handset type

printing press

tramp printers

traveling printers

hot type

Mark Twain




printing history

by John Howells and Marion Dearman
(Discovery Press, copyright 1996)

Evolution of the Slipboard

Because of this chronic condition of underemployment, a complicated system of rules and customs evolved for hiring substitutes in union-controlled plants. The mechanism was called a “slipboard,” or a “sub-board.” A slipboard was essentially a place for substitutes to place their names to indicate that they were available for work (usually on a slip of paper, hence the name “slipboard”). A new sub placed his name at the bottom of the list, thus acquiring a priority standing in the chapel. Once or twice a day there was a “show-up time” when the sub was expected to appear and wait to see if he were going to be hired.

When an extra printer was needed, the foreman had to hire the available substitute with the highest priority standing. When a regular situation-holder needed a day off from work, he or she could hire a substitute as well. The foreman always had to hire the high-priority substitute, but situation-holders could often hire whomever they pleased; this was up to the local union’s rules. Sometimes personal hires were made though drawing numbers, or “jeffing” to see who would get the day’s work.

An extremely important point is: all that was required to be available for work was to place one’s name on the slipboard. There was no need to apply to management for a job, or to even talk with the foreman. The traveling printer simply presented his union card to the chapel chairman and waited for someone to hire him at show-up time.

The system was designed to distribute extra work in a fair manner and to smooth over the ups and downs of business cycles. Two more innovations accomplished this by “storing up” work during busy periods and handing it out during slack times. Storing work was done by overtime cancellation and by resetting “bogus” ads.

Overtime cancellation worked this way: when a union member worked the number of hours to equal a shift’s work (usually 7-1/2 or 8 hours) he was obligated to hire the first available substitute to “cancel” this overtime. Thus, during rush times, when everybody worked overtime to keep up with the work flow, the hours were stored up, ready to be given to printers who were laid off during slow periods. 

Instead of overtime being looked upon as a bonanza, as in most trades, printers regarded overtime as burdensome. Regular situation holders often grumbled about having to cancel their overtime, and referred to it as being “bumped,” but most realized the overtime law’s place in the scheme of union rules and regulations. 

Although employers occasionally complained when some of their key men were “bumped” they realized a benefit in that overtime was considered a necessary evil by employees, who they often worked hard to get the paper out without overtime. Furthermore, this system allowed the foreman to reduce the workforce without running the risk of subs leaving because of lack of work.

The other method of storing up work was the “reproduction law” which was mandated to be included in all ITU contracts. This clause required the office to reproduce, or reset, all advertising matter which was exchanged from one newspaper to another. 

This practice originated back in the days when most cities had several competing newspapers, and was instituted by newspaper publishers themselves. The idea was to prevent competing newspapers from exchanging typeset advertisements to cut labor costs to the disadvantage of another competitor. 

In later years, particularly with the trend toward one-newspaper towns, publishers strenuously fought this rule. But the ITU held onto reproduction with stubbornness, and with some success, until the advent of “cold type” advertising. Reproduction came to be known by various semi-depreciatory terms, such as bogus or deadhorse, but was usually called “repro.”

At first glance, this system of employment might seem somewhat overbearing, taking hiring options away from management (usually referred to as the “office” by composing room workers). But in practice it was beneficial to the office in several ways. Because the advertising work load varies widely in most newspapers—typically with large advertising volume on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday—it was to the composing room foreman’s great advantage to have extra workers he could hire on busy days, and not be obligated to them on days when workloads were light. 

There was no need to hire extra Linotype operators for regular positions when only needed two or three days a week. Overtime was kept to a minimum and a sufficient number of employees ensured a smooth flow of work to meet deadlines. Another benefit: when someone became ill or unable to work for any reason, the absent employee had to hire a competent substitute to work in his place. This meant the foreman could count on a stable workforce. 

Finally, the foreman could cut payroll expenses when advertising volume slowed by laying off workers, with the assurance that most would remain in the shop as substitutes until work became abundant once more and they could be put on full-time jobs, or “situations” as they were called. Employees scheduled to work five days every week were known as “situation holders.”

This right of an employee to hire a substitute without approval of the foreman was the key to worker mobility in the printing industry. Regular employees could decide at the last moment to go fishing and simply instruct the chapel chairman to hire a substitute for him. An unpaid vacation could last several months if the situation holder so desired. The slipboard not only provided unheard of flexibility for regular employees, but instilled a marvelous feeling of independence to all printers. They didn’t have to go to work unless they damned well pleased! Few other tradesmen ever had this option.

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Pages by John Howells and Marion Dearman,
authors of "Tramp Printers"
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