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Dirty-faced David & The Twin Goliaths
One of the country’ more bizzarre labor disputes pitted a crowed of outraged newsboys against two powerful opponents—Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolf Hearst
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
The boys held together for the rest of that week and the next. Though there were rumors that a strike leader had succumbed to bribery and been removed from office after a hasty trial by his peers, the boys continued to keep the World and Journal off the streets. Seitz, summarizing the effects of the strike for Pulitzer, admitted that the “loss in circulation … has been colossal.” The press run had been reduced from over 360,000 to 125,000, while returns more than doubled from the customary 15 or 16 percent to an average of 35 percent. “It is really remarkable the success these boys have had; our policy of putting men out [adult scabs] was not helpful, yet it was the only thing that could be done. We had to have representation and the absolute disappearance of the paper was appalling.”
The publishers concede defeat in the second week of the strike by offering the boys an advantageous compromise. The price would remain where it was, but the World and Journal would henceforth take back all unsold papers at a 100 percent refund. The boys agreed to the offer, which not only reimbursed them for returns but also allowed them to take the risk of buying more papers in the first place. On August 2 they began to sell the banned papers again.
The newsboys’ union did not survive long enough to take credit for the victory. It had done yeoman work in getting the strike started, arranging the mass meeting, and spreading the word to the boys and the public. Once the boycott took hold, however, its days were numbered. The strike was so decentralized that the citywide organization had little to do. Each group of newsies policed its own district: the Harlem boys patrolled theirs, the Jersey City boys theirs. Though each considered itself part of the larger whole, none felt obligated to accept decisions arrived at outside the local district. Toward the end all that remained of the union were the leaders and their statements to the press.
Had the publishers formally negotiated with the union, the organization might have been strengthened or at least given something to do. But the publishers ignored the union; when they decided to compromise with the boys, they simply spread the word—through the circulation and branch-office managers—that they were going to accept 100 percent returns. The boys, without formal vote or decision, accepted the agreement and queued up to buy their papers.
So the New York newsboys’ union turned out to be an ephemeral organization. But for two weeks in the summer of 1899, the children who joined together to do battle with Pulitzer and Hearst proved, to the delight of some and the astonishment of practically everyone, that they could organize, and win, a strike.