Despite my fervent hopes and prayers that the Great Newspaper Strike of 2022-23 would have ended by now, I am back to reflect on the past 100 days of the work stoppage at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Let me reintroduce myself: I am Stephen Karlinchak, aka Conan the Librarian. I have worked steadily for 33-plus years at the PG as a library clerk, news assistant and librarian. On Oct. 18, 2022, I went on an unfair labor practice strike with my colleagues at the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, joining workers from four other unions that had gone on strike Oct. 6 over their health care coverage (so their 300th day was Aug. 1).
In January I wrote about the first 100 days here … and then in May I wrote about the next 100 days. Now with the 300th day upon us, I am sitting at a keyboard at home — still on strike — and taking stock.
• • •
It was George Gershwin who wrote, “Summertime and the livin’ is easy.”
To be honest, my participation in union activities over the past 100 days is pretty low energy.
• I stood in 100-plus-degree heat on Isabella Street on the North Side as part of a rally in support of UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) workers on strike at the Wabtech plant in Erie. I thought that I must have been crazy being there until a speaker mentioned that the Wabtech plant was once owned by General Electric. My late uncle, Peter Karlinchak, worked in that plant. (Uncle Pete, I hope you’re proud of me.)
• I was in the audience for the news striker fundraising screening of the 1987 film, “Matewan.” Despite its all-star cast of Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn, the film isn’t a date night movie. It is a gritty telling of the lives of West Virginia coal miners attempting to unionize in the 1920s. Growing up I would hear my parents as well as my aunts and uncles talk about growing up in a company town — the company owned the houses, the workers were paid in scrip and the scrip could only be used at the company store. The film brought home to me what the lives of my family members must have been like as Ukrainian Americans working as coal miners in central Pennsylvania.
• I manage to get myself out of bed every weekday morning, comb my hair (what’s left of it), put on a semi-clean shirt for the daily morning check-in meeting. Some days, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I find myself as the designated facilitator or notetaker. Some weeks, for reasons I don’t understand, I volunteer to compile the daily newsletter.
• At a union fundraiser in Allentown, I got to meet Phat Man Dee!
• By arriving late at another fundraiser for strikers in Squirrel Hill, I let down my colleagues. I guess a reference librarian would be a positive addition to a team participating in a trivia contest.
• Speaking of Squirrel Hill, I followed the collaborative coverage by the Pittsburgh Union Progress strike “paper” and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle of the nine-week synagogue shooting trial. Enough said.
• I considered baking a cake with a file in it when a colleague was charged with trespassing for placing a sign in the yard of the PG’s executive editor. The magistrate ruling was not guilty. I never got to ask my colleague if he would have wanted a chocolate or a white cake.
• Among other wins we strikers have seen (including a big donation from the Communication Workers of America in July), we finally have been receiving our state unemployment compensation. (I spent the early hours of many Sunday mornings — for 34 weeks — filling out my weekly application. I did get a couple of job interviews at local libraries. It had been 30-plus years since my last job interview, and my interview skills were rusty. I am grateful for the aides of my state legislators who patiently allowed me to vent my frustration with the UC system and tried their damnedest to rectify the situation. I also am grateful for the strike benefits that I received from the CWA/NewsGuild so I didn’t go hungry.)
I am grateful for the public officials who have stood with those of us locked out. I also am most grateful for the generosity of those individuals, unions and other organizations that have donated to Pittsburgh Striker Fund. Words fail me as I try to express my gratitude.
So do my fingers. They’re numb as I join fellow strikers in writing these donors thank-you notes.
• • •
Before I joined the Post-Gazette staff and even before I went to library school, I was the staff writer for the Pittsburgh Catholic, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic diocese. Periodically, the Catholic would run an article on the latest pronouncement from the bishops’ conference or the Vatican on “the dignity of labor.”
To a smart-alecky 20-something that I was, the concept of the dignity of labor seemed, well, oxymoronic. Labor, I thought, was something one needed to avoid. Where was the dignity in that?
Fast forward some 40 years. I am now a 60-something. To be honest, I am not sure where Stephen Karlinchak leaves off and Conan the Librarian begins.
As I have written before, I have never been married, don’t have any children or nieces or nephews. My job is my identity, maybe too much so.
I like my job at the Post-Gazette. I enjoy the challenge of trying to find the date when a particular story ran in the PG, even decades ago. I am up for tracking down a story that ran in an out-of-town newspaper. Need a phone number? Call me.
Not every challenge was successfully met, but for the most part I think I am a competent librarian.
It wasn’t all sunshine, roses and lollipops. There were mornings when the alarm went off I would wonder how long I was from retirement.
Speaking of “retire,” friends and family members ask when I am going to. When I know, I will let everyone know.
A few weeks ago, I was walking with a younger colleague after we participated in a panel discussion. Our cars were parked in the same lot. She turned to me and said, “I admire you older strikers. You all could walk away from this and take your retirement, but you didn’t.”
As I have written, I am 65, own my co-op and vehicle, qualified for a full pension and Medicare. Retirement is closer than I would care to admit, but I haven’t submitted the paperwork just yet; there are things I need to do (like clean out my desk at work).
As I said in the past, striking isn’t about me. It is about that female colleague. It is about the editors and others who produce the Pittsburgh Union Progress. It is about the young journalists who have college loans and rent to pay. It is also about the slightly older journalists who have mortgages and young children to worry about as well as even older journalists who are looking to save for college tuition for their children as well as saving for their own retirement.
Equally, I STILL am doing this for the men and women who will come after me. I don’t want them to wait or bus tables so they can afford to work in the noble profession of journalism.
My worst fear is that in 65 days I will be asked to write a reflection on the one-year anniversary of the Great Newspaper Strike of 2022-23. Let’s hope and pray that I don’t have to.