13 April 2008

Social Movements: The Newsboys' Strike

By Eliza Tucker

This is a busy week for a lot of our members (have fun at Romantic Times, ladies!), so I'm posting again!

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Socialist movement gained momentum throughout the Western world. Unions and labor parties sprung up, comprised of working- and middle-class people who were tired of eighty-hour work weeks, low pay, and minimal occupational support. While men and women began to demand better treatment, children toiled, tucked into windowless hovels.

Photo: Jacob Riis In 1899, ten thousand of New York City's homeless kids locked themselves into lives identical to adults', complete with full days of sweatshop work with little to no time devoted to schooling or play. The most prodigious of these urchins learned to read and took independent jobs as street vendors, messengers, and newspaper boys and girls.

Newspaper sales increased during the Spanish-American War, but the costs of supporting field reporters and running the press had risen. During the war, New York's media moguls had raised the wholesale prices of their papers from fifty cents per hundred papers to sixty cents per hundred, without raising the customer's price.

The price hike cost the newsies, mostly orphans and runaways between the ages of six and fifteen, an average of fifty cents a week. In a time when a bed in a lodging-house could be bought for ten cents a night, and meals for six cents a piece, the price increase hit the children on fundamental levels. While magnates like Joseph Pulitzer (the New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (the New York Journal) decided to go back on their initial promise of lowering the price after the war, the kids took a cue from the adults and went on strike.

This seems to be the season for strikes. Although the Brooklyn and New York street railway strike has subsided and peace once more reigns, the newsboys and messenger boys of the great city have gone on strike. The newsboys refuse to handle the New York World and Journal (newspapers) unless they are allowed a larger margin of profit, and the messenger boys insist on shorter hours and better pay.

These strikes, while they cause some annoyance and inconvenience, are hardly worthy of serious thought in comparison with the dreadful struggle that is taking place in Cleveland. In that city, a street railway strike has assumed such terrible proportions that the strikers have gone to the length of using dynamite to blow up cars with passengers in them.

-- The Great Round World, vol. XI, The Great Round World Company, New York, 1899.

World and Journal newsies stopped selling papers from July 19 through August 2. Overshadowed by the Cleveland railway strike, the papers' editors "laughed off the children's strike--at first. But they found themselves outsmarted and outnumbered as the newsies succeeded in organizing a metropolitan boycott of the Hearst and Pulitzer dailies. Led by the Brooklyn Union District Master Workboy, Spot Conlon, attired in his pink suspenders, the Brooklyn boys marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to join forces with their Manhattan comrades. Together, the boys not only shut down street circulation of the afternoon Journals and Worlds in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island City, and up and down the Atlantic seaboard, but they enlisted the public in their crusade by staging a series of parades, open-air rallies, and a huge mass meeting at the New Irving Hall." (The Chief: the Life of William Randolph Hearst, by David Nasaw, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2000).

The children put a severe dent in the papers' circulation: the World alone suffered a sales decrease from 360,000 to 125,000 during the two-week strike (Big Town, Big Time, by David Nasaw, New York Daily News, 1999).

The editors took notice. Instead of lowering the distribution price, they offered the kids an acceptable compromise: the ability to return unsold papers at the end of the day. This policy may sound familiar to those of us involved in the publishing industry--major publishers allow booksellers to return remainders.

The Newsboys' Strike garnered the notice of then-governor Theodore Roosevelt, who eventually championed child labor reform