Productivity Is Nice, But I Need This Job

Harold Goldstein

One of the most glaring anomalies of human history is that the main way we have found to increase the general welfare--inventing better ways to get work done--is often bitterly opposed by the people directly involved.

The reason why most people nowadays aren't shivering in a cave with empty stomachs, like their ancestors, is that over the centuries we have found many ways to get work done more easily. Each improvement in the productivity of workers is a boon to all mankind. Yet, in societies where you can only get work if someone hires you, those workers whose skills are no longer needed by new technologies can lose their jobs, so they fight the changes. In 18th century England people who wove cloth by hand fought the introduction of steam-powered looms by rioting and breaking the machinery. They were called "Luddites" after their leader, and the name has been applied to other groups of workers who opposed technological change.

I once lived through this kind of situation and got to know how people feel when caught up in it. Leaving school in the midst of the depression of the 1930's, I got a job on a newspaper through my Uncle Sam, my father's brother. Sam's lifetime work was in the financial news department of the New York Evening Journal, as assistant manager of a staff compiling the daily stock and bond market tables. These tables, each taking a full page of the paper, show the prices of hundreds of stocks or bonds. They are followed closely by investors; indeed, an afternoon newspaper, like the Evening Journal, printed several editions each day with the latest stock and bond prices, so that investors who had no access to the financial tickers in brokers' offices could keep up with the market from hour to hour. Soon after the markets closed at 3 o'clock the city's three afternoon newspapers would rush to reach the newsstands first with the closing prices for the day. To meet this competition we had to be fast in compiling and printing the tables (as well as the rest of the newspaper).

The work was done by a team of about 20 men (of which I was one) who kept a running record of the prices and about half that number of printers. Each of the price recorders was responsible for a part of either the stock or the bond table--for example, for the stocks of companies whose names began with A, B and C. The tape from a financial ticker reporting each transaction in the market would pass across his work table, and as he spotted companies on his list, he would note the prices and number of shares involved. His tally showed the highest price for the day, the lowest price, the latest price, and the number of shares sold--the content of the tables that were to be printed.

When it was time to print an edition of the newspaper, the price recorders called the information across the table to the printers, who set any changes by hand, using individual pieces of metal type for each of the numbers. (The old-fashioned way of setting type by hand, as Benjamin Franklin had done it, was efficient here because only a few numbers in a line had to be changed. Most of the type for the newspaper was set by linotype operators, who operated a keyboard like a typewriter's, adding each letter with a quick stroke of a finger, and producing a whole line of type on a single piece of metal.) When they were finished, the blocks of loose type were locked together and rushed to the printing department, where the type for each page was assembled, and then combined with the type for other pages of the newspaper for the rest of the printing process.

While the price recorders had to be on the alert all day, watching the ticker tape as it passed across their tables, the printers had to work only in the periods just before an edition of the newspaper went to press. The rest of the time they could rest, read the sports page, chat, or play chess. These hand compositors were mostly elderly men, veterans of the printing trade, whose jobs were a sort of sinecure to which other members of their union on the newspaper could look forward as they grew older.

The typographical union had long been among the aristocracy of organized labor. They policed their contract with the newspaper carefully. Every now and then in the course of a day a whistle would blow and the noise of the linotype machines would suddenly stop, making the whole newspaper office seem silent. When the shop steward was satisfied that the agreement was being adhered to, the noise would start again. The sudden silences were a sign of the special power that a union could have in an enterprise where time was of the essence: the newspaper would be dead if it couldn't get its editions out on time, so the union's ability to stop everything gave it great bargaining power.

One day in 1937 , our financial news editor decided to try a labor-saving device: instead of the costly recording of the day's high, low and last stock and bond market prices, he would subscribe to the Associated Press financial wire service, which sent the same information over a ticker several times a day. One worker could sit over the ticker, tearing off the paper ticker tape after each quotation, which was printed on about six inches of tape. These six-inch strips could be pasted on a sheet of paper, one under the other, and after a dozen or so strips were pasted on, the sheet could be sent to a linotype operator, who could quickly set the dozen lines of type. The next dozen lines could be sent to another linotype operator, and so on, and in this way the whole table of stock quotations could be assembled by several linotype operators. Since a newspaper had to have plenty of linotype operators sitting by to cover news emergencies, this process would use staff already paid for, and save the salaries of the 20 price recorders and 10 hand compositors.

The financial editor arranged for a try-out period of several weeks for the new system, while the staff for the old system continued to work. Looking for someone to sit at the Associated Press ticker for the try-out period, they hit on me, since I was being laid off anyway. (Having moved to another job in the financial news office, I had become surplus when staff was consolidated after the demise of the company's morning newspaper, The American.) So a table was set up for me in the midst of the price recording staff, the AP ticker was mounted on it, and with all my former fellow-workers who were about to lose their jobs, including my Uncle Sam, watching me as they worked, the experiment began. They knew I was only a poor slob being given a brief respite before being laid off, but also I personified the change that was about to do them in. Remembering the words of the psalm, He prepareth a table for me in the presence of mine enemies, I didn't feel The Shepherd was doing me a favor. The atmosphere was thick, and it wasn't love.

What the financial editor had not counted on was union solidarity; ten hand compositors' jobs were threatened To err is human, and the linotype operators amply demonstrated their humanity. With straight faces, they made many typographical errors on this experimental project. Skilled craftsmen suddenly became klutzes. Correcting the errors would have meant careful proofreading, and resetting many lines, while the competing newspapers were rushing their editions to the newsstands. A reputation for inaccurate numbers could kill a financial newspaper. There was no choice: our financial editor had to give in. The experiment was declared a failure, 30 jobs were saved, Associated Press lost a potential client, and I was finally let go, relieved to be out of that room and away from the glaring eyes of men whose children's bread I was snatching from their mouths. .

A footnote to that story about the powerful typographical union is that the 30 jobs were saved only temporarily, and perished in a much bigger catastrophe--computerization, combined with photo-offset printing (which works on the principle that oily inks stick to any part of a flat plate that has been treated.). Writers now type their stories on a computer, editors use computers to arrange the material on the newspaper page, each page is photographed and transferred to an offset printing plate, and printing begins--all without the moveable type that had been the heart of Gutenberg's invention 450 years ago. There are no more linotype operators or hand compositors--the end of an aristocracy of labor.

The average productivity of the American workforce was increased by these innovations, and the general standard of living was enhanced. But it is not hard to understand the feelings of these thousands of highly skilled craftsmen if you have sat in front of my Uncle Sam and the other workers as they watched their livelihood crumbling before their eyes.