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

The Substitute System

THROUGHOUT THE CENTURIES, printing jobs have always conferred higher social status on its workers than most other occupations of manual labor. (See Union Democracy, Lipset, et al, pp 109-111) Consequently, the printing trade was continually deluged by learners, newcomers, and job applicants, encouraged by proprietors with a desire to maintain a generous labor pool from which to draw workers. 

This over-supply of printers tended to keep wages low in relation to the skills needed to become a printer. It also guaranteed a certain number of unemployed printers at any given time, with a number always seeking work while others were changing jobs to better their position. Since printing skills were interchangeable from printshop to printshop, quitting one job and going to another presented little challenge.

Another characteristic of printing is that work tends to be seasonal. Work loads fluctuate on different days of the week and at different seasons of the year; a major slack period falls in the summer and another after Christmas. Since more printers were available for employment than there were steady jobs, proprietors were able to hire enough extra help for the busy days or busy seasons, without paying overtime wages. Then, when business dropped off, the workforce could be trimmed with confidence that printers would be available when needed for the next rush. 

This led to a condition of “permanent” part-time employees. A regular staff of printers would be maintained—enough to handle the work during slow periods—and surplus work would be handled by a pool of day-to-day or week-to-week employees. In this manner, labor costs rose and fell in tandem with income and profits.

This system of continual unemployment was a major factor in printers’ appreciation for the Typographical Union. At least in a union shop, a worker received a certain amount of job protection. Those with longer service (called priority rather than seniority), were guaranteed they would be the last to be laid off. Those with lower priority received fair treatment when it came to handing out extra work. A complex system of rules, laws and customs evolved to ensure order in the workplace.

This system of underemployment created a remarkable sense of brotherhood, loyalty to the union and militancy among the rank-and-file ITU members. They were acutely aware that without strict enforcement of the union contract, union laws and chapel rules, they would be at the mercy of profit-minded employers, their jobs and livelihood at the whim of business cycles. This was the basis for the traditional militancy of the ITU.

Even in small composing rooms with half a dozen workers, union rules were rigidly enforced, not by the local union officers or representatives of the International, but by the workers themselves. In most other unions, small groups of workers are reluctant to stand up to management; they depend on the union business representative to make an employer observe contract conditions. They tend to shrug off minor contract violations as unimportant. 

But printers were acutely aware that their jobs depended on strict contract enforcement. They used custom, solidarity and loyalty to the union as a means of self-defense. Since the ITU’s General Laws were incorporated into every union contract, printers in small shops used these laws as a shield. Fines for minor infractions could be imposed by the chapel on an individual who didn’t observe the contract, and the local union could fine the chapel for not enforcing the contract. If the local union didn’t impose a fine, the ITU could fine the local, the chapel and the individual union member. 

Therefore, pressure from “above” became the defense of a timid worker when the proprietor asked him to break the rules. “Gee, I’d like to do that, but I’d get into trouble with the Union.” The more militant printer would simply tell the boss to “go pound sand.” The worst that could happen would be that the boss would fire him and he would have to go across the street to work for another print shop.

Non-union printing plants experienced the same business cycles. They tried to resolve the problem by paying lower wages to fewer workers, working overtime during rush periods, and then laying off fewer regular workers during slack times. Non-union printers rarely were paid for overtime hours; they were expected to stay at work until the tasks were completed, and occasionally were given compensating time off during slack times. Frequently, they never got the time off. 

(This notion of non-paid overtime accounts for the Typographical Union’s preoccupation with overtime, insisting that all overtime be paid at least time-and-a-half, and that the hours each individual worked be posted by the slipboard so everyone knew exactly how many hours were worked. The union also evolved a system whereby overtime was discouraged and even penalized.)

Non-union workers were always acutely aware of the higher wages, better benefits and fair working conditions awarded to union members. Often, as soon as they were good enough to qualify as journeymen and had the required six years experience, non-union printers would make a bee-line for the nearest union office to make application for union membership. They felt satisfied that working part-time for good wages and conditions was better than insecurity, unfairness, and abuse so common in non-union printing plants. This continual drain of competent printers cut into the low-wage advantage of non-union employers and leveled the playing field somewhat between them and union employers.

Next Page

Table of Contents

Pages by John Howells and Marion Dearman, authors of "Tramp Printers"
Copyright and all rights reserved.

ex-tramp printers encouraged to send e-mail to: