At midnight Sunday, nobody came through the doors of the Chicago Sun-Times except a tall, handsome security guard in a blue parka and cap. He whispered into his walkie-talkie as soon as he saw the clump of delivery truck drivers waiting for their load, smiled and nodded at a couple of reporters from other media, then kept walking.
“Nobody here but us flunkies,” laughed one driver as he watched the guard circling the paper’s riverfront building. An unusual number of squad cars slowly cruised by; two of them stopped on separate occasions, the officer on the driver’s side jumping out and dropping a handful of coins for the latest edition.
“I guess they think the reporters might get violent,” the driver laughed again.
Chicago news broadcasts had been leading all Sunday night with the Sun-Times–some 250 editorial workers were threatening to go on strike sometime Monday. But not yet. The small screen showed unhappy journalists scrawling slogans on cardboard signs, but at 401 N. Wabash nothing was happening. Charles Levy trucks with their “readers are leaders” banners littered the street; Sun-Times trucks in red, yellow, or shiny new blue breathed idle smoke.
“Are they going to strike or not?” asked the driver of the only vehicle out of place, a chrome-paneled snack truck butted up against the building. The haggard gray-haired man, who insisted his stop at the paper was not extraordinary, was accompanied by a woman who needed desperately to use the bathroom.
“They won’t let her in without an ID,” he said, nodding in the direction of the front door. “Do you know where the nearest ladies’ room is from here?”
A driver nodded at the parking garage across the street, but the woman demurred. “I’m not going to walk all the way over there,” she said, her legs pressed tight together, as much from her urgency as from the cold.
“What I want to know,” said the snack truck man, “is whether anybody’s going to be walking a line or not.” Surely the handful of Newspaper Guild members in the building would not come storming out to raise their pickets at this bleak hour, but no one was confirming anything. When the snack truck man called the paper’s front desk from a nearby pay phone, the operator declined to comment.
“The paper’s going to come out anyway,” said one driver, a white kid with thick hair combed to one side. “It makes no difference to me, as far as my working, and it doesn’t make much difference to most people either. Some people just read the papers for the weather, Ann Landers, and the Bears’ score, and that’ll be in there anyway.”
“Ann Landers is in the Tribune, man,” laughed one of his colleagues, a doe-eyed black man with a wool cap.
“You know what I mean, man,” the kid insisted. “When Murdoch came in, what–100 people quit? They still put out a paper; nobody cared. I don’t care; I get paid no matter what happens around here.”
“I understand the writers,” said the man in the cap. “They’re like the offensive line. You know, in the last couple of years, they’ve had a lot of changes in quarterback. It’s hard to play that way. And now the paper wants to cut their pay.”
“Well, I don’t understand the writers,” the kid said as he bought a cup of coffee from the snack truck. The woman was practically folding into herself by now. “They want solidarity from all the other unions, but they sure don’t give it when somebody else is in trouble. You think they’d walk out for us? No way. Look at the Tribune. The printers just died on that picket line.”
“The Tribune writers don’t have a union,” said the man in the cap.
“Same difference,” said the kid.
“No, look, it’s like the Bears,” the guy went on. “It’s like when they brought in Flutie. The team had gone through so many changes by then it didn’t matter if Flutie was any good; they just hated him. Everybody at this paper’s unhappy.”
“That’s for sure,” said the kid, blowing on his coffee.
“Well, that and a cut in pay will make you walk off the job. I understand that.”
“So they’re going to walk?” asked the snack truck man, as antsy now as his partner, who was practically jumping up and down on the sidewalk.
“Maybe tomorrow,” said a passerby with a briefcase in hand. The casually dressed man disappeared into an Oldsmobile that quickly sped away.
“Hey, is he a writer?”, asked the snack truck man. The drivers shrugged.
“You think they talk to us?” asked the kid, chuckling.
“I like this paper,” said the man in the cap. “They got the best Bears stories.”
In the Sun-Times lobby, the young man at the desk was jumpy. Every time somebody walked in for a paper, which was often, he was startled. “Can I help you?” he practically shouted. His face had recent traces of acne, his eyes were panicky.
“Look,” the snack truck man said to him, “my friend really has to use the bathroom. That’s all she wants to do.”
The young man rejected them again, but turned a blind eye to the drivers who let the woman in through the side door. By this time word was out: the walkout time was a secret to be unveiled Monday morning. As soon as the woman had relieved herself, the snack truck packed up and zigzagged through the puzzle of trucks on Wabash Avenue.
The black man in the cap laughed as he jumped up on his truck. “Writers are OK by me,” he said. “Couldn’t have a paper without ’em. And I wouldn’t have a job if there was no paper. So I wish them luck, I really do.” Then he closed the truck door and sat back in his seat, spreading open Monday’s edition. The headline read “Bears bounce Bucs again.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.