PG mailer James VanLandingham has traveled to a number of different places. But he’s never been to Washington, D.C.
He is headed there Tuesday and for one of the most important political events in this country, President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. VanLandingham will be a guest of new Rep. Chris Deluzio, the first-time Democratic congressman who represents the 17th District.
His freshman counterpart, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, who represents the state’s 12th District, has invited Nila Payton, organizer for Western Pennsylvania’s Hospital Workers Rising.
“Workers like Hutchie VanLandingham and his fellow workers are on strike from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to fight for basic dignity, respect and benefits in the workplace that every single employee deserves,” Deluzio said Monday morning in a news release.
“As their strike stretches into its fourth month, in a show of solidarity, I invited Hutchie to join me down in Washington at tomorrow’s State of the Union so he can bring their story of struggle to the national stage. His story is one about hard work and how a union job can uplift and be a source of pride for families. It is also a story about how a company’s owners, despite generations of worker loyalty to that newspaper, have put their greed and lust for profits above all else.”
VanLandingham came to his attention while becoming a spokesman for his fellow striking union members, voicing a radio commercial explaining the strike status, speaking at labor forums in the region and an AFL-CIO legislative conference in West Virginia among other appearances and interviews the past four months.
The 56-year-old Greenfield resident followed his father and grandfather into the newspaper business in Pittsburgh, with all three accumulating more than 100 years of service. He started in the mailroom as a part-time employee in 1994 and moved into a full-time position in 2004.
“I’ve been always happy at the PG,” VanLandingham said. “I was happy to be doing what was in my family before me. I was happy to keep the family tradition.”
He never held an officer’s position in his union, preferring instead to relay his fellow employees’ needs and concerns to the higher-ups in his union. And now?
“I’m trying to help keep our fellow workers and spirits up,” he said.
The mailers, advertising production workers, pressmen and Teamsters walked out of the building on Oct. 6 over a health care premium payment dispute. The company would not pay the additional $19 per person per week in increased costs.
For the mailers that rejection was enough to withhold their labor. VanLandingham said his union, much like the others, accepted wage cuts, concessions in jobs and number of people on machines, and more to the owners. When he first started working, he and the others didn’t pay anything for health insurance and had no co-pays and deductibles. Then it changed with the union agreeing to co-pays and deductibles, which were minimal at the time. But at the time of strike, deductibles “rose sky high,” and the workers also had health care diversion payments deducted from their paychecks.
His grandfather and father were both drivers, delivering both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Pittsburgh Press. His family helped him get his job, as was the tradition, but in 1992 he did something else that brought him to the attention of union leaders.
VanLandingham said by chance he was Downtown when the Teamers and union supporters surrounded The Pittsburgh Press entrance of the building on the Boulevard of the Allies to prevent delivery of the papers by scab drivers during that year’s Teamsters strike. He let his father, who was out of town, know what was going on, then he joined in with the huge crowd. He ended up sitting on the steps into the building with others.
When he started as a part-time worker, he grabbed whatever shifts he could get in the mailroom, which was then on Chateau Street on the North Side, and made do to cover his expenses.
“My father always said, ‘Dues before booze.’ That meant you worked before you had fun. When the newspaper was short-handed [on employees], I picked up more shifts on others’ vacation time. I just made it work.”
Mailers have always performed lots of different jobs. “We work the inserting machine – the handheld inserts into the Sunday paper. We also stack bundles of sections and parts of the papers for the drivers. Everything we do financially helps the paper. It helps keep everything in order,” he said.
VanLandingham began as a laborer, and when he moved up to full time, he trained to become an operator on the inserting machine and the palletizer. This is a labor-intensive job, especially when both papers printed multiple editions. He recalls the Sunday Press circulation at 700,000 when he started. That meant some sections – comics and living, for example, as well as the then plentiful advertising inserts – were delivered early to stores, depots and distribution centers. The rest of the Sunday morning paper printed on Saturday, and the drivers would back their trucks up to a window at the PG, using keys to pick up their number of bundles. Wednesday was also a big production day, mainly because it was a huge advertising day for grocery stores and the zoned editions the papers had back then that hit home subscribers’ homes on Thursday.
At that time about 100 mailers worked in newspaper production. In 2022, that number had dwindled to just 13. Circulation on Sunday has dropped to 70,000, he said. And the number of part-time employees has also declined because their shifts are no longer guaranteed. He said many of them worked as mailers as second jobs to make ends meet. They took other jobs instead, something management “could not understand.”
In addition to the Post-Gazette, VanLandingham also helped label and shrink-wrap the 30,000 copies of the GreeneScene, a community magazine that is mailed to residents in Greene County. “It took a whole shift to label those 30,000 copies,” he said.
Now his shifts are outside the Clinton printing facility, where the mailers, who belong to the Communications Workers of America, stand watch. It’s a lonely, desolate stretch of roadway. Fire from a burn barrel and a heat lamp attached to a propane tank inside the shed a fellow mailer built keep them somewhat warm as they pull shifts around the clock.
VanLandingham takes a number of night shifts, he said, as he helps care for a friend’s mother and works around that schedule. He works as a pro wrestling referee, too, something he has done for the past eight or nine years. He said he fell in love with wrestling when went to his first pro match at the former Civic Arena when he was 7.
He used to collect unwanted Post-Gazette copies during the strike from a number of dealers and would dump them outside the North Shore office door. That stopped the day after Thanksgiving when PG management called police who threatened to charge him with littering. “I just brought them to the shed and we burned them,” VanLandingham said.
His strong union stance brought him to the attention of Edward Mooney, CWA District 2-13 international vice president, who asked him to speak at the West Virginia AFL-CIO legislative conference on Thursday, Jan. 26. The PG mailers are part of his district.
The approximately 100 attendees wanted to hear about the strike, as well as the bargaining process the CWA has gone through the past seven years, Mooney said. VanLandingham was available and willing to do it, plus he has been there through all of it.
“Obviously, we had overwhelming support for the strike itself [there]. The primary reaction from people there: How can this employer do this?” Mooney said. He said he told him that in his experience with CWA, and that mostly included telecom companies, he never saw a company deal with its employees like this.
And there was more. “The one thing that really resonates with people is the amount of service in these units with this employer. They seemed to be struck by the level of the commitment all you people have to this newspaper and the response you get back from the employer is so different. You all have such a high level of commitment to putting out the best product. The employer is so woefully inadequate. That comes through in all your stories,” Mooney said
As he finished up, several donations were handed to VanLandingham that day, which were passed along to the strike fund. What’s more, the West Virginia AFL-CIO members committed to bringing up a caravan to Pittsburgh and will bring supplies that strikers need. Mooney said this will happen in the next few weeks.
With a negotiation session scheduled for the first time this Wednesday for the mailers union and the other three production units, plus one on Friday for the Newspaper Guild, that help keeps Hutchie and others moving forward. Hutchie getting the invitation to attend the State of the Union speech also lifts workers’ spirits.
“Hutchie and all workers at the Post-Gazette deserve better,” Deluzio said. “Every single worker in America deserves better. We need to attack head on the raw corporate power that is sucking the lifeblood out of our workers and our communities.
“When corporate jagoffs like the Post-Gazette owners at Block Communications come for my people and my region, trying to destroy a union and workforce behind a treasured newspaper, I will be there in Congress to fight them, standing with workers and for the union way of life. It is an honor to host Hutchie at this year’s State of the Union to put workers’ rights and the labor movement in front of the president and in the national spotlight.”
Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.