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This Day in Labor History: July 18, 1899

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On July 18, 1899, New York newsboys went on strike over the big newspaper companies forcing them to pay for their unsold papers. The Newsies Strike got national attention, both because of its target and for exposing the terrible poverty of the young boys forced to sell papers.

The rise of the newspaper industry in the late 19th century is well known. Newspaper moguls such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer took the old newspaper business, dominated by local concerns and appealing to relatively small and targeted audiences, and made it national. They created huge newspaper empires and were as concerned about making the news as reporting it. The most notorious act of this was the “yellow journalism” after 1895 that told lurid stories about the Spanish occupation of Cuba to promote American intervention and then imperialism, leading to the Spanish-American War. These papers became must read for millions of Americans around the nation.

At the same time, the poverty of the American working class was very real. That was especially true in the immigrant populations of the rapidly expanding cities. Millions of people poured into cities such as New York and Chicago and smaller populations went throughout the nation. Success for these immigrants was a mixed bag, to say the least. People died young and often their children had nowhere to go. In other cases, abuse led children to the streets. Quite often, families were so poor that they put small children to work doing whatever they could until they got old enough to contribute to the family economy through a more official job.

One of the jobs that the poorest of the poor kids held was selling newspapers. This is the classic image, one that probably comes straight to your mind, that you have seen in so many old movies of kids shouting out the latest headlines in order to sell papers. Then the character in the movie comes over and buys the paper off the kid. This wasn’t that far from the truth in how it operated, except that a lot of times, the children didn’t really sell the papers they had bought and were stuck with them.

See, Pulitzer and Hearst and others had developed a real profitable scheme for selling the papers. They forced the kids to buy the papers themselves, at a cost of 50 cents per hundred papers. They then sold the papers for 1 cent. So for every paper they sold, they earned a half-cent. The problem was that if they didn’t sell the papers, the kids had to eat the cost of the papers. So you have the poorest of the poor–and I don’t use that as hyperbole, this really was a considered work for kids who had no other options–and forced the burden of profit down upon them.

Sending correspondents to Cuba for to cover the Spanish-American War wasn’t cheap. Pulitzer and Hearst most certainly had no interest in dipping into their profits to cover it. So they raised the price for the kids from 50 cents to 60 cents. The justification to them is that they would be selling so many papers that it wouldn’t matter. Well, it did matter. After the war ended, most of the smaller papers reduced the price back to 50 cents. But not Pulitzer or Hearst. Greed ruled their minds.

On July 18, 1899, an outraged group of newsies overturned a distribution truck of Hearst’s New York Journal and declared a strike against selling the papers of he or Pulitzer until they reduced the cost back to 50 cents. Hearst was furious. The irony was that Hearst, a fake populist if there ever was one, had made his name in part of championing the causes of the poor. But not when it was him oppressing the poor. The papers tried to hire men to sell the papers instead–it was after all an era where it wasn’t hard to find people to work a bad job. But the kids managed to distract people enough that it didn’t really go anywhere, especially when 15 kids could attack some scab at once. The cops agreed to protect the scabs (of course!) but it wasn’t hard for the kids to distract that cops by harassing them.

For a very brief moment, this became the labor cause of the nation’s largest city. Unions got involved to help. It was a principle thing. On July 24, there was a large rally with more than 7,000 newsies from around the city, union leaders, and even state senators and other politicians. Two days later, things got weird. The papers had bought off the strike leader, Kid Blink as he was known. His fellow newsies were furious. He denied it, but it was probably true and he all of a sudden had a lot nicer clothes. Well, this isn’t too surprising. The strike was in trouble. It wasn’t going to be that hard to buy off kids who had literally nothing.

However, on August 1, the papers made a reasonable offer. It kept the prices at 60 cents. But it agreed to buy back any unsold papers. The newsies accepted the deal.

This didn’t lead to any massive changes in American life or anything. There was no long-lasting union out of this. These were more street gangs than class conscious young radicals. Most of the leaders disappeared back into the obscurity of the working classes. Blink probably ended up as a mob enforcer, before dying at the age of 32 of tuberculosis. But there were later newsies strikes in other cities, including one in Butte, Montana in 1914 and one in Louisville in the 1920s. Moreover, this is just one of those of those moments that make the class dynamics clear for everyone. They may not happen often, but they can be powerful when they do.

This is the 486th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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