf publications frequently published job advice, discussed the industries available to Deaf workers, and highlighted the labor accomplishments of Deaf people. They also covered instances of employment injustice, circulating information about unfair exclusion in some industries and organizing to combat policies or practices which prevented Deaf applicants from applying.
Not until the second half of the twentieth century was it prohibited to discriminate against qualified applicants on the basis of disability. Legislative action, including the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1974 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, prevented employers from excluding skilled Deaf workers and codified workplace accommodations which were otherwise negotiated piecemeal on an individual basis. Prior to this period, Deaf people had obtained protections of this nature through union membership.
Joining with hearing workers in a union ensured better treatment for Deaf printers. Unionization ensured high wages and protected the interests of printers across the country. For Deaf union members it reduced the impact of social attitudes and safety concerns of employers. While in other industries Deaf workers contended with denial of insurance coverage or were relegated Deaf workers to manual roles, unionized Deaf printers received the same treatment as their hearing counterparts. As dues paying members they enjoyed the same priority status, scheduling flexibility, and protections of union representatives in their day-to-day work.
Unionized printers held the distinct advantage of bypassing interviews and simplified the hiring process that may have been problematic for those who did not communicate via spoken English. Individual Deaf printers need not engage in negotiation with their employer over pay raises or pensions using gesture, lip reading, or passing notes back and forth. Instead these negotiations took place between union leaders and shop management and as a result of this collective bargaining, printers Deaf and hearing received the same employee benefits.
Union members that worked inside the shop had delineated responsibilities and maintained an unambiguous hierarchy of leadership. Workers had a clear understanding of the responsibilities of their duties and organizational structure that maintained discipline. If workplace issues surfaced, workers, Deaf and hearing, could call on representatives for protection and to discuss issues with non-union management inside the print shop. Possessing the ITU card was in many ways the equalizer that had escaped the Deaf community for generations as many faced discrimination in job security, wage disaparities, and unequal treatment.
Union and Interpreting:
Interpreters were uncommon in print shops and other workplaces until the end of the twentieth century. Rather, Deaf employees frequently relied on a diverse set of linguistic and communication strategies with employers and coworkers. Gesture, body language, lipreading, and writing were commonly utilized. Some turned to one another to facilitate communication, serving as interpreters. At the Post, a combination of these strategies were employed by Deaf printers. Over time, however, as awareness of the linguistic features of American Sign Language became increasingly widespread and the field of professional ASL interpreting grew, Deaf printers began to advocate for the use of trained interpreters at the Post.
Union members in shops across the country met regularly in a series of monthly gatherings known as Chapel meetings. Leadership used these meetings to air grievances, discuss schedule and policy changes, to disseminate information on training and technology changes, and to affirm the fellowship of union members. Subjects discussed were vital, both to the job performance of those working in the composing room, but also to the alliance of printers to one another. Given the longstanding tension between employers and unions, these types of meetings were generally protected and private, and outsiders were not permitted to participate.
Deaf printers acknowledged that without interpreters they were not able to fully participate in Chapel meetings. As Jan DeLap explained, many didn’t attend for this reason. As requests from Deaf printers for the use of interpreters were denied, their capacity to fully participate in the union was diminished. As interpreters were introduced, the dynamics of meetings reportedly changed. Union leaders came to recognize that Deaf printers were participating on equal footing with their hearing counterparts.
The response to requests for interpreters is revealing of the unequal treatment of Deaf printers and broader attitudes toward sign languages. In denying the requests of Deaf printers for interpreters, Union leaders placed the privacy concerns of some members over the access to information of others. The content of the meetings included discussion of scheduling, changing technologies and workplace practices, safety concerns and other issues pertinent to the livelihoods of the members at the meeting. Ironically, the subjects were deemed compelling enough to warrant protection, but not significant enough to be accurately and completely disseminated to Deaf union members.
The power and promise of possessing the ITU card had undeniable benefits. Printers advised others how and where to obtain the ITU card – it might be in a small town or on the edge of a large city. ITU cardholders could walk into a print shop with ease, show the card, and they would be directed to the printer to begin work for excellent wages.
For a list of sources used, see Works Consulted.