John Hanrahan, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, summed up his thoughts on the 1976 film “All the President’s Men”: “Outstanding performances, outstanding director, but depicting a lousy institution,” he said. The movie stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who play Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post reporters who broke open the Watergate scandal, which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Oct. 14, “All the President’s Men” was back on the big screen, ironically enough for the opening of the 11th Annual DC Labor FilmFest at the AFI Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring. Hanrahan was part of a post-film discussion and in written remarks, which time constraints prevented him from delivering, he said, “Even while the Post was pursuing the Watergate scandal, its top management were scheming to bust the Post’s most militant union, Local 6 of the pressmen’s union, and to weaken the newspaper’s other unions.”
Hanrahan, who was at the paper from 1968-1975, “worked with and knew Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein very well,” he said. “In 1973 and part of 1974, I was what I always referred to as a third-string Watergate reporter, doing lesser Watergate-related stories… like a profile of John Dean or comparing Nixon’s various statements on the scandal.” In 1975, Hanrahan, then an assistant Maryland editor, went out on strike in solidarity with the pressmen and was subsequently terminated while still honoring the picket line nine months after the strike began.
“Woodward and Bernstein… both crossed the picket line during that time, as did a lot of other prominent editors and reporters at the Post,” said Hanrahan. “This effectively contributed to the defeat of the strike. Had they stayed out, I don’t think anybody really believes that a handful of top Post editors and some people trained at scab school could have put out a credible newspaper.”
Also contributing to the defeat of the strike, Hanrahan said, was a federal grand jury investigation – unprecedented in D.C. labor-management disputes – that tied up Local 6 for nine months during the heart of the strike, bled its treasury with legal costs eventually reaching more than $200,000, and hurt morale as some 90 pressmen were called to testify regarding Post claims that union members had damaged the presses when they went on strike. Fifteen pressmen were indicted on a variety of felony charges, but the U.S. Attorney later dropped those charges and the defendants pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and received no jail time.
Even with white-collar workers crossing the picket line and a fortuitous federal investigation under way, the Post had to go to great lengths to break the strike, as the New Republic noted in 1977: “The pressman’s strike was crushed with methods and with a severity that are not usually accepted in the third quarter of the 20th century, and that the press in general or the Post in particular would not likely regard as acceptable from the owners of steel mills.”
“We often hear about Ronald Reagan [and the] air traffic controllers [and how] he busted the union in 1981,” Hanrahan said in the AFI lobby following the post-film discussion. “[But] the Washington Post wrote the template for [breaking a strike] in 1975. They prepared for it. They trained scabs to defeat it. Then they used their own pages of the Post to write incredibly false and misleading stories about the strike and about the pressmen.”
The newspaper wasn’t always anti-union. “It started in 1971 when the Post, theretofore a family-owned corporation that had been regarded as union friendly, went public,” said Hanrahan. “In 1972 – the year of the Watergate break-in – [Post publisher Katharine] Graham bluntly told security analysts that ‘the first order of business at the Washington Post is to maximize profits from our existing operations… Some costs resist more stubbornly than others. The most frustrating kind are those imposed by archaic union practices… This is a problem we are determined to solve.'”
Since turning anti-union, the Post has never looked back. “If you can show me one editorial in the last thirty-six years since the strike that supported any union, any place, at any time, I’ll buy you a chocolate milkshake at the Trio restaurant in my neighborhood,” said Hanrahan.
“Unions, as any reader of the Post’s editorials would know, are responsible for poor schools, state budget deficits, auto manufacturers’ financial woes, you name it – it’s the unions’ fault. And any pro-labor legislation – including card check-off or other bills over the years to prohibit companies from breaking strikes through permanent replacements – the Post is opposed to it.”
35 years ago, Hanrahan and hundreds of other striking Post workers and their supporters protested oustide the Kennedy Center for opening night of “All the President’s Men.” “Of course, the filmmakers and actors could not have known about any of this union-busting activity when they were making this film,” said Hanrahan. “But given what we know of the Post management’s subsequent behavior I’m sorry that a film that is a tribute to the Washington Post and Woodward and Bernstein is a centerpiece in a labor film festival.”
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