Thinking of the current industrial dispute over the Fairfax proposal to sack hundreds of sub-editors & outsource its sub-editing to an external contractor - we recall another industrial story (yes, based in Ultimo) from 1976.
In 1976 John Fairfax & Sons decided their Ultimo newsroom on Jones Street would become Australia’s first fully “Electronic Newsroom”.
This meant the arrival of computerised technology, allowing for the “capturing of the first keystroke” into computer memory, with text input on a QWERTY keyboard, and the use of VDTs (visual display terminals). This meant that advertising & editorial copy did not have to be retyped in the production process (as was the case before). The earlier pre-press practice (which had been around for about 80+ years, involved the labour-intensive re-keying of all copy on linotype machines, to produce slugs of type that were then set into pages. The development of computerised photocomposition entirely bypassed the pre-press composition stage - it became entirely unnecessary. The high status “craftsmen” of the printing trade - compositors - realised that their jobs were in big trouble.
The Big New Idea was: journalists could capture the original keystrokes and this could go directly to the subs - no linotype composing needed, and as for hyphens and spacing - the computers did all that for you. (Well, there was a paste-up bromide paper layout process, at first, but let’s leave that aside for now.)
In response to what appeared to be (and effectively was) the end of linotype machines and the end of compositors in the printing industry, members of the Printing & Kindred Industries Union (PKIU) went on strike - not for a day or two - but for 9 weeks.
The impasse eventually made it to an arbitration presided over by Justice Cahill in 1977. The union could hardly be said to have “won”, but they secured some benefits for their printer “journeymen” (as opposed to non-journeymen employees, who were typically women). In the end, 430 jobs were lost over 3 years, but many compositors were the first to be retrained to use VDTs.
These “highly skilled craftsmen” were retrained to type on QWERTY keyboards (much smaller and daintier than their big Linotype monsters) and they retained the right to be the employees responsible for the re-keyboarding of hard copy (typescript and handwriting, not ads). These men were given first preference for this work, despite the fact that the existing typists at Fairfax, the “TTS girls” (or tele-typesetters and other clerical workers) had existing skills using QWERTY keyboards and electronic equipment. This also cost Fairfax more, as “TTS girls” were at the time paid far less than compositors (for what ended up being quite comparable work).
At this stage, the PKIU had a fair bit of control - they could easily slow down or interrupt the production of newspapers, something that employers were keen to avoid (you can’t stockpile a daily paper).
Ah, that’s enough. We are not necessarily suggesting another 9 week strike. Just telling an Ultimo print story … It was not so very long ago.
PS- If you know of any people who worked for the NSW Government Printing Office during this period please shoot us an email. Penultimoblog [at] gmail.com.